You Need Help: What To Do About the Jerk in Your Friend Group

Q: I am lucky enough to have a small group of very dear queer friends in my life. We’re all in our late 20s to mid 30s. We are, generally speaking, drama free — except for one individual around whom all the drama seems to happen. She’s been on the receiving and giving end of unrequited affection amongst our group. Actually, several people have (of course; it’s a dozen queer women), but she’s the only one who has ever acted out when rejecting and being rejected romantically. She also has the propensity to lash out occasionally. We’re all annoying in our own ways because we’re humans and humans are annoying to the people they’re not having sex with (and sometimes the ones that they are having sex with), but she seems to take other people’s annoying habits personally.

She has an ego that makes her feel like the smartest person in the room coupled with crippling self-doubt. She always wants an extra special invitation to hang out, extra reassurance that she’s valued. The thing is, I’m starting to think my other friends don’t want her in our space. If I don’t invite her, no one does, and I spend an exhausting amount of time begging her to come out and participate. Sometimes she comes out and acts totally normal and fun. Sometimes she comes out and acts aloof and sullen. Sometimes she comes out and hurts people’s feelings. She’s very moody and can go from Jolly Good Fun to rushing out the door in a funk in under a minute. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy in some ways because she’s worried people don’t want her around and then she acts like a jerk and people don’t want her around. I’m sort of at my wit’s end with her too. Should I just start asking her once to do a thing and then leaving it alone? Or should I just stop asking her since she seems to make everyone else uncomfortable? Should I tell her she needs to seriously get into therapy? Should *I* double up on therapy?


Oh you sweet babe. I’m going to call you Opal, because the story you share is a tale that goes back to at least the decades in which Opal was a very common name for a young woman. In every iteration of every friend group in the history of friendship, there has been This Friend. This Friend’s face is obscured by the chip on her shoulder made up of every romantic rejection and perceived slight. This Friend sucks all the air out of the room with their insecurity, only feels included if someone rolls out a gold-fringed welcome mat, and has unpredictable moods that make walking into a gathering feel like tornado season — no matter where you are, you have to know where there’s a windowless room in which you can hide.

And Opal, I’m always you in these scenarios. I am compassionate to a fault, and I will go above and beyond to make someone feel included. But like you, I always come to a breaking point eventually. I think there are a few different ways this could go, but they all have the same first step: Talk to your friends. It seems like you are all tip-toeing around the idea that This Friend (who I will now call Chris) makes you uncomfortable, but what’s the use of having a serious crew of gal pals if you cannot talk about your feelings, anxieties and emotional needs at length?

So check in with your friends and see how they feel about Chris. Maybe they’re fine with sharing space with her and have developed their own mechanisms for tuning her out when she starts to try to manipulate a situation to her benefit. Maybe they enjoy having her along for an activity like a movie or game night but can’t keep up with her at intimate potlucks. Maybe they are completely over her childish behavior and wish you would quit making her come to things. Regardless, instead of projecting your own feelings onto the rest of your pals, ask them what they’re thinking.

That, Opal, is the easy part. Presumably, you feel safe talking with these other friends because you have a relationship based on trust, respect, and a shared love of vegan cupcakes. But figuring out what to do about Chris, no matter how it goes with your other friends, is another kettle of fish. Because regardless of what the rest have to say, it’s clear from your letter that you are uncomfortable and just this side of fed up with her. And since it seems like you have been the most willing to engage with her in the past, you may be able to leverage that for the greater good. So I think it’s time for that old standard: a one-on-one coffee date. Go to a comfortable spot, get a warm drink, and have a real conversation with her. Ask her how she’s feeling about work, life, health and your group of friends. As you get into it, be honest: “Chris, it feels like you haven’t been comfortable with our friends lately. I always have to go above and beyond to even get you to come, and it seems like you don’t have a great time with everyone anymore. Can you tell me what you’ve been thinking and feeling?” This wording doesn’t have to be exact, but the key is to make sure you speak from your perspective and experience and give her plenty of room to do the same.

