Sage: How to deal with nosy, clingy, interfering neighbor

Dear Sage:


I have spent some time with a woman who is a fellow member of a couple of organizations in my town. I know from our friendly interactions in the last year that she could turn out to be a best friend, but here’s the problem: She has a nosy, demanding, needy, newly retired neighbor across the street who clings to her as if she’s a toddler clutching her mother’s skirt. She always runs out and asks where my friend is going whenever she gets in her car. When my chum has visitors, she either texts her or bursts in. I’ve gone over for lunches, and the neighbor drops in, sits down, pours herself a glass of wine and joins in the conversation. She interjects references to past get-togethers with my friend as if competing with me for affection in a misguided game of one-upmanship. My pal feels sorry for her, saying that she’s insecure, needs reassurance and has a tendency toward moodiness, all of which she feels will be magnified now that she, too – like us – is retired. And my friend doesn’t want to be responsible for precipitating a breakdown. Personally, I would be inclined to build a moat around the house, fill it with alligators and invite her over to swim at will. Should I say anything in the interest of a budding friendship?


                                                                                      – Flustered in Florida


Dear Flustered:


   At first blush, the Sage, in all his empathic wisdom, would bring in a couple of giant backhoes, widen the moat up to the neighbor’s front door, and invite a few hundred of the hungriest neighborhood alligators to take up residence, as well as crocodiles, giant squid and great white sharks, guarded along the shore by a few genetically engineered Tyrannosauri. Ah, but would even that be enough?

   Upon second blush, however, the Sage feels a bit guilty for that thought and believes that humaneness should always be part of such conflicts – whenever that’s possible. Does your friend really want this relationship – which many psychologists would call toxic – to end? Does she need the neighbor just as much, perhaps gaining self-fulfillment as a mentor? Does she want someone to look up to her and give her a sense of confidence?

   Let’s assume no, no and NO &%$#*#% way!!! – that your friend would prefer the alligators and wants more than a modicum of liberation from this albatross. She is responsible only for her own behavior and her own reaction to the other person. She has many options, some of which are humane, some of which may help the neighbor, and some of which may lead to a rift that may never heal. That is, assuming that she wants to do anything about it. And if I were you, I’d preface any conversation with that question in a neutral way: ‘Do you want this to change? If so, without being presumptuous, I have a few ideas.’

   Let us assume that your chum wishes that the neighbor would move to an iceberg someplace in the Arctic. It is now up to her to dictate the terms of any separation, which she can do in a number of ways.

   First, there is a slight possibility that the neighbor does not understand her behavior. Your buddy can try to point it out in a diplomatic and sensitive way – for example: “Sarah, I need more personal time. I have my family and many friends that I need to spend time with. Alone. I have obligations that require a lot of effort, thought and commitment. I, too, have chores and errands. I need to set some boundaries and, as with any relationship, you should respect them. Just as I respect your limits, you should respect mine. I need my personal space and can’t have you barging in whenever you want and following my every move.”

   According to an article in Psychology Today, you can advise your friend that she should say ‘no’ … emphasize that she has her own life … slowly spend less time with the woman … take a break from the relationship and stop answering texts, calls or the door.… and, if all else fails, simply be emphatic and stop socializing with her.

   In other words, avoid her, keep walking when they see each other, and come across as chilly. Period. Both of them would feel horrible if your friend had to be rude, dismissive or insulting by becoming brutally honest about her feelings.

   Now, in the interest of empathy, she can lace that conversation with useful suggestions: This person might try counseling. Perhaps she has an emotional illness, such as a Dependent Personality Disorder, which according to the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders results in clinginess and an inability to be alone, among other symptoms. On the other hand, she might simply be an expert at manipulation who will pitch a fit if she doesn’t get what she wants and can induce guilt better than any parent who has been forgotten on certain holidays, including Flag Day. The Sage is not a psychiatrist, but many people are. Bless them – may they all be canonized as saints!

    Perhaps if the issue is not so pronounced, she might benefit by joining organizations where she could try to develop new relationships and start to build some self-esteem and confidence. She could also try volunteer work – worry about other people who are even needier, and benefit from some healthy perspective.   

   But if this behavior has persisted for years, it is entirely possible that without counseling, this may well be close to a hopeless situation. It is plausible that other acquaintances have also stopped seeing her over the years, and that this outcome is not new. Maybe her needs never will never be satisfied, and no one will ever be able to do enough. But if your friend drops her, you can bet that she will try to find a substitute figure and will behave in a similar fashion.

   The Sage would strongly suggest that that person not be you. No matter how much she might try to turn to you and ply you with attention, chocolate cakes, theater tickets, bottles of Chivas Regal, and multiple daily visits just to tell you how brilliant you are, remember the alligators. I wish you and your friend the best!

   Humbly Yours,

   The Sage