How My Partnership Is Teaching Me To Say No

by Anonymous

I struggle with saying “no.” This is true with everyone, but one friend in particular pops to mind when I think about boundaries. This has been a thread throughout our relationship, basically since the moment we met in eighth grade theater camp. She is a smart, gorgeous, loving, funny, kind, and capable person with internet on her phone, but I’ve found myself in this position where I am constantly figuring things out for her. In high school she once almost got me to call her doctor for her to ask them about a very personal medical issue. I didn’t because I couldn’t, you know, legally. There have been countless appointments I’ve made for her, and I’ve Googled a million-and-one things she asked for help with. This has been totally perplexing to me, because she graduated magna cum ladue from a prestigious university and can ostensibly take care of herself.

So, where does my marriage come in, you might ask? Until I was married I would fall deep into being this friend’s gofer. I mean, once you agree to one thing you get asked for another, right? But now I can’t just drag my husband down into that rabbit hole with me. When she texts, he invariably asks what she wants, and helps me suss out whether or not I’m “being too nice.” Recently I was lamenting having agreed to do something foolish for this friend, and his exact words were, “I’m so sorry you stuck your hand in that hornet’s nest.” He pointed out to me that I might be offering too much, and could clearly articulate where I might have wanted to have said “no.” His are the eyes I need to see when I’ve crossed a line and offered too much.

My relationship with him also helped me clarify for the first time why something might be crossing a line. I can turn to her and say, “You know, I really only apartment search with my partner. I am totally down to help you move your stuff, but I can’t choose an apartment for you. Isn’t that kinda intimate?” By contrasting my friendship with my marriage (because my partner is not my best friend), I am able to clearly communicate how I need all my relationships to work in order to keep things healthy. I can talk about things being too personal in terms of “things I only share with my partner” and not feel guilty anymore. I can say things like, “I love you, but are you sure you want me to help you with that? Wouldn’t there be someone else better suited to this than me?”

I am finally effective because actively forming the boundaries that support my marriage means also actively shaping the boundaries around my friendships. Being intentional about forming close friendships that support my marriage came with examining what it means to have close friendships that do not support my marriage. And reflection on my marriage facilitated some reflection on how aspects of my other relationships may or may not be functional. My marriage is a guidepost for my friendships. And my friendships are way better now that I’m married.

The work I do to improve my marriage is very similar to the work I do to improve my friendships, because I want to show all these people as much love and care as possible without hurting myself. I need my friends in my marriage for all the reasons Meg described in her letter at the beginning of the month, but I also need my marriage to have better friendships. Without my husband, I would be picking out the furniture for my friend’s new apartment right this minute. I’d be angry at myself for agreeing, and angry at her for asking. Now no one is angry! We can celebrate her most recent move with some real, genuine connection. And champagne!

Despite the imbalance, my friend is really wonderful to spend time with and I want to hold onto her. She has been there for me at some really key moments. So I’ll keep practicing saying no, and my husband will keep helping me see when I’m approaching (or have crossed) a boundary. I will keep supporting him by trying my best to draw bright lines, and I’ll be a better friend (with fewer fights and more happiness), because I’ve got his support.

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  • anonymous for today

    I needed to read this. Recently my partner said to me “I didn’t realize quite how much your doing X for your friend would affect the both of us not just you” and my response internally was “mind your business” while outwardly I was a bit more mature and asked “what short of bailing on my friend would make it better” or some such…However, nothing had changed I’m still doing X and have been for longer than originally planned and with no end in sight. I need to woman up and tell my friend I can’t keep doing it. It’s not only negatively effecting me, but also my partner and my relationship…But saying no is hard, especially once you’ve already said yes

    • CeeBeeUK

      So true! I find this the case with extra work commitments and also health stuff too. When I was single and didn’t take care of a chronic condition, it only impacted me. Now that I’m partnered, it impacts both of us (and perhaps him more than me since I’m more used to coping with it and he’s a notorious fretter)

  • Jules

    I wish I’d been able to deal with friends gone rogue with the maturity you did, and come out unscathed. At the time I didn’t have the maturity to set my limits and by the time I realized I was enabling a very unhealthy and unbalanced friendship the only way I understood I could protect myself from screaming matches and personal attacks was by cutting off ties with my friend.

    I was so happy to have a friend that I loved who confided in me and with whom I could sit and talk for hours, that I ignored that it was usually her problems we were talking about, where big events in my life were minimized and steamrolled by her issues, and where any time she made a mistake it somehow became my fault, and I was screamed at, even if I didn’t even complain. I was in an abusive relationship, but didn’t recognize the signs because I thought that only happened in romantic relationships, not friendships.

    Sometimes I stop and think about what I could’ve done differently, if I could’ve saved the friendship… other times I believe that at some point she stopped considering me her friend, and I started being a prop for her life, to be used when convenient. I still have a hard time dealing with this “breakup”, although more than two years have passed…

    • Paranoid Libra

      Friendship breakups I feel hurt more than romantic ones. It’s easy to have moments of “well he was jerk and I never would have wanted kids with him”or “he’s a cheating bastard good riddance!” When friendship breaks up it’s harder to find those uplifting statements to vent with other than well he/she is a witch. Even if you make other friendships after it it’s not like you only have 1 friendship. Most people generally only have 1 romantic relationship so when they end one and then get into another it’s almost like a replacement as in you have someone to go on dates with and cuddle with again. When a friendship ends it might be more difficult to find someone who maybe loves awful awful B movies with you so you lose a favorite past time in the process as you can’t seem to find any other friends who like watching those that or they just sit there saying this is stupid when you try to just have some fun commentary on the awfulness.

      I think people need to be discussing friendship breakups more beyond we just lost touch or they were jerks as something tells me it’s probably much more complex than those reasons for others out there.

      Hugs Jules for your frienship break up.

      • Anon

        So interesting you say that. My most significant ex took me several years to get over. My best friend who I lost because he’d been friends with him for years? Still haunts me, nearly 10 years later.

    • Rachel

      “I didn’t recognize the signs because I thought that only happened in romantic relationships, not friendships.” Girl…this is the truest thing ever. I just don’t think we’re given the language to deal with friendships that are hurting us and, as a result, we let them go on FAR too long.

      I went through a friend breakup last year that was really, really hard. And part of what made it so hard was feeling like it wasn’t something I could mourn. But…eff that! Once I let myself treat it like I would any other breakup, it got easier because I could talk about it with other friends and allow myself to just feel all my feelings.

