I tend to avoid trite, overused phrases like “boundaries” because like so many other pop culture phenomena it has almost become meaningless. We live in an age of exhibitionism, after all, where way too many people mistake fame for success, have lost all sense of shame, and demonstrate little (if any) respect for themselves and others. However, my recent experiences with long-term friendships have demonstrated the validity of personal boundaries and the necessity of defending them vigorously when necessary.
Why is it that those who profess to have your best interests at heart find it so difficult to simply listen? That’s it. Just listen. Don’t offer unsolicited advice, don’t relate the issue to something they’ve done/said/heard in the past or present. Don’t insist they’re right simply because they’re older. Just listen. Period. And no, I’m not talking about my mother, who at this point seems to be the only one in my life up to such a task. And I gladly reciprocate when she needs an ear in return.
No, rather than being a generational issue, the inability to listen without commenting based on personal filters and experiences appears to be a problem among my peers. In particular, a friend with whom I have shared a close, supportive relationship for over a decade. Along the way, we’ve passionately agreed and disagreed on a on variety of subjects, but mostly shared the same values and similar upbringing, though my family — as close as we are — maintains a healthy respect for privacy. Now that their kids are grown adults, my parents don’t pry into every little aspect of our lives but they are there to listen and help if they’re able (if it’s solicited). It would never occur to them to get in the middle of an argument between one of their offspring and their spouses, for example. But if one of their children came to them and confessed that their spouse was abusive or having an affair, you can bet your life they’d have something to say and do in response.
But those are extreme circumstances warranting parental and/or familial involvement.
What I’m referring to here is a basic right to privacy in daily life. I’ve always made an effort to be the kind of friend I’ve described above — one who listens sympathetically when a friend is upset, sad, scared, heartbroken or lonely. One who shares in a friend’s joy when something wonderful transpires like an exciting new job, relationship or sought-after accomplishment. In the case of this particular friend, I have also abstained from judgment in spite of her many poor choices over the years, including an affair with a married man and a relationship with one young enough to be her own son. There have been times when her strong personality has been overbearing but I’d overlook it by focusing on her boundless generosity, good-heartedness and sincerity.
In the last year to two years however, that has become increasingly difficult to do. Lately being in her company has felt more like a chore than a pleasant visit among friends. She has a way of bringing up controversial topics — the few over which we vehemently disagree — seemingly out of nowhere. At the same time, she shuts me down before I’d even have a chance to offer my opinion, though she always takes the liberty of expressing hers loudly and clearly. Case in point: abortion. Read more about that here.
At the same time, she believes if you’re not confiding every last detail of your life to her somehow that means you’re not really a friend. In my case, all it means is that I reserve my right to privacy. I hold sacred my right to savor an event or relationship, free from the opinions of others including well-meaning but intrusive friends who are at the receiving end of my capacity to just listen without comment. This is especially important to me when the friend really doesn’t have a clue about the power of the internet and social media to bring people together — for all sorts of reasons.
My work centers around new media, as does my activism. Over the past five years I have made countless real-life friends thanks to Facebook and Twitter. Many of them I have met and hung out with in person countless times; others I’ve only spoken to on the phone because of geographical distance. But just because I haven’t met some of them in the flesh doesn’t mean I discount the relationship or regard them as anything less than friends. Of course it’s true that I have also encountered what we jokingly refer to as “trolls”, along with an occasional stalker online but for the most part my experiences have been positive.
People who aren’t as engaged in social media tend to view it as either a waste of time or a place to reconnect with long-lost friends and family. That can certainly be true as well. If your job doesn’t rely on social media marketing, but does involve dealing with customers on a daily basis who share their internet horror stories, it’s understandable you’d form a negative impression of everything that transpires from behind a computer.
In the case of this friend, she has supported me through various trials and tribulations including online dating disasters. Yet she conveniently forgets that there have been plenty of “real life” interactions that have ended badly too, including introductions facilitated by mutual friends. So while it’s easy to blame the internet, it’s really just another vehicle of meeting people who may or may not be honorable. The real problem is our youth-obsessed culture of contamination and convenience, not the internet, which is simply another tool of connectivity.
