Question: An old friend back home has found me online though I haven’t seen him in many years. His wife just died of cancer, and it doesn’t surprise me that such a horrific experience might lead him to look for old friends. But he strikes me as being desperately lonely, and he instant-messages me continually with way too much information about his marriage and his wife’s illness. If I don’t respond in a day or two, he writes again and asks why I haven’t replied. He has asked for my personal contact info – so that we can “catch up” – and has even indicated that he may come to Bali now that he knows I’m here.
I’m normally good at drawing boundaries, and under other circumstances, I would simply tell him to lay off and let me write if/when I care to. But his wife just died, he’s suffering, and I sympathize and feel trapped, resentful and afraid to disengage without seeming insensitive. We were friends a decade ago, and he and I seem to have different notions of what that means. Help!
Dr. ZZ: Emotions aside, let’s identify a few flat facts: #1. You don’t want this person in your life; #2. In a moment of sympathy, you engaged, and now you feel stuck; #3. His extreme grief is causing him to latch onto you in needy ways.
For these reason, it is important that you stop responding to him on his terms. Disable, for the time being, whatever messaging capabilities he is using to communicate and pull way back if it’s on social media. You have your own life and are not able to check for messages every day. It may not sound fair, but it will help to be generally absent for a while.
Go about your life, and respond to his messages periodically when and if you choose – say, once a week. Ignore his questions regarding your response rate, and reply briefly with basic, neutral platitudes like, “I can’t imagine how hard this must be for you, and “ I hope you are taking good care of yourself.”
What he most likely wants at this point is for the two of you to reconnect so that you can hold his hand throughout this terrible time. You, on the other hand, have not thought about him for 10 years and find it smothering to be his sole emotional support. At some point – maybe 5 or 6 days after one of his “where have you been?” messages – you may want to write and suggest that he seeks out a local grief counselor or support service to talk to about his loss. Then, pull way back on contact. The best things to do are to steer him toward help and to be honest with yourself about what you are willing to give.
Question: I have a date coming up with a very attractive woman, and I am freaking out. We met on a bemo ride, and I have since learned a lot about her online. She was the one who texted me first, our texts have been great, and when I asked her out for drinks, she quickly accepted. I realize this is a good sign, but if anything, it has made me worry that there may actually be chemistry between us, and I don’t want to blow it. I normally have anxiety issues in general, but what I found out about her has escalated this to Code Red.
It turns out she is from a privileged family and attended an extremely prestigious university. We come from the same home country, but she works for a Fortune 500 corporation and, given her job description, she would essentially be my boss if not a level higher. I am a smart guy and enjoy my life, but I feel as if she may be used to living to a higher standard than I. Even though this is a totally material way to judge a person, I worry how she is going to look at me when it becomes clear that she has accomplished so much more.
I also know that the pat wisdom in a situation like this is to “just be yourself” and to worry more about whether she’s the one cool enough to be with me. Can you give me any advice on how to be less of a klutz about this and just let go?
Dr. ZZ: Even privileged girls from prestigious universities need love. Although there is no one way to impress all women or get to know the unique, brilliant, and fabulous creatures who are particularly awesome, one thing is certain: A guy who sends fun messages and then segues into making plans in a way that is effortless (ex., “Want to do something Tuesday? Sure, ok, let’s meet at a certain time and place”) plays a winning strategy.
What you don’t want to do is trade 17 emails in order to make plans, or offer unlimited options (ex., “Whatever you want to do is fine” or “Well, I know we said Saturday but I could also do Sunday or Tuesday if you prefer.”) The “coffee date” also almost never works. Suggest, instead, a solid plan with confidence. Just come up with a relaxing place to meet where you can speak softly to each other. If it’s within walking distance from a restaurant, gallery or other place where you can spend time if the date goes well, so much the better! No need to go overboard. It’s less about impressing her with how hip you are than about making everything easy and relaxed, and knowing what is a good space for hanging out and connecting.
Dr. ZZ has a Ph.D. in Counseling and a doctorate in Natural Healing. Drawing on a background of over thirty years as a professional therapist, she offers self-help in the areas health, relationship and personal growth. All queries are answered by email and, if they appear in print, are subject to editing. Please email your questions : <firstname.lastname@example.org> All identifying information is kept strictly confidential.
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