Now, from everything you’ve said, it sounds like Chris isn’t one to be particularly genuine or open. But it also doesn’t sound like she’s abusive or causing serious harm to anyone in your crew. If you get the sense that Chris will use a one-on-one meeting to be spiteful or cruel to you or manipulate you into seeing her as the victim at the expense of your own true feelings, then a lot of this advice doesn’t apply, and step one (Talk To Your Friends) will be much more important. But if Chris is a garden-variety ego queen who lacks self-awareness but genuinely wants to have friends, this method is the best way to eliminate drama and maybe get closer to a livable situation. Even if she doesn’t engage or care about your effort, you have done your due diligence. And I can tell, dear Opal, that it is important to you to be kind. This is the kindest possible way to engage with Chris. It’s ultimately much kinder than ignoring the problem, dragging Chris out to events where she hates being with people who don’t like being with her, and letting yourself get so frustrated that you can never look Chris in the face again.

Once you try to communicate honestly with all your friends (including Chris), you get to decide how much you want to engage with Chris going forward. I think your instinct to extend her the exact same invitation everyone else gets is a good one. I’m sure your extra effort feeds her ego, but it’s not fair to you and obviously hasn’t fixed the problem. And if after all this Chris stays part of your group, I hope y’all can be honest with her about her behavior on a case by case basis. Call her out for meanness, drama or inappropriate and manipulative mood swings when they happen just as you would any other friend. Tip-toeing around her gives her more power, and it’s not fair to the group. If this makes her want to leave or makes her less likely to show up, that’s her choice and it’s not your responsibility.

And if your genuine effort to smooth things over and make the group space more comfortable for Chris and the rest of your friends blows up and Chris stops being friends with you, that says way more about her than about you. Chris may not even be willing to meet with you, or she may throw your effort in your face when you do meet. That in itself is a kind of answer.

One last thing — Chris probably should be in therapy! Honestly, everyone should be in therapy. It should be free and we should get a tax deduction for being in therapy. But it doesn’t sound like your friendship with her is in a place where she would be able to hear you if you started suggesting she make that kind of change to her life. All the Chrises of the world reading this: Go to therapy and drink more water.

Best of luck, Opal, and happy gal pal-ing.

Audrey is a writer, a Texan and a sometimes-heretical Presbyterian. They write about bisexuality, gender, religion, politics, music and a whole lot of feelings at Autostraddle and wherever fine words are sold. They have a dog named after Alison Bechdel. Follow Audrey on Twitter @audreywhitetx.

Audrey has written 138 articles for us.

30 Comments

  1. I’m not sure a good first step is talking to all of their mutual friends about Chris behind her back. Not only could that really hurt Chris’s feelings if/when she found out, but it’s also an extraordinarily difficult conversation to navigate thoughtfully and not just turn into a negative complain-about-Chris session.

    The rest of the advice is solid though, and I think Opal should just start from the conversation with Chris and can then decide what she wants to do. If Opal is wrong about anyone in the friend group feeling the same way about Chris, then that person will likely just pick up the extra Chris-duties on their own without the need for a conversation with Opal.

    • Hey! I see what you’re saying. I’m definitely not advocating shit talking, but rather checking in with their other friends so that Opal can have support and a broader perspective. It seems like Opal is making a lot of assumptions about her other friends and projecting some of her own feelings onto them, which is a bad starting point for a conversation with Chris. However, there are definitely scenarios in which talking to their other friends would not be kind or helpful. Hard to know in this case!

    • It’s definitely up to Opal and all the humans in this situation to have as much compassion and generosity as possible! We all need support, and so if it’s coming from a place of genuine concern about Chris and the friendship I say talk away. Just be super aware that the shit-talking line is thin and easily crossed!

  2. My best friend was a Chris! We were best friends for eight years. We definitely had many of the Honest Conversations that Audrey recommended, and each time, it was great to clear the air because he always owned up to his behavior and apologized and it helped us temporarily continue our friendship.

