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Handling a High-Maintenance Friend

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Have a pal who makes excessive claims on your time and attention? Here’s how to manage the relationship — without making yourself crazy.

Expert Source: Judith Orloff, MD, is an assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA who combines traditional medicine with alternative and intuitive approaches.

At some point in our lives, most of us have had a friend whose demands have become at least a little trying.

These are the friends who call several times a day, even though you’ve explained that you can’t talk at work or don’t want to interrupt family dinner. They “have to come over and show you something” right this second; they live for long debriefing sessions and pep talks; they want to gossip or download their latest drama when you desperately want to sleep, or shower, or just have a moment of peace to yourself.

While you may want to retain a genuine emotional connection with a high-maintenance friend — because that person can also be a lot of fun at times — protecting your own energy and maintaining your peace of mind can require some work.

“If you want to continue to be friends with a person like this, you have to develop some very kind, but firm, strategies,” says Judith Orloff, MD, author of the New York Times bestseller Emotional Freedom.

Here, Orloff shares tactics for managing these sensitive relationships.

Challenges to Overcome

  • Fear of offending. This is probably the No. 1 reason people don’t draw and defend boundaries with high-maintenance friends, says Orloff — and why many end up running scared from them instead. Some people who fall into the “high-maintenance” category may seem vulnerable, she says, but they may also be manipulative and “expert at controlling others with anger, or the threat of it.”
  • Guilt. You may worry that saying no to a friend in any way or for any reason makes you less generous than you “should” be, particularly if your friend is going through a tough time. (For help dealing with a depressed friend, see “A Friend in Need“.)
  • Helplessness. The onslaught of requests and intrusions may make you feel like you’re drowning, and that you (and the relationship) can’t be rescued.
  • Unconscious needs. Orloff notes that maintaining a difficult relationship may have “shadow” benefits for you — like avoiding facing your own loneliness, or getting to maintain a sense of self-importance as the “together” person whom the clingy one needs.

Strategies for Success

  • Set limits. You can say no lovingly but succinctly, says Orloff in Emotional Freedom: “Something on the order of, ‘You’re my friend and I love you, but I’m going alone/with Mary this time. We’ll go together another time.’”
  • Suggest alternatives. When saying no to a request from the high-maintenance friend, take the initiative by suggesting something else that does involve him or her: “I’m planning a night out next week with Sue, and it would be great if you could join us then.”
  • Remember the good. It’ll be easier to set boundaries if you first remind yourself that you really do care for your friend and that you are maintaining these boundaries in the service of the friendship, not in a spirit of anger, punishment, or separation.
  • Rehearse. It can be useful to do “practice runs” with someone else before talking to your high-maintenance friend, so that you won’t be distracted or shaky in the moment. “Have your practice partner say all the demanding things you can imagine your friend saying,” Orloff suggests, “and practice your kind, clear responses.”
  • “Retrain” your friend. You’ll probably need to draw boundaries repeatedly, always in response to specific situations, before your friend changes his or her behavior. Be patient, but consistent and firm.
  • Be good to yourself. “Give yourself a lot of credit for the courageous act of setting limits,” suggests Orloff. “Know that you’re going to feel nervous and make mistakes, but if you keep at it, you will probably find all of your relationships getting better.” And if your friend doesn’t eventually accept your boundaries with grace and respect? Then it’s probably time to come to grips with his or her real limitations and let the relationship go.

Jon Spayde is a contributing editor for Experience Life magazine.

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