      Don’t let anyone tell you friend breakups aren’t real and necessary. They are.

      • Moe

        I hope there will be a post or open thread about friendship breakups. I’ve learned a lot in life so far but I am continually challenged and confused about how to recognize a friendship is going wrong.

        • That would be awesome. The day after I filed for divorce from my husband, my two best friends in all the world broke up with me for (and I quote) “not focusing enough energy on their issues.” Yeah, that happened. One of the women and I made up several very hard months later. The other never did.

          I could write a book on friendship breakups.

        • meg

          We can do that. I’m still traumatized by my worst friendship breakup back when I was a teenager, and she just… never called me again. Teenage girls, man. Such emotional grace…. achem.

      • I really hope a post is written about this. I have gone through far too many of these in the past two years it seems but one of the worst was last year when it not only affected me but it affected my husband too and he ended up losing friends as well. I still feel awful about it even though I know that what I did was right and stayed true to myself but losing that friend was awful and watching him lose his friend was devasting.

      • A Single Sarah for certain values of single

        One of my favorite playlists from my college years was titled Breakup (just because). I didn’t date at all in college, so needed the parenthetical to put off questions from people looking through my iTunes. But that playlist is the theme for the breakup with the friend that I still avoid talking about. (Which is frustrating because I somehow have more random people in common with him than with the best friends I’ve kept.)

  • ferrous

    This is going to sound judgey but I don’t mean it to. I’m thinking out loud.

    I’ve certainly had to learn say no to an overbearing friend, and it sucks! But my mind keeps getting hung up on the idea of “using” one relationship to draw boundaries for another. Of course one should rely on a partner for strength and even to learn new skills. But I’m having a hard time picturing leaning on my partner in order to draw healthy boundaries for myself.

    So long as the boundary gets drawn, I guess it doesn’t especially matter how one gets there…

    • ferrous

      Can’t edit for some reason. Just wanted to add, the more I think about this the less weird it feels to me. i.e., I’ve learned patience from my (teacher) partner, and surely not every life lesson needs to come from within. I guess that’s what partnership is all about. Hm.

    • KC

      Sometimes you learn things by yourself; sometimes you learn things from others (either by being taught or by observation); sometimes other people are the kick in the pants you actually always needed in order to learn something. I think that you probably don’t want to be learning *everything* you need to change in your life or approach to relationships from your partner/spouse, since that would point to odd systemic issues, but I think it’s fair game to learn a lot from them. :-)

      • KEA1

        Sometimes you need to experience other people’s boundaries in order to help you define your own.

      • ferrous

        Yes, KC. This is what I meant by saying “Of course one should rely on a partner for strength and even to learn new skills.”

        But there is something about boundary-learnin that I find fundamental, due to personal history. (I had a reeeeally hard time learning how to set them, as is typical of child abuse.) So the idea of learning that from someone else, rather than pulling it from myself, is very disturbing to me. It would have been downright unhealthy *for me*.

        But I realize not everyone fits this model. Again, ruminating out loud.

        • KC

          That makes a lot of sense – for different people, there are some things you can “borrow” or sort of adopt wholesale, and other things you need to build more or less from scratch for them to work for you properly. Although I think people can still learn or check against or otherwise use a bit of someone else’s in that process, some people need more of a ground-up approach for some things to make sure that they’re really solid and truly true and definitely fit you correctly, and boundaries you feel comfortable enforcing would make sense as something that could fit in that category – if you’re not confident in them, it’d be harder to put your foot down (and to know when/where to put your foot down).

          (and very, very sorry to hear that you had to deal with that.)

          • Alexis C

            I think this bit of the comment thread makes an interesting point. Sometimes it’s nearly impossibly hard to feel like “YOU” are “enough of a reason” to do something healthy for yourself. That someone finds that they are *Worth It* in and of themselves is the ideal, and will need to happen eventually for good emotional wellbeing…

            …however, sometimes, when someone loves you and you love them back, inching your way towards more self-esteem and self-care can start by wanting to take good care of someone who is extremely important to *them* – you. They “give” you a reason until you can give one to yourself. It is one of the sweetest credits to extend and one of the most precious debts to have.

            I know this first hand :)

    • My husband has helped me do this with work, not so much friendships. I have a really hard time letting go of work, and he’s been great (and patient) about helping me leave work at work and be able to say, “No, I’m sorry, I have plans and I can’t stay until 10:00 tonight. Or tomorrow night.”

  • Amanda L.

    Marriage has helped me in a similar way, but more along the lines of knowing when something should be shared and when it should be private. When I was a single woman, I was an over-sharer. I had no (well, few) boundaries, because I always felt I needed lots of encouragement /reinforcement for my choices (yes, my therapist and I need to chat about that).

    When I met my husband, I saw how sharing an intimate moment with a friend, or telling my sister about a petty fight, could hurt our relationship. Luckily it was an epiphany. I didn’t need something to go horribly wrong to learn the lesson. I just realized that this man was different than any other I’d met, and that I wanted to protect what we had from the get-go.

    To what Ferrous said, I think it’s less about ‘leaning’ on your partner and more about it being able to say ‘no’ for someone else’s well-being than for your own. For many women, we’re taught to be selfless, and saying ‘no’ is thought of as selfish (why CAN’T we give more time, more energy to someone else?). But when we have a partner to consider, it is easier to say ‘I can’t do that because it isn’t fair to them, to our relationship, and finally, to myself.

    • Yes, this. I feel very odd when I am among the few women at my workplace NOT complaining about my spouse, but I have realized how other women and men talk about their significant others influences how I think about them and their relationships. I’d rather talk about the fun things we do than get into details about any sort of arguments we’re having because I want my friends to know my husband on his merits, and not have it be colored by complaints (or too much praise!).

    • Abby J.

      That was SO me. Learning how to not be an over-sharer was definitely a learning curve, and it did cause some friction early on in my relationship with Hubby. But, now that I’ve developed that skill, it’s been SO healthy for both me and my relationship.

      I’m dealing with some friends issues too, so this post is really timely.

      • grace b

        I really work on this too.

        I was something of a gossip as a single person (yea, I can admit) and have just always been very judge-y in life. Either out loud or in my head.

        Being in a relationship has really helped me learn to keep somethings PRIVATE. Recently a friend asked me to keep a secret. And I have! I’m like honestly proud of myself, this was not something I would do easily in the past.