    I wanted to offer the second chapter of our story in case it’s helpful to Opal. Chris and I are no longer friends. Because, even though he held himself accountable and showed remorse each time we talked about our issues, his behavior never changed in the long term, though I could see him really trying.

    The closest I got to understanding why, was an article I read, about the two different personality types in terms of how they respond to any type of stress, like the romantic events in Opal’s letter for example, kind of like the fight-or-flight but with personalities. There’s people like me (flight), who try to avoid or minimize conflict, and people like Chris and my friend, who get defensive or angry (fight response). Neither personality type has the moral high ground; they’re both just different with their own strengths and weaknesses.

    So our relationship economy simply didn’t work for my friend and I. I was always accommodating, and my friend was always getting even, not because I’m a doormat and he’s a brute, but because of our deep-seated personalities, that formed when we are very young, long before he and I met. I think my friend could be friends with other ppl like him, and I could be friends with people like me, but mix-and-match was not healthy, at least in our case. We might be able to work through it with friendship therapist like Audrey suggested so we can learn to interpret each other’s behavior correctly for example, instead of through our own personality’s lenses.

    I think understanding why our incredibly great, close friendship was also an engine of insoluble conflict helped me a lot because it felt less like a personal failing, and gave me a clear avenue (therapy) for trying to patch up the friendship, should my ex-buddy and I choose that route. It also gave me closure for being ok with eight years of many good memories being enough, and not feeling guilty or obligated to make this friendship last our whole lives, when it clearly had a high emotional and mental burden without an easy fix.

    Hope this is relevant / helpful? And not too much of a downer heheh.

    Has anyone ever tried a friendship therapist?

    • to be clear, I also tried to hold myself accountable for not speaking up about stuff that was bothering me, and tried to be more forthcoming instead of letting things build up until they were intolerable. It wasn’t all on my friend to change; we tried to meet in the middle. But, changing behaviors and thoughts is not the same as changing personality types and in general, we both agreed that someone being a jerk has more reason for reform than someone who holds their tongue and tries to get along, according to Rules of Society. So we were both on the same page about this, but didn’t really understand what we were up against as like fundamental traits somewhat beyond the reach of our conscious control.

    • Oh man, I can relate so hard to this. A friend and I from college started living together and became BFFs very fast, but when we both started having major stresses in our lives (her divorce and my substance abuse), we just could NOT be friends anymore because of our different personality types. The way we responded to conflict, with each other or otherwise, was worlds apart. She remains the only person I’ve ever had an outright fight with (disagreements or arguments, yes; fights, naw) because she always turned things into one. And when we weren’t fighting (or when I wasn’t being ignored because she was mad at me), I had to always be on guard around her to make sure I wasn’t going to say something she would find some way to disagree with or judge me for. In the end, I don’t think she’s a bad person, but our personalities are just too incompatible, and I just couldn’t spare the emotional and mental energy it took to maintain a friendship with her. And I don’t think that’s a bad thing! I learned a lot from our friendship while it lasted and I’ve carried those lessons with me into the rest of my relationships.

        • Thanks M. and Abelle for your replies. I struggled with this for so long and have many draft emails of an AS ‘you need help’ letter that I never sent to help me figure out what to do with my friendship. I was hoping some fellow Straddlers would comment with their own experiences. Thank you for sharing your insight and solidarity; you helped me.

    • This is me and my ex. Thank you for putting it that way, I needed to hear it. I started to get bitter and resentful and it was as much on me for being a doormat as on him for being overly assertive, and I’m trying to fix that now but it’s really good to hear that it’s not only the two of us who go through it.

      • Thanks for your reply, biensurmacherie. Yeah, it’s really difficult to be stuck in this relationship dynamic! I remember telling my ex-friend that I felt like with him, I either had to be a bitch or a doormat; there was no middle ground with him. But with my other interactions with people, I could choose my battles and choose to compromise a little and they would meet me halfway. Not this dude though; we both tried, but it never worked. We can still be online friendly acquaintances, though, so at least there’s that. Just no in-person hanging out anymore.

