How Do I Avoid Romance With Someone Who Is Manipulating Me?

There’s this woman who has a crush on all the people who’ve helped her, including me. I want to be supportive of her gaining independence and self-confidence (we’re all in our early 20’s), but I don’t want to be romantically entangled with someone who so easily clings to her “saviors.” I don’t even want to be a savior, I want to be a friend. Some of the other people she’s had a crush on have also expressed worries about dating her or even saying no to her, but none of us are really willing to push her out entirely. She’s kind of emotionally manipulative. How do I extricate myself as a romantic potential/savior without causing too much harm to any of the above people?

Anti-Stockholm Syndrome

Dear Anti-Stockholm Syndrome:

You have described this person as clingy, emotionally manipulative, and someone who cannot hear the word ‘no’ without making this a big problem for everyone.

Declining a romance with her makes sense, but when you say you want to be ‘friends’ with her, I find myself wondering why.

It sounds like you feel sorry for her, and that you feel a little trapped with her in your life — neither of which is a good basis for a friendship.

You are not obligated to be friends with anyone, no matter how much they need. They have to offer something to the friendship, as well, and it sounds like this person is not in a position where she can do that right now.

But you have three things working against you:

  1. Your age,
  2. the gender your were raised as (readers: I know she was raised as female)
  3. your kindness.

I have been where you are myself, not-coincidentally when I was in my early 20s.

I think adults in their 20s are fresh from being scared, confused, and sometimes miserable kids, and we remember so well the feeling of unrequited love, feeling deeply insecure and maybe clingy, feeling hurt and rejected. If someone is in pain, it’s hard to just walk away.

But here’s what you probably should do: push her out into ‘acquaintance’ category in your life, as quickly and carefully as possible.

And yes — if she starts to freak out when she senses you doing this, you may have to push her out entirely. I know — we were all pushed out at one time or another. I know — you don’t want to be a bad person.

But I wonder if she’s thought about whether or not she’s being a bad person by manipulating everyone around her and refusing to ever take no for an answer?

Your gender training is also working against you: no matter how enlightened our parents, no matter how smart we may be, no matter how feminist and queer and educated and gender-variant, we have had society at large grinding at us. We’ve been taught not to say ‘no.’ We’ve been taught it makes us cold and mean and heartless. We are supposed to say ‘yes.’

And to say ‘no,’ whether in word or in deed, can sometimes be really really difficult to do.

Those first few times you say ‘no’ are a fucking agony, I’m not gonna lie.

So this is what I suggest: start with a small ‘no.’

Try a wordless ‘no,’ like not responding to a text or a phone call right away — or at all. A firm but quiet ‘no’ like declining invitations to things without a fevered list of excuses or explanations. Just: “Sorry! I can’t make it.”

A ‘no’ to spending time in her presence if you aren’t enjoying it, by simply standing up when she’s got you feeling trapped and saying with no apology or explanation: “Well, I think I’m going to make it an early night.”

(And if she’s in your space, standing up and saying: “Well, it was good to see you,” and REFUSING TO SIT DOWN until she leaves.)

You can back slowly away and turn her into a vague acquaintance without a big dramatic breakup scene if you keep up with these small ways of saying ‘no.’

And if she winds up demanding some sort of long emotional processing of what is going on, you can quietly but firmly say ‘no’ to that. You can. It is hard, but it is possible.

I wish that I’d known so much earlier that I didn’t owe anyone my time, affection, sex, or friendship — and that keeping energy-drains like her out of my life would be the best gift I could give to myself.

You owe her nothing. You owe yourself peace of mind.

This is not fun stuff, but unfortunately learning to deal with people like her is going to be a skill that you’ll need to use for a long time.

(So if you don’t do this perfectly, I’m sorry to tell you that you’re going to get a lot more chances. There are lots and lots of folks like her out there.)

Good luck! Saying ‘no’ is going to be a really useful skill for you for the rest of your life. I’m still working on it myself, but it gets easier every time.

This letter appeared originally in on July 23, 2015.

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