        What really highlighted this for me was spending time with my boyfriend’s family. When his mom and I get together she often wants to bitch about his life choices (being with me is not one of them thankfully) and just complain about how he isn’t living up to his potential. So to counteract that I always talk about the things that I am most proud of him. Not implying that he doesn’t have faults but I just REFUSE to give into the bitching session.

        I’m working on this with friends too. I REALLY liked this post because I have a similar friend who is always asking me to help her look something up on online, or figure out her okcupid/facebook account. I have finally, after many years, started saying no. Our friendship isn’t the same way that it was a few years ago but I am really okay with that now in a way that I wasn’t even just a few months ago.

        Thanks for highlighting this struggle, anon!

  • Jo

    Thanks for sharing this. Definitely a common issue! But I’m wondering, how has your friend reacted to the shift in your availability/boundaries??

  • Kristen

    In a weird way, my marriage is teaching me to say no…to my husband.

    Boundaries are hard for me in all relationships but the more I care about someone, the less easy it is for me to say no or even to just be honest about how I feel, lest they stop loving me. The more committed we’ve become as a couple, the easier I find it to be open and honest with my husband about what I am and am not ok with. Since my husband is a guilt tripper of the first order I’ve had to get strong, fast, but I can see and feel how good this is for me, for him and for our marriage.

    • Yes. Actually when I first read the title of this blog post, I assumed that’s what the topic would be about. I am not married, but have had to learn how to stand up for myself when dating people with strong personalities.

      • Not Sarah

        Off-topic: Did you get a second date with that cute girl? If so, how did it go? :)

        • Ha ha, I’m about to contact her right now! We’ll see!

          Thank you for your support and great memory :)

          • Not Sarah

            hehe, keep us posted! :)

    • Yes!! I have such a hard time standing up for myself or holding to opinions with other people. I was always convinced that one fight would ruin any relationship, romantic or otherwise. My fiance is the only person I’ve felt comfortable arguing with, knowing that it doesn’t mean we don’t love each other or that he’ll leave me after.

      Of course in the beginning that lead to a bit of overexcitement from me about getting into arguments, but we’ve calmed it down now.

      • Breck

        I’m with you! Until my current relationship, I always assumed they were a one and done sort of situation (one fight and it’s over). Now (2 years in) I’m finally starting to be able to really trust that our relationship is stronger than a heated argument.

  • Rachel

    This is a great post, and I didn’t realize until reading it that I experienced something very similar through my relationship. Having an outside voice of reason giving insight into relationships you’ve had for years can be incredibly helpful. Other friends, and now Eric, have helped me see when a relationship just wasn’t healthy or when the things a friend (or even a job!) was asking of me was unreasonable. That reality check has been huge and, like you, it’s helped me set boundaries. I definitely find that the more good people I have in my life, the more intentional I am about how I spend my time. I only have so much time and emotional energy so I am a lot more careful now to spend it wisely.

  • M

    For me, my relationship with my fiance also helps me draw lines with my family. Not only is he just generally a good excuse (I can’t, we have plans), but he also helps me notice when something is crossing the line. When my mom upsets me, the easy solution is to not talk to her so often, but that’s hard for me to notice and enact because she’s my mom. We don’t have a bad relationship, but I think my fiance’s input is definitely helping to make it a healthier relationship.

    • Same here. But I’m very slow to learn on the family-boundary front. Being 1100 miles away helps in the day to day, but whenever we visit, I’m running around like a madwoman trying to “clock in” enough time with each parent and family member, when all I really want to do is hang with my friends around my fut. in-law’s pool/fire (as the season allows). My partner reminds me that I don’t have to be everywhere to everyone, and short of being openly rude, I’m allowed to make my holiday or vacation my own.

      I don’t agree all the time- when he went for lunch with his bffs while the rest of the family (and I) were helping prep for his sister’s wedding reception, I was miffed. On the whole, his choices and behavior visiting family (relaxed! pleasant!) remind me I can do the same. (more or less)

      • KC

        I don’t know if you can “group” some of your family members (for lo, I have had those “okay, persons X, Y, and Z can’t be in the same room; and persons A and B are also at outs” times), but if you can pull off a reunion dinner-y thing where you see a bucket of people at a time, it can work wonders in terms of checking in with a lot of people without the mad dashing around town. You don’t get the close one-on-one time, but honestly it sounds like you need a bit of a break anyway?

        Again, ignore the get-them-all-taken-care-of-with-one-dinner advice if your family members are feuding and you just can’t put them in the same room. Sorry if so, and it’s also sometimes okay to say “well, we saw you last visit, so while I wish we had more time/energy, this visit we’re focusing on seeing the people we didn’t see last visit…” as applicable.

        • That’s great advice, and I do try to group as much as possible. Basically, I just need to divide my time between my parents. It’s easy to spend time with Mom and Grandma, and often I see lots of family members at once at their house. My dad lives two hours from all his relatives, so going to see him is nearly always one-on-one, or just my brother, partner, and I. I get guilt-tripped for not seeing my extended family on his side very often, as I rarely feel like driving a four hour round trip after having recently completed a 21-hour road trip back to PA. Plus, the super-secret is that it’s just more taxing to remain pleasant and engaged with my dad in his house, so I’m always guilt-tripping myself for not spending more time with him.

          Last Christmas, I did the best I’ve done so far, as I combined Dad/brother breakfast with partner/FIL breakfast. It was about 80% successful, which is really good. My partner’s fam lives about 30 min for my fam, and the two of us get to visit once or twice a year max, with Christmas being the guaranteed time. Personally, I’d rather visit not at Christmas and avoid the further-emotionally-charged traditions, etc, but with my partner in school, that’s really the only feasible time.

          Which is all to say: You’re right! I do that sometimes! And I also just feel a really strong sense of obligation when it comes to family visits. Whew.

          • KC

            Congratulations on already having optimized the situation!

            And sorry that time with, um, particular relatives is draining – that’s no fun at all. It’s a lot easier to divide time evenly (barring your additional problem of farther-away-ness, because clearly, this was not already challenging enough?) than to divide emotional energy evenly, especially when one set or person drains you and another recharges you, but you have “obligations” towards both.