        Hopefully you and your ex can navigate a path together. I agree, it helped me see my accommodating personality in a different light and helped me question my own ingrained behavior patterns and try to develop new self-awareness and be more deliberate in my interactions with people, instead of avoiding/ hiding conflict out of habit. Thanks again for sharing; it helps to know I’m not the only one that’s struggling with this dynamic. Good luck to us all!

  3. I just wanna add re: “smartest person in the room” plus “self doubt” –

    There’s a reason those two go hand in hand. There’s a big, big difference between identifying as Smart, and identifying as The Smartest Person In The Room.

    The latter immediately makes every interaction potentially volatile and combative, because every new person is potentially competition for the title of The Smartest Person In The Room.

    When your core identity is wrapped up in how you compare to others, interacting with people in a healthy way is almost impossible.

    • (I say this as a person who has grown up knowing a lot of people who were put in the “gifted and talented” classes as kids, and showered with praise over how special and smart they were, only to discover as adults that, ya know, pretty much EVERYONE in college is reading at a College Level:

      They weren’t Special anymore, at least not in the way they thought.)

      • It’s funny you say that. I was one of the “gifted” kids during K-12 years, from very early on in fact. Originally, I was placed into those classes to address a need that wasn’t fulfilled through regular track courses. While I have a lot of different feelings about it, I wanted to relate to what you’re saying. When you’re isolated to a smaller subset of peers, even if it’s truly for something you really want to experience (such as more challenging classwork or better learning experiences) it’s still isolating. I feel I’ve learned unintentionally to doubt myself from having these sort of experiences, because I wasn’t part of the large group. It’s taken a very long time (and therapy) to ignore these feelings and break bad habits associated with them.

        While don’t necessarily feel like the “Smartest Person in the Room” as an adult, there definitely are occurrences in my work/adult life where I’m unable to communicate properly which makes me doubt myself. I feel this is more tied to feeling inferior rather than superior to that of my peers, as a result of being “different”, even if that’s not truly the case. It can be quite frustrating at times. As a result, I sometimes wish I had a less unique experience growing up.

        I’m curious whether or not people who were home schooled have had similar experiences.

        • I definitely don’t want to imply that the end result I mentioned is the ONLY end result possible from those situations, just One Possible Outcome

          For kids who are actually gifted enough to feel sort of like aliens in their peer group, I think your experience is probably a lot more common.

          It takes a certain amount of defensive insecurity to become a Chris

  4. If there is anything I’ve learned in the shitstorm that up until recently was my life for three years, it is that deep-seated insecurity is a terribly heartbreaking affliction that you as a friend will never be able to fix for someone, and that if you, like me, are the type of person who would give of yourself almost to the point of actual death to help a person you care about, this dynamic can quickly become a one-directional sucking riptide of emotional labour that is not healthy at all for either person. But I may be projecting a bit… anyway, proceed with caution, dear Opal. And read Codependent No More if you happen to be the kind of person who always wants to accommodate and fix everything for other people, because it for real changed my life.

    Free therapy for everyone… can you imagine what kind of a world that could be? Can you?

  5. As someone who has frequently been the ‘chip on the shoulder’ friend (sans romantic drama, thankfully), I think there’s definitely a chance you care about the situation a lot more than your friend does

    If she acts like a jerk then gets off on feeling justified when people treat her like she’s a jerk, there’s really no winning for you. You act nice and she’s just gonna be waiting for the other shoe to drop, you back off and she’s gonna feel like she was right all along about you

    And unfortunately sometimes the draw of being a wallowing, self righteous brat feels a lot better than the effort of maintaining friendships

    Do you want to repair the relationship because you genuinely like the person or out of a sense of obligation and pity? Either way continuing to push someone who doesn’t seem like they enjoy the company or appreciate the effort is insulting to both of you

    • “Do you want to repair the relationship because you genuinely like the person or out of a sense of obligation and pity?”
      V important point, this. I had a friend in my friend group orbit who is simultaneously a jerk and very sensitive to jerkitude, a jerk glass cannon, if you will. I would get so worked up about it until I realized at a certain point that this is my friends’ friend, not mine. It doesn’t have to wreck our group sitch, but this guy really isn’t my job.

