We’ve all been there.
We’ve all had that friend whom we care about, but who just doesn’t give as much to us as we give to them. That friend who always seeks us out when something’s wrong, but who isn’t always sympathetic when we need a shoulder to cry on. That person whose “helpful” comments about our problems tend to make the conversation about their own. That friend who makes us laugh and who makes us grateful to have such a companion, but who also leaves us feeling a little empty. This is someone who claims to need us, but who we need to walk away from.
But first, let’s get something straight: there’s a difference between someone who needs you and someone who needs what you give. The former takes you at your best and worst and is able to give as selflessly as you are; they never make you feel you’ve given more than you’ve received. Someone who needs you embraces the parts of you that are imperfect because they understand your needs. They are happy to listen to you complain about a guy, or talk through an issue you’re having with your mom because they know that that’s what will help you. They recognize when your needs are greater than theirs. Someone who embraces you doesn’t use your problems as a gateway to discuss their own, nor do they push you to discuss something you’re uncomfortable sharing. A person who needs you respects your boundaries and is there when you need them; they don’t take more from you than you are able to give.
Someone who needs what you give is the person to walk away from. A person who needs what you give only thinks selfishly even if they appear selfless. Someone who needs what you give can make you think they’re acting selflessly towards you, but they are doing so to keep you around and are not actually giving you what you need. For example, an ex-friend of mine who needed what I gave was always there when I had a problem to talk through. He was very helpful and understanding and left me feeling better about my situation. For every one problem that I had, however, he had five. And for every ten minutes that I vented to him, he vented to me for thirty. So after a year when I told him that I had to leave, he claimed that since he was always there for me it was selfish of me to walk away from him. My ex-friend needed what I gave instead of needing me because instead of embracing me and my problems, he used my problems as leverage to make me stay. It’s true that relationships are reciprocal and it’s important to be there for someone as much as they are for you. But that only works when there are boundaries that both parties understand. This ex-friendship was not reciprocal because my friend took more from me than I did from him. He drained me instead of balancing me; he needed what I gave him instead of needing me.
Despite what people tell you, it is not selfish to walk away from someone who needs what you give. It is admirable. There are few things that are more difficult than leaving someone who has their clutches deep in you; someone who knows what buttons to push, how to make you feel guilty, or how to make you question why you would ever want to leave the friendship or relationship. These people are toxic and will leave you feeling less about yourself instead of more. Walking away from people who claim to need you is one of the bravest things a person can do. Which is why it is one of the most difficult.
So how do you do it? I’ll be honest with you: it’s completely circumstantial. Let’s go back to Aforementioned Ex-Friend. I clearly needed to leave that friendship, but I was worried that if I did he would kill himself. So, before I broke things off I got in touch with his guidance counselor, informed her of his situation and asked her to get him help since I could no longer take care of him.
He didn’t take it well. He told me that I was being hypocritical, that I was just as bad for him as he was for me and that it was selfish for me to leave the friendship. This completely guilt-tripped me, but I stood my ground and emphasized that I could longer be friends with him. It was not about him, it was about me. He proceeded to leave me weepy voicemails for a week and send me passive aggressive text messages. I ignored him. He texted me effectively saying, “I’m in therapy, will you come back now?” I ignored him. Ultimately, he sent me a long message telling me that I was a bitch and that I had no idea how to treat people and no consideration for their feelings. He told me that I would never be happy and that he would stop contacting me since I obviously wanted nothing to do with him.
I felt awful. Hurting him was the last thing I wanted to do. All I had done was put myself first, but did putting myself first mean hurting the people I loved? Maybe there was a reason I’d never done it before.
No. My friend reacted this way because he was unstable, and because he was relying on me to take care of him so he wouldn’t have to do it himself. While this was understandable given his situation, it was not tolerable. People always have reason for behaving the way they do, but that doesn’t mean they can treat others however they want. If someone ever makes you feel like it is your responsibility to take care of them, then whatever they feel upon your departure is a result of their self-negligence. The only person you are responsible for is you. If someone else depends on you to keep them in one piece, it is their fault if they fall apart when you leave. Not yours.
So that’s one way to do it. Another, more ideal, option would be to limit contact with the person. Try spending less time with them so that you have more time for you, and hopefully that gives them time to figure out how to take care of themselves. Another option would be to put up healthier boundaries. If the person calls you in a “crisis” tell them that you will come over, but only stay for fifteen minutes. If they whine and moan, be firm that those are your conditions because that’s all you can manage at the moment. Always speak from what you need. They have no reason to begrudge you for putting your needs before their own. If this goes over well, than it looks like the relationship will make it. If it doesn’t, and they start making you feel like the boundaries you need are ridiculous and uncalled for, then cutting them out or limiting contact may be the best option.
There’s no easy way out once you’ve deepened a relationship with someone who needs what you give. But let me tell you, as someone who’s had multiple relationships with people like this and who’s gotten out of all of them, it is worth the struggle. You don’t deserve people who expect you to be there for them but who aren’t there for you. You deserve happiness. So fight for it. :)