            Sometimes, but not always, thinking through “okay, what do I *really* owe these people, given everything, including the constraints on the energy I have?” can be helpful for dispelling the ought-to-be-doing-more guilt – if you can respond with confidence to guilt-tripping, then sometimes the guilt-trippers shut up or settle down somewhat. Sometimes.

            I hope it all goes well for you!

          • anonny

            Or just as bad, what if your parents basically insist on monopolizing your time even if good friends want to see you? How do I say no to mom and dad without saying “I love you less than my friends.”? I still haven’t come up with a good answer, and I can tell it makes my mom less than happy.

          • Annony- The one time I did this best, my partner and I had already visited for a week in the summer, but we had to fly out for a wedding the very next month. We only stayed for the weekend, and I made clear to my family that I would not be available. I got some comments from my dad (who, again, was miffed that I had not/would not drive the extra 2 hours to see my extended fam). In the end, I was able to stop in to say hi to my Grandma, but I spent the entire time with my bff, who had been out of the country on my longer visit.

            Even now, I find it easier to get away with my bff who supported my thru my parents’ divorce (I think they get that), vs. visiting with nearby college bffs, who my parents don’t know. It requires tough talks (I love you, and I love them too. 24/7 family time makes it harder for me to visit, etc) and a lot of confidence to mean what you say. Then drink with your friends ;-)

          • Rebecca

            My sister and I try to line up parental visits (divorced parents, so two trips) as much as possible- that way we get to see each other and have backup during the visit.

            And, this is not always possible, but people can actually come and visit you- especially when your available travel times are so constrained.

    • ElisabethJoanne

      Anonny, I don’t know your family dynamics, but my parents generally accept appointments and reservations, and I’m training them to get better at this. So, if I’m traveling to my home town and want to see a list of people, including my parents and friends, I first make plans with the people less likely to monopolize my time. Then, I tell the monopolizers, “I’d love to stay with you, but I’ll be out at these times seeing other people.”

      FWIW, my cousins can be the opposite of monopolizers. We’ll travel thousands of miles to see them, only to find they’ve made plans that don’t include us. We’ve had to learn to say, “Can we stay with you?” AND “How about we all go for a hike/picnic/dinner/baseball game one night we’re in town, so we’re sure to have a chance to catch up?”

  • Amy March

    I am all for saying no. But I don’t like the idea of saying “isn’t that kinda intimate” and “don’t you have someone else you could do this with?”. If you think it’s too intimate, then don’t do it. But I think phrasing it the way you have in this post is telling her what her boundaries should be, instead of what yours are, and that makes me uncomfortable.

    And, full disclosure, I totally apartment hunt with friends, and don’t think it’s an intimate process at all.

    • Yeah.

      As women a lot of us are socialized to be “nice” and accommodate people even when it’s not in our best interest. It would be great to practice saying what we really mean, like, “No, I don’t have time for that right now.”

      It’s funny, I totally respect the friends who say these things to me. I don’t think of them as “mean” or selfish. They have set boundaries for themselves and I just accept it.

      • MOE

        THIS, in spades.

        Lately I’ve been thinking that female friendships are so problematic and complicated because of the way girls are raised. Girls are encouraged to be aware of hurting other’s feelings and being nice to the point of sacrificing themselves.

        • rys

          And not speaking up about real, legit, hard feelings, especially feeling taking advantage of or being blindsided. (It’s fine to ask me to come over when you’re really upset but, for the love of God, tell me if you’ve invited a dozen other people too as I am bound to feel resentful when I change my plans, show up, and find plenty of other people there…true story.)

          • KC

            YES. The people who do not grasp the difference between “I’ll drop things and run to you if you really need me” (like: car accident; just learned close relative has cancer; nasty breakup) and “I’ll drop things and run to you because you kind of aren’t sure which shoes to wear to the not-terribly-important party tonight” (and who do not explain sufficiently what level of importance is at play) are maddening.

    • Kristen

      I agree with both Amy and Danielle. It’s not only easier to be more blunt and just tell someone you can’t or won’t or don’t want to do something than to couch it in lots of confusing language.

      When you say to someone, “Isn’t that a little intimate” you’re actually educating them. You’re trying to get them to see that they’re doing it wrong. The problem with this mentality is 1. What if YOU’RE wrong. 2. If someone actually thins its OK to ask a friend to schedule medical appointments, they’re probably not going to be self aware enough to pick up on a subtle cue like that one.

      That’s why saying it straight out – with compassion and empathy and kindness – but straight talking is always the best policy I think.

      • Totally. It fascinates me how people’s personalities can be so different, and how we learn to respond to each other in these different ways.

        Like as a sensitive people-pleaser type, I’m pretty attuned to when people want to say no to things. I pick up on cues like hesitating, looking away, etc.

        A more dominant or attention-seeking personality is less likely to notice or care. That’s why we need to break through our comfort zone and be really direct — a lot of people are simply not wired to pick up on subtleties.

        • Kristen

          Course for folks like me and you – we should be careful not to let our empathic abilities override our expectation of friends and families to suck it up for us once in a while too – even if we can tell they don’t want to. Being able to feel someone’s responses combined with wanting to make them happy means folks like us too often put others needs above our own which after almost a decade in therapy, I’m finally, begrudgingly, accepting I need to be better about.

          It’s tough, but I ask my husband to do stuff he doesn’t want sometimes and that he put a smile on his face while doing it. Even though its incredibly difficult for me to ask him to do something I know doesn’t make him happy – I remind myself that’s what partnership/friendship/family is all about – helping each other out. Plus every visit with the in-laws is something I don’t want to do so I soothe my guilt with that.

    • tennymo

      I agree. It’s fabulous to draw boundaries with friends who are needy or taking more than they give over the long term. But putting myself in the position of the friend, I would much rather be told a simple “No, I’m sorry, I won’t be able to make it” than “Isn’t that kinda intimate?” which makes it seem like maybe there was something wrong with her for asking. I am married, and definitely still jump at the chance to go apartment hunting with friends (who doesn’t like looking at real estate?!) so maybe this just hits close to home. :)

      • KC

        Peoples’ lines-of-weirdness/intimacy definitely fall in different places. (I mean, just think of which friends are fine with changing clothes in front of you vs. which aren’t – it’s probably not a strength-of-relationship line)

        I think, if someone enjoys Activity X (in your case, real estate; in my case, I really don’t like looking at real estate, but I’ll look at fabrics with you all day long), then seeing if they’re interested is great. :-) I mean, you could catch up over coffee, or you could catch up over helping someone hang the pictures in their apartment (if you like that)? Getting a chance to vicariously enjoy things (some friends *really* like doing home decor) and take a load off people who are at a loss about that activity *and* spend time with your friend (if you’re short on time with them) is kind of a win-win-win.