  6. You know, Opal, it is totally fine to not be friends with Chris anymore.

    Going through honest conversations is great, and I’m not saying to ghost Chris, but sometimes personalities just don’t fit and no one did anything wrong. It’s not up to you placate, or give extra special invitations.

    I was bullied growing up and I’m very grateful for the sense it gave me of always wanting to stand up for people and include them. I think it’s one of the most wonderful things about feeling like an outsider is it can make you so much more compassionate. HOWEVER, as it’s taken me about a million years to realize, not being friends with someone is not the same as being shitty to them.

    Codependent no more is a great book to read! You’re not doing anyone any favors by taking responsibility for their happiness.

    Good luck sweetheart!

  7. I am really surprised to read this friendship group is drama free. I am sorry Opal baby, but there is no such thing, you’re already having a drama. And so is Chris. You’re being the Rescuer (taking on way too much than you can), when Chris is being the Victim (like when she is being rejected) or sometimes the Persecutor (when she is the party pooper). Soon you’ll be pissed off and be the Persecutor or the Victim, maybe. And you haven’t involved your other friends yet. Trust me, I have both been Chris and Opal in my queer surrogate family. I am sad for you but also in all my wisdom I know drama must happen to all of us and that’s okay. I find the ‘drama-free’ / ‘drama-queen’ notion problematic, especially when applied to us queermos with our complex layers of many times painted and mended hearts. Take lovely care of yourself, Opal, your friendship group is fine, and it’s okay to risk sending Chris into a sobbing rage if you share your feelings with them or suggest they need help and support from people outside the friendship group (e.g. therapist). And you Chris, maybe you have to learn to work in harmony with your personality type (or disorder, like me, which means I act out a lot because I don’t know anything else, but I’ve worked on it with compassion and knowledge).

  8. I have my own Chris too? Except mine is more on the side of ‘talk to your friends, but no one-on-one’s’. This person genuinely gives me the heebie geebies. I think it’s important to realise that sometimes people are dangerous and sometimes you have to look out for yourself.

    My Chris is exactly like what is mentioned in the article; he’s extremely smart, but he’s completely insecure and needs reassuring from everyone all the time. He constantly starts fights with people about not liking him enough and is always putting others down (especially his female ‘friends’). That would be annoying but managable, if it weren’t for the constant and really violent misogyny and lesbophobia he’s always going on with. It’s easy to feel sorry for him because he’s a gay guy who has a homophobic family, but at the same time I’m not comfortable with rape threats, constant questions on lesbian sex or being told I (a lesbian) am the only girl he’s interested in. I think this is the kind of person who needs to be cut off, no matter how messy it gets.

    I dunno, I just wanted to share this story because I think there are instances where you can be in an abusive friendship and the best thing to do is to get out (and to hell with the abuser). They’ll make you feel like you’re the bad person, they’ll do everything they can to turn it around on you (my Chris is still calling me after 6 months of me not answering the damn phone, sending me things like ‘heard you had the flu, hope you get better’ goddamn), but at the end of the day you’ve got to trust your own instincts on it I guess.

    • Wow, your friend sounds exactly like a guy in my friend group — until he alienated everyone with his behavior. The gay guy with homophobic family who is deeply misogynistic…ugh.

  9. I will dissent from the idea that drama is necessary and should be tolerated. Some of us don’t mind it and some of us do. Some of us need it or enjoy it and some of us don’t. We each get to decide for ourselves what we want to spend our time doing.

