Welcome to The Baffler’s agony corner, YOUR SORRY ASS, where Amber A’Lee Frost dispenses bossy, judgmental advice on how to live your life fairly, kindly, and with good humor. Send us your rants and pleas, please: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dear Your Sorry Ass,
My wife had a best friend for almost twenty years (since middle school) that she would talk to almost every day. They rarely lived in the same place, but they saw each other at least a couple times a year. It was a close relationship that was largely predicated on my wife providing her friend with regular emotional support while her friend took out her frustrations on my wife. Over time, that started to sour. Small fights lead to bigger disagreements and estrangement. Finally my wife decided that her relationship with this person was unhealthy, and she essentially broke ties, trying her best to convey an “It’s not you, it’s me” message.
Hedra maintains relationships with people she only knows through my wife. She even became friends with her mom.
But severing ties proved difficult. The friend had moved to a city with one of my wife’s other closest friends (and her sister). The friend in question—this is getting unwieldy, let’s just call her “Hedra” after the character in Single White Female—had developed relationships with them. New city, hard to make friends as an adult—my wife decided to do her best to keep the conflict from everyone else and to not ask anyone to choose. To be honest, they had fought so regularly, and still maintained a friendship for so long, I think everyone assumed this latest bout would also blow over. Only it hasn’t. It stuck, and my wife moved on and is much happier three years later, not being a part of what was an emotionally draining friendship with someone who was pretty manipulative.
But Hedra maintained relationships with people she only knew through my wife. She even developed a social relationship with my wife’s mother when she moved to a nearby state. My wife told her mother how much that bothered her, but her mother, well, didn’t understand what the problem was. I disagree, but that’s not the problem I’m getting to.
My sister-in-law recently got engaged and started planning her wedding. A destination in the Caribbean. The wedding comes at a difficult time for us—we just had a second child, finances are tight, and logistics are difficult to work out. But it’s her sister, so we have to figure out a way to make it work. We found out that she had invited Hedra to the wedding. My wife is very distraught at this, and she finally let her sister know how much this bothers her. Her sister offers to un-invite Hedra, but my wife stoically told her not to, that she will deal with it.
As the date approached, my wife decided to reach out to Hedra, to try and contain any potential awkwardness, and Hedra agreed. But when their phone date was set to occur, Hedra called it off via text and let fly grievances and recriminations over how things went down years back—she’s very much not over it. This is painful to my wife; Hedra is very good at wounding her and knows all the right things to say to make her feel like a terrible person.
She is still torn up about this. It’s been a point of contention ever since we found out, so I insist that my wife ask her sister to un-invite Hedra. And that she needs to stop tiptoeing around the truth with Hedra and be direct about why she doesn’t want a relationship and ask her kindly to stay the fuck out of her life from now on. My wife called her sister and entreated her. At this point her sister is “thinking about it.” The wedding is just two months away, and people have made travel arrangements, but Hedra is a frequent traveler, and we know that she always books refundable tickets. Surely this is a grievous breach of etiquette, but better to deal with now than having to deal with at the wedding.
I’m just hoping for some outside perspective here. I realize it’s tricky to navigate social custody when relationships end, but it seems strange to me how much Hedra has clung to relationships in my wife’s orbit, and stranger still that people like her mother won’t just stay away from it.
Dear Etiquette Indifferent,
Yeah, this woman sounds at least slightly batshit. Friendship networks are one thing—sticky, with permeable borders and strange asylum policies—but forming bonds with the mother of your former friend is bunny boiler shit. This situation likely isn’t going to end satisfactorily for you or your wife, at least not initially, but there are things you can do to limit your exposure to backlash from the bonkers.
If your sister-in-law disinvites Hedra, she will likely retaliate, at the very least by ingratiating herself more tightly into your wife’s social circle. At worst, she might try to contact your wife and subject her to more manipulation and abuse.
If your sister-in-law doesn’t disinvite Hedra, you will likely be in close proximity to her nuttiness—and potentially her hostility. As unlikely as it seems, this may be the preferable outcome.
There is literally only one way of dealing with this kind of crazy, and it’s neither particularly satisfying nor validating: you have to be the bigger person, and you have to limit your exposure. If she gets disinvited, your wife shouldn’t accept her calls or even open emails from her. It sounds harsh, but if Hedra is pathologically unreasonable, nothing productive will come from the conversation. If she shows up at the wedding, avoid her without being awkward or obvious about it. Be cordial when contact is necessary, and know that this person at least has it together enough not to make a giant scene at her friend’s nuptials. (And if she doesn’t, it’s still a win, as her spell over your friends and family will be broken! No one likes a wedding ruiner!)
Start brainstorming escape plans with your wife now!
You, however, are in a position to insulate your wife from this bananas-ass person, because if Hedra is at the wedding and she attempts to launch some kind of passive-aggressive “Oh how are you?!?” etiquette warfare, you can always intervene! “Honey, I do believe I am coming down with the sort of tropical disease that ends in violent diarrhea” is a good save. Or possibly, “Dear, I’ve just heard from the sitter that the children are torturing a cat in the fashion of future serial killers.” You have so many options, so start brainstorming escape plans with your wife now!
Good luck, and remember the often overlooked perks of true love: sharing quotidian bullshit, having someone with whom you can navigate bureaucracy, and saving each other’s asses at shitty parties.