        But that does require a match-up of interest/perceived-intimacy-level to at least some degree. If you’d rather have a root canal or if it would feel like sorting through their dirty underwear, then it seems more than reasonable to say no! :-)

        • rys

          Ooh, petting fabric!

          • KC

            YES! Especially fancy dress fabric, where there is no way that you would normally justify even bothering to touch the fabrics at those prices. Especially the silks, mmm…

    • rys

      Yeah, I would distinguish between apartment-hunting and apartment-deciding–or, more broadly, between helping someone with/through a task and deciding/processing for them.

      Similarly, guiding a friend to think through who to ask for help with what and when seems more valuable than asserting that there must be someone else available or better-suited to pitch in–maybe there is, maybe there isn’t.

      I totally get the need to resist leech-like behavior–and I’m quite guilty of over-accommodating others at the expense of my time and needs–but I’m wary of using implied critique as a means of boundary-setting.

    • KC

      I especially agree on generally not saying “don’t you have someone else you could do that with?” – since, sometimes, no, they don’t. At all. (in cases where you are part of a large herd of semi-interchangeable friends, this would be way more fine to say, especially if you specified a few names or groups of people you would think would be more appropriate)

      Which is not to say that you have the responsibility to pick up the slack when people have killed off all their other friendships (and/or don’t have a boyfriend/husband or have no family or an un-cope-ably dysfunctional family), but, oh gosh. If you’re dealing with a friend who has just crashed-and-burned, where you are one of the last people still speaking to them, pointing out your limits and how maybe other people have those limits, too, and maybe they need to be more careful about how pushy they are so that friendships are easier to maintain: fine – probably even great! Suggesting that they ought to have a closer friend than you (or lots more friends): odds are very good that they already, painfully know that their “collection” of friends is deemed inadequate and that they are Too Alone, and that just doesn’t seem very helpful in most cases as a response to a request. (as a separate “I’m concerned about you” conversation, *yes*, but not as a toss-off)

      (and as someone who has silently cried through making a particularly scary medical appointment, I can also understand the wish to fob that off on someone else. But HIPPA. And also, as a pattern, [not in a “I think this might be [scary thing] and I’m terrified and I keep putting off the call, can you help me” once-off way] that would be a problem.)

      • Kristen

        I just have to say, in regards to making medical appointments, that I understand how scary it is for some folks. Or even just confusing. I handle all of my husbands appointments because I’m better at it and I don’t mind it in the least. So I totally get how some folks aren’t good/comfortable at it like I am.

        That being said, the reason I’m good at it/comfortable with it is because I have to be. I don’t have and haven’t had since I was 13, someone else to do this for me. I see it as a strength that I can handle this stuff and honestly see all life challenges as strength builders so I don’t shy away from them.

        This is one of those things where my neglectful childhood definitely strengthened me in a way my husbands nurturing childhood didn’t (overly attentive mom did everything for him and never taught him how to handle appointments). Just one of those things I’m trying to figure out how to instill in my children but in a healthier, less harmful way than it was instilled in me – ha ha! Advice or ideas welcome!

        • KC

          From my intermittently successful life-skills-acquisition (not the bits I flunked out at), I think the healthy-life-skills acquisition process sometimes goes like this:
          1. at a developmentally-appropriate time, require child to be present and paying attention when you do things for them that they’ll need to be doing for themselves sometime (laundry, making appointments, etc. – or, for things that they probably won’t need to do until they “leave the nest”, like condolence cards and when to send them or how to choose a good wine or whatever, then when you do them for yourself); explain the process and answer any questions. For stuff they’ll be doing soon (more on the “laundry” side than the “buying a car” side), let them know that you will be handing this off to them as one of *their* responsibilities soon, so they have more motivation to pay attention.
          2. at a developmentally-appropriate time, then swap roles, where you’re available, but they’re doing the laundry or making the phone call or baking the casserole, so you’re still there for questions or unexpected stuff, but they’re getting practice.
          3. then hand off entirely once they’ve gotten the hang of it, letting them know that they can ask you if they get stumped.

          Sometimes kids just pick things up without being forced into it, and that’s great, too. And, I mean, the toss-them-in-a-pool-and-hope-they-swim sometimes turns out okay, too (and there have been facets in my life where that’s been the mechanism), but yeah, your life skills acquisition process sounds… less than fun.

          (I also think that sometimes chores or appointment-making or whatever ends up falling to whoever cares the most about the chore being done or the appointment being made, which is not always fair, but sometimes spouses/moms are more motivated to keep their loved ones healthy that one is motivated to keep oneself healthy. And I’m totally in favor of spousal division of labor where person A does X and person B does Y because they’re better at that skill and they don’t mind it as much. But it’s important for everyone to have more or less a full set of life skills, since people die [or get pneumonia or whatever] and whoever’s flying solo needs to know how to make appointments and pay utility bills and do laundry without it all becoming pink!)

          • Kristen

            Its funny/sad but your completely logical and extremely helpful advice, is just the kind of thing I don’t normally think of, because it wasn’t how it went for me. Since my husband also didn’t get appropriate parenting, its simple stuff like this that I struggle with figuring out.

            The other facet to this is when to start them on it. Because I did my own laundry starting at age 8. I think that’s too young – but not knowing when/how I was taught something in the right way and when/how it was the wrong way, gets me stuck too. Thanks so much for the well written and broken out process advice!

          • Well, I think if you’re tuned into your kids, they’ll let you know if/when they’re ready for some stuff. Doing their own laundry at 8? Probably a bit much- but at eight, they can match socks and “deliver” clean clothes to bedrooms and put their own stuff away. You can involve them in the process bit by bit, and they’ll eventually get it (Ex: going from letting them dump the detergent in to when they’re big enough to actually pour it themselves)

          • KC

            I’m really glad it was helpful!

            Different kids will have different “right ages”, unfortunately, so maybe keeping a list of things you want to make sure you cover (cooking and nutritional basics; clothing care; hygiene; bills and budgeting; appointments; taxes; etc.) and then announcing the Official Age of Handoff when you see they’re getting somewhere in the range, maturity-wise, would help?

