Close friendships can and should develop in intense situations—but you don’t need to stick around if they get toxic
Welcome to Tough Love. Every other week, we’re answering your questions about dating, breakups, and everything in between. Our advice giver is Blair Braverman, dogsled racer and author of Welcome to the Goddamn Ice Cube. Have a question of your own? Write to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
I’m a married female graduate student in my mid-30s and recently spent a month collecting ecological data in Arizona. While I was there, with a team of other researchers, we hired a few guides to help us in the backcountry. We all slept in tents beside each other and hung out most nights, chatting and drinking beers. As is typical in that kind of intense situation, we all got to know each other well and talked about our lives.
Over the weeks I became good friends with one of the guides, a young man I’ll call Jim. Jim was a polite, friendly 22-year-old with a pretty rough background. He had recently gone through a breakup and was having trouble dealing with it, so a few of the researchers and I would give him advice to try to build him up. I want to note that I didn’t spend time alone with Jim, and at no point did I feel that our interactions were flirtatious, but I was happy about our connection and it meant a lot to me. I felt like I got to be a mentor to someone who took my advice seriously, and I thought Jim was a great, well-meaning kid and I wanted to help him if I could.
Jim also helped me a lot with my work. For example, the day we left I realized I’d left a package with a memory card behind at the site, Jim volunteered to go back and get it, which was about an hour out of his way. I had to rush to pack and catch my flight, so I was very appreciative of the favor.
A few days after I got back home, I started getting emails from Jim, which he often sent in the middle of the night. He said he was in love with me and that he wished he’d met me before my husband did, because he thought that we were soulmates. He wrote about how sexy he thought I was. He also got pretty dark, saying that he hated himself, and that no one would ever love him the way he wanted to love somebody else—namely, me. My stomach dropped when I got the emails because they were so different from the friendship I’d felt in person.
I didn’t want deal with this kind of talk, but I also felt a duty to respond to Jim, especially because he had just helped me out with the memory card. So I called him and tried to have a conversation. I said it was inappropriate for him to talk about wanting to be with me and that I did not reciprocate those feelings. I also tried to build up his confidence, telling him that he was a great guy with a great life ahead of him and I knew he would make some woman (who was definitely not me) very happy. I also said firmly that this was the last time I’d have this conversation with him, but that I cared about him and was happy to remain friends casually.
That was a few months ago. Ever since then, every week or two, I get an email from Jim. It’s usually a single line and says something like “I guess you’ve forgotten about me.” I haven’t been responding. Honestly, I would have been happy to stay in touch with him, but now it makes me too uncomfortable. What I don’t know is what my responsibility is to Jim at this point, especially since I’m older and kind of a mentor. He helped me out, and he seems to be going through a hard time, but he’s also ignoring my signals. I feel bad ending the friendship, especially after he helped me so much, and I’m not sure what’s appropriate. What’s my duty to him at this point?
Your responsibility to a casual friend ends the moment that he or she plows through your stated boundaries, especially when it comes to sexual or romantic stuff. The fact that you called Jim, talked through your discomfort, and tried to build up his confidence—and set him straight for the future—means that you’ve already gone above and beyond. I admire your commitment to helping him, but I also suspect that your attempt backfired, because he got exactly the attention he was craving. By bombarding you with mournful and flirtatious emails, Jim got to talk to you and hear how great you think he is! Why wouldn’t he keep on sending you inappropriate notes?
Sure, this kid went out of his way to pick up a memory card for you. That means that, at some point, you owed him a thank you. It does not mean that you owe him any more attention, which is exactly what you’d be doing by responding to his emails, even if all you did was ask him (again) to lay off. He may say he cares about you as a friend, but by diminishing your agency and ignoring your requests, his behavior shows just the opposite. Whatever connection you felt in person, you and Jim are not pals anymore. He has rewritten your relationship. For your own well-being, you are completely entitled to block his emails and ignore him forever.
I get where you feel responsibility, as the older person, to help set this kid straight. To be clear, this is not your job. It. Is. Not. Your. Job. But even if it were (it’s not!) the end result should be the same. The truth is that, at this point, any attention you pay to Jim, now or in the future, is reinforcing his harassment as an effective tool for keeping people—and particularly women—in his life. If you truly want to be a mentor, it’s time for your toughest lesson yet: leaving him behind.