    I personally have been much happier when I stopped having drama in my life. I don’t mean there’s never anything intense going on. I just mean it’s not a constant state of flare ups and tension and pain and interactions fraught with stress and people having frequent meltdowns and tantrums. I cannot even begin to describe how wonderful it is to not have that stuff going on around me.

    If you don’t want drama, I encourage you to own that and work on finding other people who feel the same way and are capable of engaging with you in the ways you prefer. And if you do like, need, or feel like drama is part of your process, that’s ok but you should also find people who are into it, and not feel that everyone is obligated to go there with you if they don’t feel like it.

    In terms of how to approach the Chris-Opal conversation, I personally would be offended if someone approached me asking how I was feeling, when secretly they were doing it because they find me annoying and not because they like me and truly are doing it because they like me and truly care.

    Put your cards on the table. I think it’s more compassionate and less bullshitty to tell someone how YOU feel, when that’s what’s motivating you to give them The Talk, instead of pretending it’s all about your Concern For Them.

    Maybe it’s both, so that’s great. But I don’t think it’s right for Opal to leave her own needs and feelings out of the conversation, and make it only about Chris and how Chris is feeling.

    I would feel betrayed if someone started off all concerned about how I’m doing and then after I told them they decided the friendship was not worth it after all, which seems to be a possibility based on the scene as described. I think Chris has a right to know that Opal is that distressed and is considering distancing if things don’t change.

    I would approach it by owning up to my own stuff, nicely discussing my needs and boundaries, and asking for what I want. People need to know what your limits are, if you’re getting close to laying them down. This can be a conversation that includes talking about why things are the way they are and how Chris feels etc, but Opal’s feelings and needs need to be on the table up front, too, since that’s really what is motivating the conversation and also since any friendship really should involve two people who care about each other and not one who is managing the other or tending the other while stuffing her own stuff out of sight.

    So, maybe something like this:

    I wanted to talk about how things are going lately. I notice that you often need a lot of persuading to get together with the gang, and then sometimes you’re leaving upset or not having a good time. When you get upset or need a lot of persuasion to join us, I feel like maybe you don’t really like me or the group, and I get stressed out about that, and then when you are so often upset when you do join us, it feels like it’s not fun or relaxing anymore for me or you either. I hope you’ll understand if I just ask you once for now on, and I hope that you’ll still want to join us. But I’m also wondering why it is that you’ve been reluctant to accept these invitations, and whether we can figure out how to make it more fun for both of us/everyone, so the get togethers are less stressful and more relaxing and fun again, for you and for me.

    I think this is still compassionate, but not co-dependent or sneaky or self-sacrificing.

    I have stuck around in some very rocky friendships and tried to work things out for years sometimes. But eventually it always comes down to the same thing: is the other person draining my energy? Do I feel happy with this person in my life, or do I dread it? Is the other person treating me the way I want to be treated or the way I would treat a friend? Do they care about me and help me grow in the ways I want for myself, or do I feel like they are trying to change me into someone else for their own reasons? Is the other person feeling entitled to treat me in ways that she would not want anyone to treat her? If someone did to a friend of mine what this person does to me, would I think it was shitty? Is this relationship fun and expansive, does it feel supportive and empowering, or is it stressing me out and making me miserable a large percentage of the time?

    Sometimes people do have different needs than you do, and it’s meaningful and loving and in your heart to cut them slack about stuff that you might not consider your favorite behaviors. I’m not saying to be a harsh and unkind person who expects perfection and drives everyone away. But what I mean is, I don’t think it’s actually compassionate to let people shit on you, or to make martyrdom a way of life, and if you don’t feel like you and the other person are doing each other good, what’s the point?

    Yes to making an effort. No to wasting your energy and time.

  10. HEARTILY cosign the suggestions related to looking inward at codependent tendencies based on the level of personal responsibility Opal seems to be taking on here. You can’t save people from themselves and it is not good for you to pour all of your energy into single-handedly holding up anyone’s life, social or otherwise. Being a good friend does not have to look like this.

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