            8 isn’t necessarily too young for some laundry (like, if the laundry is easy to sort into loads and nothing has special directions and it can all go through on the same settings), but you can also break some things down into parts (folding laundry – younger; interpreting and following laundry labels if some things aren’t machine washable – older) and haul them along with you as you do things. I know kids who have been brought up to set the table by starting with adding the napkins to each place setting at age 2 or 3-ish, then adding the silverware at age 4-ish (or whenever they can be trusted to not poke their eyeballs out with forks when walking), then the breakables at age whenever-they’re-coordinated-enough-to-not-drop-lots-of-plates-ish, so things can be broken down a lot, although that final “I did it all by myself!” moment is pretty awesome in most arenas. And tying responsibilities and privileges together can help them keep doing it all by themselves after the novelty wears off; my parents didn’t do that so much past the legends of potty training, but I learned from friends’ parents. :-) (having friends over to bake cookies = old enough to wash the dishes and kitchen after the baking extravaganza)

            As a bonus: kids are often more likely to talk with you if their hands are busy and they’re not distracted with other stuff, so laundry folding or sorting or dusting or carrot peeling or other manual tasks can be Relationship Boosting time, too. :-)

        • Katherine

          As a psychology major who’s now a high school teacher, my education/experience suggests that coaching your kids is another good way to help them learn the necessary life skills. In the phone call example, obviously parents would schedule doctor’s appointments for young kids. But, at some point, it would be the kid’s turn. Before making the actual phone call, the parent & child might have a mock-phone call where the parent gives suggestions of what to say. It’s all about letting kids do things for themselves, but with adult support….

          • KC

            I didn’t learn to do mock phone calls as a kid, but I *totally* do that as an adult when I have unpleasant calls to make. (write down a list of things I need to remember, figure out how to “start” the call, etc.) It’s a great tool!

          • Rachel

            Yeah, my mom made me start making my doctor’s appointments and such for myself quite early for this very reason…she wanted me to not rely on her too much for these things. I’m so grateful she did that, because I see a lot of other adults who are super uncomfortable with making calls and/or need a million reminders because they avoid it.

        • Kristen

          Thanks ladies, this is all excellent advice and understandable, simple ways to look at these processes and how to go about them.

          I have to believe at the very least, doing this stuff with my own kids, the kids I raise myself, will be so much easier than trying to parent my adult husband whose panic at dealing with things like emergency dental appointments, fills me with exasperation and pity. Even if it isn’t easier per se, at the very least wanting to save my future children’s partners or spouses from the same mommying I have to do might help me persevere when my naturally low patience butts up against wanting to just do it myself versus trying to get them to do it. I’m thinking of you future children-in-law, I hope you appreciate it!

          • KC

            I bet your future children-in-law will indeed appreciate it! My husband came “well-trained” in a lot of areas that are non-traditional, gender-wise, and I mentally thank his parents (as applicable; different parents taught him different things) each time it comes up.

            (Of course, he also has areas that are “missing”, as I have areas that are “missing” [wait; how do you clean X off upholstery?], but it’s lovely to not have all laundry/dishes/cleaning/cooking, etc. just be a giant mystery to him, and it’s especially lovely that he knows and sometimes remembers that even the things he’s not doing do not happen magically. :-) )

    • Hannah K

      @amy march
      I totally agree! I don’t think it’s weird at all–it makes me feel close to my friends to be involved in their life decisions (plus, you get to see inside other apartments! ha) and to involve them in mine, even though I’m partnered.

      I also feel like that “I only do this with my partner and therefore so should you” standard means that, if people are not coupled up, they are expected to do it alone…? That seems a little sad too (and unnecessary!).

      • Molly

        Yes! And if you feel like it’s boundary-pushing for X friend to ask you to go apartment hunting/make her medical appointments/whatever, then why would you encourage X friend to push that boundary with someone else? Because that is how I interpret: “I love you, but are you sure you want me to help you with that? Wouldn’t there be someone else better suited to this than me?”
        If the problem is that your friend is, in general, asking for things from others that maybe she is too scared to do for herself, perhaps the best way for you to have permanently healthy boundaries with her is not to re-direct her helpseeking to another friend or her partner, but rather to help her gain the confidence to do things for herself. That seems to me like a more sustainable solution for everyone than to encourage your friend to keep having unhealthy dependence, but with a partner or different friend rather than with you.

        • anonny

          Or you can offer to be there for her the first couple times she does something that’s scary. For example, dial the number and hand the phone to her, basically offering to TEACH her to do it herself, so she can do it all on her own the next time.

    • meg

      I should clarify that since this post was meant to be anonymous, I’m not 100% sure that apartment hunting was the real example. It may have been changed to make things less personal. IE, I think it’s better to focus on the overall point of the post than the details, since the details may have been changed to protect the innocent.

      Otherwise, carry on :)

    • ElisabethJoanne

      Funny story about other people making doctor’s appointments: I had a gynecological issue, but didn’t want to make the appointment myself, because I’m ALWAYS at the office during business hours, and there’s NO place for a personal phone call, so I asked my husband to make the appointment.

      I get there, and the medical assistant says, “So you’re here for a bump on your under arm?” And I so, “No. The bump is on my genitals.” The medical assistant says, “Oh, ‘under area’ – I couldn’t read my own writing. Undress. I’ll get you a drape.” When the doctor comes in, she asks, “Why are you undressed like that for a bump on your under arm?” And I explain again.

      When I see my husband, I ask, “What exactly did you say when you made that appointment?” “I told them you had a bump on your under area.” In retrospect, I could have made the appointment myself and carefully lied about the problem. I used to work in a gynecologist’s office, so I could have come up with something not-embarrassing that would have involved the same appointment time and exam room prep.

      [And the issue had actually resolved by the time of the appointment.]

    • Rachel

      While those two questions totally jumped out at me too and the second one definitely squicked me out, I do think it’s okay to say that something is too intimate…but rather than phrase it as the question “Don’t you think that’s too intimate?” which could really hurt someone who was totally OK with that intimacy, you could maybe say, “That feels a bit too intimate to me.” Because I don’t think saying, “Sorry I can make it” is really doing the friend any any favors; if your boundaries are being crossed, I think it’s OK to let the person know so they have a better idea of where they stand with you. And if it’s the kind of thing that is likely to violate a lot of people’s boundaries (like, say, calling the doctor), it’s probably best she sort of learn that rather than just losing friends over it.