Given the disappointing events of this past year from which I have happily bounced back and moved on, I felt it in my best interest not to disclose a fairly recent correspondence with someone who came into my life via social media. At this point, there’s nothing significant to share since my friend already believes it’s impossible to develop any feelings — platonic or romantic — for someone you’ve never laid eyes on in person. Confiding my feelings in her would only open me up to ridicule with lots of exhortations about how people lie about themselves online and how I should ask a family member who works for the FBI to investigate this person immediately. So I’ve kept this new relationship very close to my heart and away from all cynics, while maintaining my own sense of logic and prudence.
Until another mutual friend overheard me on the phone and spilled the beans to this other friend, against my wishes. That’s a topic for another post because I’m struggling to forgive her for betraying a confidence – something I take very seriously.
Anyway once my friend with the dominant personality had this information, being around her had become even more challenging. She’d inevitably ask about it and when I would respond with a simple answer devoid of the details she was seeking, it would typically devolve into an argument between the two of us. So this past weekend when she invited me over to her house, I should have heeded my intuition, which was screaming, “Don’t go!”
Instead I agreed to the visit, figuring she’d think I was avoiding her if I didn’t (imagine that!). Sure enough, our conversation went pretty much as expected after I listened to her discuss her latest relationship (another potential disaster involving a troubled marriage and children). Once again I didn’t judge. I simply listened. I didn’t remind her of her past transgressions or the fact that she kept repeating the same mistakes. I didn’t offer unsolicited advice. I just gave her one of the things human beings most crave: the experience of being heard.
Too bad I wasn’t afforded the same courtesy in return when she put me on the spot. Most offensive was the way in which she rattled off a laundry list of my past hurts and disappointments, all couched in terms of her “concern” for my well-being but in actuality translated into something like this: “You’re obviously incapable of learning from past mistakes and making smart decisions. So I’m going to butt in to remind you that in spite of my own regrettable track record, I still know everything so you need to sit and listen to me lecture you, or else you’re just a stubborn fool!”
Having reached my limit years ago, this latest incident put me well over the edge. It certainly didn’t come across as well-intentioned when she scolded me that my feelings (or the other person’s) couldn’t possibly be real, or when she reminded me of the pain of the past, or when she reprimanded me that I was getting defensive because deep down I knew she was right. No, deep down I realized this friendship was no longer serving me, and that it was finally time to let go. I was defensive because she was dismissing my judgment in this particular case, assuming I’ve learned nothing from the past. I was defensive because instead of simply saying something like, “I’m happy for you but just be careful because you know I care about you and I don’t want you to be hurt again”, she pounced on me like a criminal defense attorney on a beleaguered witness. Since when is a serious conversation among friends supposed to be an interrogation? And is it any wonder I did not want this information getting out?
In that moment I finally took a stand by getting up, putting my breakfast dish in the sink and announcing I was leaving. I threw in a few sarcastic, “You’re absolutely right (insert name here)!” to which she definitively exclaimed, “I am right! I am right!” As I headed out to the driveway I heard her call out “I love you!” but honestly I was too exhausted and angry to respond in kind, though hours later I finally responded in kind to a similarly themed text. It’s not that I don’t love her. I do. I’m simply worn out from fighting for my right to privacy and defending my own experiences when they don’t meet with her approval.
So yes, in the past few weeks two trusted friends, the one who snitched after eavesdropping on a private conversation, and the one who assumes she’s “right” about everything in spite of her own track record, have egregiously violated “boundaries”. Perhaps my lesson here is to speak up sooner rather than later when friends cross a line to avoid potential eruptions down the road. I am a very private person, after all, and there will always be a part of me that’s off-limits to anyone. I reserve that right, while I also respect it in others. If only everyone did — especially the ones who purport to be friends.