A few months ago, I picked up a friend from the airport. She was returning from the wedding of a friend of hers from college, and as we drove home, she filled me in on the drama of the weekend. Things got dicey with one friend in particular, who was hot and cold with her the whole time and whose behavior devolved into that of a child, or perhaps an adult with poor emotional regulation. I was horrified by what she described, largely because I think that kind of behavior is unacceptable at any age, and especially in your 30s. If a teenager or college student is histrionic, I don’t condone it, but at least I can understand it — their hormones are all over the place, their frontal lobes aren’t fully developed, and they’re still figuring out how to relate to people as an adult. If that behavior’s still happening at 30, they don’t really have any excuses. They might just be crazy.
My friend sighed and leaned back against the headrest. “All of my friends from college are drama,” she said. “Are your friends like that?”
I thought for a while, flipping through my mental Rolodex as I changed lanes. “No,” I said. “I think I have a very low tolerance for drama.”
Only later did I realize that I had given myself too much credit.
Last week, I listened to Terry Gross interview Lena Dunham on NPR’s Fresh Air. At the end of the interview, Gross brought up the character of Jessa on Girls, Dunham’s HBO show — a character who is incredibly unlikeable and destructive. Gross asked Dunham what purpose the character serves on the show and why the girls are friends with her.
“I think what we really wanted to reveal was the pathology behind the concept of the free spirit,” Dunham said. “This iconic ideal of a free-spirited woman is ultimately hiding a very wounded, dissociated person. And so I don’t think Jessa is evil, I don’t think she’s a sociopath … I think she wants to do good, but more powerful than her desire to do good is her desire to test the boundaries and her unfillable hole of pain. And I think that the girls like having her in their life because they find her glamorous and they like what it feels like and looks like to take her to a party or post her on their Instagram…. And also, there’s that inertia that comes with being friends with someone in your early twenties, early to mid — sometimes to late twenties, where it’s very hard to remove someone destructive from your life just out of sheer force of habit and fear of change.”
“Was there someone like that in your life?” asked Gross.
“There’s been a few people like that in my life. … I don’t think I used to know the difference between someone being eccentric and someone being a destructive nightmare. I think I thought that the two went hand in hand. … There were some people who I was really transfixed by, sort of followed around for a period of time, who ultimately didn’t have my best interests at heart, or their best interests, or anyone’s.”
That just about punched me in the gut. I was flooded with memories of the Jessas of my early twenties, people brimming with charisma who were ultimately manipulative and hurtful — whom I kept in my life for longer than I should have, in spite of the red flags, because I so enjoyed being in their orbit. Until I didn’t anymore. I hadn’t heard anyone talk about relationships like these as a common phenomenon until I listened to this interview.
Why is this such a common experience for people in their early 20s? And what’s behind the inertia Dunham mentioned that makes these people so difficult to remove?
It seems like a number of factors are at play.
For one, unless you’re the one-in-ten-thousand case who is preternaturally mature and self-possessed at all ages — like, say, Malala Yousafzai — you’re still young and unsure of yourself at that age, despite your efforts to appear otherwise. When you’re in that state, charisma can go a long way — especially when the source of that charisma is singling you out and making you feel special. When you’re still figuring out who you are, having that kind of validation is more than just nice; it feels like reassurance that you’re a worthy, lovable person. And on the flip side, when you’re just entering adulthood and so much feels uncertain, the thought of cutting anyone off — especially the source of such affirmation — can be terrifying.
If and when you’re clued into the less appealing aspects of that person’s behavior – the insecurity, the manipulation, the mistreatment of other people — it’s easy to condone the behavior as long as you’re not on the receiving end of it. And given your underdeveloped frontal lobes and the resulting limits in foresight, you may irrationally figure that you would never be on the receiving end. They think of you as special, right? Why else would they single you out and give you all this attention? Surely you’ll never fall out of favor.
In these circumstances, you can’t really get out of the relationship until the cost outweighs the benefit — and that can take a while, because, as I mentioned earlier, being associated with a charismatic person goes a long way when you’re young. The decision to leave may not be self-directed as much as forced by the circumstances — the person has flagrantly violated the rules or the boundaries, or the offenses have accumulated to the point where you finally have the will to remove yourself.
A few things can expedite the process. Having other, more stable friends — the luxury of other options — is big one. Gaining some self-awareness also helps; understanding what needs of yours are being met in these relationships — what you’re getting out of being wrapped up with unstable people — and how you might get these needs met in other places can be a game-changer. So can the realization that while not having these people in your life might sting for a while, your life will go on. The loss of one friendship, especially an unhealthy one, won’t destroy you. Life itself can help you out, too. As you get older, you may find yourself less willing to tolerate people who are dramatic or catty or petty simply because you have too many other things to worry about. You have more things going on at work, more responsibilities in all spheres, and less time, patience, and energy for drama. It doesn’t excite you the way it did in your younger days.
Even with the benefit of other friends and insight and perspective, I still had to reach the end of my rope before I could remove the Jessas from my life. I put up with insane behavior much longer than I should have. At that age, I didn’t have the wherewithal to stand up for myself or even to distance myself from my Jessas; the thought that I would lose my place in their world was, for a time, too much to bear.
But in the end, I managed to extricate myself from those relationships. I was able to only because the circumstances more or less demanded it and I had a lot working in my favor — not because I have an inborn distaste for drama, like some fortunate people I know. I excuse myself at the first sign of drama now, but that instinct emerged from experience, from being jerked around one time too many.
So, friend, I stand corrected; my original answer was far too simplistic. I wish I had the security and confidence back then to set boundaries with my Jessas, to not let myself be treated unfairly — but since I did not, I’m glad I gained those things in the process. I have them now, regardless of how I started. And I guess, in a strange way, I have the Jessas to thank for that.