      • Exactly to the phrasing. When you say “that feels to intimate *to me*” you’re making it about your own boundaries and letting your friend know that it’s not something you’re comfortable with, and it doesn’t come off as preachy or teachy at all.

      • Yes yes yes yes yes, this is what I was swishing around in my brain all day. I love what commentors wrote about not trying to educate, but this little tweak makes it educational about YOUR boundaries, not their so-called inappropriateness. You can express your ideas without demeaning theirs.

  • I’m like a lot of you, where my fiance (who I’ve been friends with since we were 14) has helped me learn how to set boundaries and recognize when I’m spreading myself too thin. But has anyone gotten backlash about that from friends and family? I worry sometimes that there’s that “oh was that because he said so?” tone when I say no to someone. Or that I’m letting him control me, when really he’s just helped me recognize and change my behavior for the better.

    • Kristen

      I got this a little from “friends” who said a lot of other nasty stuff to me throughout our relationships – so I booted them.

      I know me, and anyone who really knows me, knows they’d never need to worry about anyone controlling me.

      One of the best parts about my husband was his ability and desire to better himself. His willingness to be influenced by me, allowed me to relax enough to sometimes let him influence me as well. When you trust the other person’s goal is to be happy themselves and for you to be happy, influencing each other becomes (to me at least) one of the most beautiful parts of relationships.

    • Paranoid Libra

      My husband has from his one friend, but this friend is well not that mature and mooching off his parents. The friend doesn’t seem to understand that just because I see him every day that doesn’t mean it was quality time together or that you know married couples should spend a lot of time together because you know they like each other and all that. His friend seems to think my husband should come hang out with him whenever even though he is a 45 min drive away, but rarely makes the trip out to us.

      This friend is very taxing to our marriage and my husband is trying to set proper boundries and I still need to give him guidance on what they should be since the friend is known to throw temper tantrums or act like psycho girlfriend level of crazy, but hubs still gives into him more than he should. It also probably doesn’t help that even when my hubs does not want to hang out he still will text him wife wants me home which drives me nuts. No wonder I look like the bad here. Grrrr….yea this is still a pressing issue and recently just had issues so things are very fresh but it used to be sooo much worse, sooooo much.

      Just be blunt to say why you aren’t without the reason being he wants me to. Say I don’t have the energy or time or just say you and your fiance already have plans if that’s the case or even if the plans are to just relax around your home. If the person is trying to spend time with maybe plan for when it would be like hey I can’t today/this week, but how about the *insert date maybe 2 weeks out or next week* I am free then. Then if they agree keep to it.

      • The friend doesn’t seem to understand that just because I see him every day that doesn’t mean it was quality time together or that you know married couples should spend a lot of time together because you know they like each other and all that.

        THIS. My mother in law struggles so mightily with this concept. My husband just finished his masters degree a few months ago, and for two years he was taking night classes and studying and writing papers while we both worked full time jobs. He spent all his weekends in the library. Whenever he had to turn down invitations from his mother because he and I had a date planned or something, she would get so irritated and say things like “You live with her! You see her all the time!”

        Um, actually, no. He left the house before I was awake and came back after I was asleep. On rare evenings or weekends when he was home, he was buried in books and papers, studying his ass off. It used to upset us both so much, and her pressuring and guilt tripping him about it did not help in the slightest.

        • Brenda

          I had a really hard time understanding this when I was single – I’d never had a live-in relationship and didn’t get that all that “together time” isn’t really quality time, and I would get annoyed with my friends when they wanted to spend time with their partners.

          Now that I’ve been in a live-in/married relationship myself, I completely get that sleeping and getting up in the morning and making dinner is not necessarily quality time spent together. Sometimes it is, but you still have to make time for your partner intentionally, other than just the day to day routine. I started the process of being a better friend before I met him, which certainly helped our relationship develop as I was more trusting and open by then, but I never fully got it until I moved in with him.

          This can be a hard thing for people who haven’t been in that type of relationship to understand. But for your mother-in-law, who presumably has, there’s no excuse. You’ve written this in the past tense so I hope it’s better now, but if not I think your husband needs to have a talk with his mother about this.

          • It’s better in the sense that he’s graduated, and so now he has the luxury of a lot more free time. As a result, his mother and I aren’t really competing for quality time with him as often.

            The underlying problem still exists.

          • Paranoid Libra

            What would you currently tell your former single self in order to understand what quality time together means for a married/very serious couple? I feel like if my husband can get a good way of putting it, it might cause less tantrums. Due to recent events or soon to be events I expect more demands coming from the friend for visits so I would just like give my husband the small hand I can offer.

        • ElisabethJoanne

          I think some couples are better at working quality time into the routine than other couples, and we all get better at it as relationships mature.

          My parents went years without a date night or other scheduled opportunities for serious one-on-one conversation, and they were happy during those times. They somehow manage on a lot of unspoken assumptions and good routines.

          For the first couple years of our relationship, including the first several months we lived together, my now-husband and I had to go out for a meal to have an extended conversation. He needs to be looking right at you to pay attention to the conversation, and at home, he’d finish a meal in 10 minutes. Away from the table, he’d pick up a book or fall asleep mid-sentence. Now that we have more of a routine and more practice, we can accomplish more for our relationship in the 10 minute drive to work in the morning, etc.

      • The “wife wants me home” would drive me crazy, as an excuse to a friend. Just own it. “I have plans” can still be true even if the unsaid part is “to stay home with my family” but when someone constantly uses their significant other’s demands as an excuse not to hang out that really reinforces some awful stereotypes.

    • M

      A friend’s boyfriend’s family does this to them all the time. Any time he says he can’t do something, they blame it on her. She’s definitely not controlling – it’s more that his family is extremely dysfunctional. They try to just ignore it since the problem is in the family and not in their relationship. Next month they’re moving to a different city for a new job, which has the added bonus of getting some distance from the blame game!

      • KC

        It’s amazing how distance can magically fix some expectations. Visits “home” can then turn into a bit of a meat grinder, though, just as a warning.

    • I am definitely getting this, big time. It actually exploded recently into this huge emotional talk with my mother and sister. I think that people are going to be less likely to insinuate these types of things now because they see that its just pushing me away, but they still have their opinions. If people cant accept that I still have a mind of my own and that the changes I have made in my life and the amount of time and money I give to others are for the better, I can’t force it. Just because you perceive the relationships and obligations in your life as healthier for you does not mean people will see it that way from their own vantage point. I’ve just accepted that that the way it is, and that if I feel healthier and happy that is all that matters.

