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What Do You Do If A Relationship Is Sapping Your Spirit?

“I don’t know if I would make it if I didn’t have you to talk to. I might think seriously of hurting myself.”

If you hear these words from a friend, and they don’t send a shiver up your spine, something is wrong.

Maybe if said in jest. Once. With a twinkle in her eye and a heavy sigh of relief.

That would be okay.

What Do You Do If A Relationship Is Sapping Your Spirit?: difficult friendship

Maybe if she is in some kind of absolutely dire circumstance. Maybe she is caring for someone with Huntington’s Chorea or some other disease in its last unbending stages. Maybe the two of you have just been through an EF-5 tornado and are cleaning up wreckage. Or, even more horrible to consider, your children were involved, maybe hurt, wounded, or worse in a mass school shooting. Obviously, tragic, unreal, painful circumstances create intense, dramatic feelings. For a long time.

Also understandable and a human response to a human crisis.

Yet if it occurs in the context of a normal friendship. Regular every day, “How was book club?”, “Do you know if Denise ever sent out that email?”, “Which teacher have you heard is better with slower reading kids like Luke?“,  or maybe even, “How did your therapy session go with John?” kinds of relationships. With more complex conversation thrown in when it is needed or requested.

There is something that is getting out of balance.


Don’t get me wrong. Normal, healthy friends listen intently about each other’s depression or sadness. Even sometimes that someone can feel like they want to hurt themselves. They feel that down. Friends support each other about anxiety. Worry. Any kind of difficulty can be talked about openly.

What is hard to tolerate – to cope with – is chronic, intense dependence. It can easily feel like you are being squeezed. Like a cobra.

Knowing someone has your back when you really need them. Even if it’s for days at a time. Showing gratitude for that. Knowing you will return the favor.

Absolutely awesome.

Being told or to have it inferred that a friend will fall apart or become suicidal if you aren’t able to perform that duty?

“It’s only by talking to you that I don’t feel that way. You are saving me from myself.”

Whether that is stated or inferred, it will kill the relationship. It’s too much. (Unless for some reason, the person being counted on is significantly unhealthy themselves and craves feeling needed 24/7.)

This dynamic can sneak up on you in any relationship, not just friendship. What started out as a fairly even give and take… somehow mutates into all give and very little give back. And you are tired of not receiving. Conversations are one-way, practically free therapy sessions, with you exhausted after the first thirty minutes.

What do you do if you want out? You feel stuck. Emotionally blackmailed. And yet, you care for your friend, and don’t want anything bad to happen to her.

What is clear is that the fragility exposed needs to be addressed. It may reflect what in psychology is a “personality disorder” or a consistently unhealthy way someone has of thinking of themselves and others. They simply do not handle relationships appropriately or effectively. And they usually have little insight into that.

There are many different personality disorders. There are those with narcissistic tendencies, where initially their motive is to seduce you into their world with compliments or “love bombing” as one expert put it. Then it’s on to making the relationship all about them. However, a classic narcissist would not necessarily become “suicidal” if you were not available for them; they might become enraged. Then aloof. Suicidal threats are more of a borderline personality disorder trait, as it is likely perceived as intense abandonment. People, however, can share traits of these personality disorders – it’s a little like vegetable soup. You rarely find any one recipe with the same ingredients.

So what do you do?

If your friend or partner is in therapy, I would ask to join a session. Or two. And talk about needing to get closure on the relationship. Take a break. However you want to put it. With the support of the therapist. Be honest about the reasons why.

It’s the therapist’s job to deal with the patient’s danger to self.

If they are not in therapy, then ask them to go to one with you. You need a third party to navigate this terrain. If they refuse, I would meet a couple of times yourself with a local therapist. Talk with them about the specifics of your friendship. How it got the way it did. Maybe that therapist can give you ideas about how to get closure that you have not been able to see.

Hopefully, they will say yes. At that point, either the same thing can happen as above, except with both of you in the room. Give support to both of you for the difficulty of your positions. Perhaps your friend can develop a relationship with the therapist where you can leave, and your friend has support to grieve.

And that is okay.

It might be the best thing for both in the long run.


Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Dr. Margaret Rutherford has been in practice in Fayetteville, Arkansas for over 20 years. She began blogging in 2012 with the website “NestAche”, and following with in April 2014. Her work can be found here on Midlife Boulevard, as well as the Huffington Post, Boomeon, WeWantMore, BetterAfter50 and Arkansas Women Bloggers.

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Jacqueline Presley

Wednesday 15th of July 2015

Great advice!

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Thursday 16th of July 2015

Thanks so much Jacqueline.

Wednesday 15th of July 2015

I'm so grateful that my friends and I have each other's back always. And we take turns with who needs some TLC!

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Thursday 16th of July 2015

We should all go hug our great friends Nancy! I also have a lot of compassion for the people that have these disorders - they are born sometimes from abuse, sometimes from horrible parenting - or there can be a genetic thread. I have worked with several people with these kinds of issues that have done fantastic work and turned around the way they relate to others and see themselves. So their lives and the lives of those who want to love them can be more fulfilling and content. Thanks so much for commenting.


Wednesday 15th of July 2015

Awesome article! I am so glad to NOT have this going on in my life right now...but I have lived it and it's just so stressful.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Wednesday 15th of July 2015

Thanks Michelle! It is a happy event to be able to look back on it, not be right in the smack dab middle of it. Which is awful.


Wednesday 15th of July 2015

I think that type of relationship is more common when younger. At least I hope so. My best friend and I tell each other most everything but don't drag each other down. We did many years ago. Our friendship's gone through many stages until now it's the "be there for each other no matter what" because someday we might not be able to be. And we laugh a lot. I like laughing and most of my friendships can be serious at times but involve a lot of laughter. Otherwise, why? Blogging is a great release and a great way of getting the demons out

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Wednesday 15th of July 2015

That's an interesting thought, Pia. Maybe we get wiser and either get out of those kind of relationships or steer clear of them. However, I have heard of these kinds of dynamics going on in marriages for quite a long time actually... or the same could occur in any long-term partnership. Where one person feels held hostage emotionally. It's very sick really. Thanks so much for your feedback. I love something that makes me delve a little deeper....

Mithra Ballesteros

Wednesday 15th of July 2015

I'm sorry to report I have this sort of thing going on right now. My natural reaction is one of avoidance. Which causes guilt on my part and resentment on my friend's part. An honest break-up is ideal but so very difficult to actually carry out. Love your posts as always.

Dr. Margaret Rutherford

Wednesday 15th of July 2015

I think Mithra that so many people use avoidance and yet it can make the whole dynamic drag on and on. Nobody learns anything. It is very difficult to say "this isn't working anymore or isn't right now..." but it can be incredibly relieving if you do! And thank you for the kind words!

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