  • “Being intentional about forming close friendships that support my marriage came with examining what it means to have close friendships that do not support my marriage.”

    man. this is where we’re at – replacing “marriage” with “family” (having kids was kind of the catalyst, but i mean family in a broader sense that includes our marriage, our kids, the way we are choosing to have kids, and the way we are choosing to have a marriage). we have just recently done a lot of examining (much of it forced) and cut out our close friendships that did not support our family. which was almost all of them.

    and, while tragic to realize, and a bit hard to swallow, our relationship and our family are better than they’ve ever been for it. now we are trying to get back to that first step of being intentional about forming close friendships that do support our family. not sure how yet, but i am less worried about it than i was – it turns out not having a support system outside of your family is *not* the worst thing – the worst thing is having a completely unsupportive support system. because then you are not only not getting any help when you need it, but you’ve also drained all your resources that you would have used to help yourself. (i hadn’t quite realized that before i wrote it down.)

    • Kristen

      Yes. Because there is a distinct difference between friends who dump you, and friends who you dump for your own good.

      I think anyone with a heart would struggle with letting go of or actually ending a connection with someone you know cares for you. But everyone who cares for us isn’t good for us to be around and one of the hardest parts of maturing for me, was recognizing this.

      ” it turns out not having a support system outside of your family is *not* the worst thing – the worst thing is having a completely unsupportive support system.”

      Meg makes lots of great points about the necessity of support systems outside our homes and I absolutely agree with her. But I also know for some, myself included, its not that easy. First I have to learn what normal support looks like and what is ok to expect as far as treatment. Because I’ve shown myself what a terrible judge I am on how people should treat me. So I have to learn this skill first before I can go about trying to build a replacement family which means I will struggle and not have enough support for a while. It sucks but its what my life is and I accept it. I don’t know if you’re in the same boat at all, but big hugs to you guys while you work through this.

  • As always, this post was timely, important, spot-on, and thoughtful. Thank you APW, and contributors, for ALWAYS talking about the tough stuff and normalizing what I think is just me being crazy. I cannot tell you how much I appreciate this.

  • Rachel102712

    I came across this article during my engagement, which I shared with two of my close friends who were also getting married that same year (2012 was a busy year!):

    I love the idea of number 12: “Make a husband pact with your friends.” This has been so helpful for me to keep in mind as I have been learning to navigate the waters of preserving the boundaries of my marriage alongside the boundaries of my friendships.

    • Del678

      thanks so much for this! I love number one: go to bed mad. Things are ALWAYS (for me) less crazy and more rational in the morning. I often go to bed annoyed or upset and wake up thinking, wow I was being an irrational idiot or blowing it way bigger than it is, I’m so glad I didn’t bring it up/start a fight over it or now I can talk about it calmly without causing hurt or insult.

  • MOE

    Marriage changed me in this regard. I have a new way of seeing things and I protect my husband amd marriage fiercely now. Friendships are not assessed by whether or not they support my marriage or not.

    When we were dating and seriously moving towards marriage I made the decision to break up with a friend. When I have broken up with boyfriends I have done with icy cold determination. It’s over, done, move on. Breaking up with a friend was frought with worry, sleepless nights, anxiety and I was clueless. This made no sense to my boyfriend-soon-to-be-husband. “Why are you still friends with this person? You clearly do not like to be around her.”

    Being with him somehow gave me courage to make decisions and take a stand when it was needed. Maybe this is one of those cultural dynamics of being married, it suddenly gives your relationship a certain credibilty and respect that dating someone doesnt always bring.

    I’ve had to draw the line with family too, who I have not always had healthy boundaries with. Now I have this “F**k you, my husband/marriage is more important.” attitude.

  • Cleo

    This post struck such a chord with me because I’ve had a lot of cause to think about setting boundaries as of late.

    I have a friend who has fallen into some unhealthy habits as a result of many things, but what has exacerbated the problem is her boyfriend. He is inappropriate in many ways, including being grabby with girls, making culturally insensitive jokes, and going much too far into PDA land with his girlfriend (my friend).

    My partner clued me into her destructive behavior (which I won’t get into here) and helped me, the perennial people pleaser, gain the courage to set boundaries with her — I won’t hang out with you two together outside the context of a large party because he thinks it’s funny to play grabass; if you want to fondle each other, you need to do it out of my line of sight, etc.

    These boundaries have negatively impacted our friendship, especially because she’ll choose to ignore them sometimes and invite him to watch TV with us, but have created a lot of positive in my life.

  • honeypie

    I’m going through this right now, except I’m the one who tells my honey to set boundaries and learn how to say no. He’s so kindhearted and loves to help people and is good at a lot of things so he gets called for help more often than not. In particular, he has one friend that always asks him to help him do things especially around the house that he should know how to do, or hang out (said friend is gainfully unemployed and has no plans to work). My honey tells me that the friend doesn’t know how to do anything and he wants to help him. Grrr.

    Complicating this is that this friend of his and his wife, used to be people I too considered best friends until I found out that they betrayed my trust. As a result, I don’t want to be around these people at all. I try to be cordial but generally avoid them. But. The honey is still friends with them.

    So even though I see the lopsided nature of their friendship, and when my honey needs help they are nowhere to be found, and yet expect him to come running when they need something, I have to balance my opinion of what I see with my history with them. It is difficult because I don’t want to nag him. I feel like this friend is a user and a fool and he makes fools out of people that get too close to him. It is frustrating to see people you care about have anyone take advantage of their kindness.

  • MC

    This post is so helpful to me on many fronts. I had to break up with a friend of six years, who I also happened to be romantically involved with at one point, but things were strictly platonic for the last two years. He was still making contact while I was dating my now husband, to his displeasure. He eventually made known how uncomfortable he was with my speaking to this person and I had no choice but to cut him off. Seems like it should have been an easy fix, but this person was in my life EVERY DAY for six years in one way or another. It was a major shift to go from that to radio silence. I tried to explain to him why we could no longer communicate, and he didn’t seem to understand why. To this day I haven’t spoken to him about the wedding or anything really. I feel so unresolved and icky about the way things went down, but I did it out of respect for my husband. Anyway, not intended to start a whole new thread, but this post helped me see that I’m not alone.