Is Your Friend Too Clingy? How to Set Boundaries Without Losing Them

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With work, family, school, and other responsibilities, you're probably glad to have a supportive, loyal friend. But, for these same reasons, it's also good to have a friend who understands when you're busy. Because of this, it is important to know how to set boundaries without ruining your friendships.

Everyone needs to know when to step it up for a friend and when to back off. But what happens when your pal is less "give" than "take"? If your friend needs more time than you can provide, bringing up the issue can be tricky. As Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., says, "There are some friends who are so needy that the friendship begins to weigh you down like an emotional ball and chain. They're always in need of one thing or another: money, favors, help, coddling, praise, or simply more time and attention than you are able or willing to give. Like a wailing toddler, they can be so demanding that their friendship becomes fatiguing. You begin to dread their calls, texts or emails—but you feel guilty about it."

Here are some tips to help you set healthy boundaries while preserving your friendship.

Reasons for Dependent Behavior

Your friend's clingy behavior may occur for various reasons. Before broaching the issue, assess whether their behavior is temporary or part of their personality. A friend going through an uncertain period may require more of your time. In this case, put aside your own comfort momentarily to help them through their rough patch. As Janet Brito, Ph.D., LCSW, CST says, "If they behave in self-centered ways without showing outright maliciousness, talking to them about the impact of their behavior could improve matters." Temporary clinginess can happen when your friend

  • Experiences a personal loss due to a family member's death
  • Suffers a messy divorce or breakup 
  • Moves to a new town 
  • Lands a new job 
  • Misses a friend who has moved away

If a friend is emotionally distressed, grieving, or depressed, urge them to seek help from a licensed professional. This doesn't have to be in lieu of the support you're happy to provide, but some situations are best handled by a clinician.

Signs of Clingy Behavior

If your friend hasn't recently undergone a major life change, they may be a high-maintenance person by nature. Signs of clinginess include

  • Repeated phone calls and/or emails throughout the day 
  • Panic over being alone
  • Asking what you're up to constantly, which may include questions about other friends 
  • Dropping by your house or apartment too frequently (and without an invitation) 
  • Not wanting to go home after an outing 
  • Frequently seeking help to unload issues

How to Set Boundaries for a Clingy Friend

Boundaries are important in any relationship, but with a needy friend, they're crucial. Clingy people don't think twice about their actions unless you clearly explain the behaviors you won't accept. "We may have to tolerate a certain level of 'craziness' in order to keep this person in our lives," relationship and family therapist Roger S. Gil says. Setting boundaries and consistently enforcing them won't necessarily change a friend's behavior, but it will allow you to preserve your sanity while accepting your friend's quirks. Here are a few ways to accommodate a clingy friend without being a pushover:

Take longer to respond to emails and phone calls. If you immediately respond when you get a message, your clingy friend might take that as a sign that you desire the same amount of attention. Waiting a day or two before responding will communicate that you're busy. Amy Morin, psychotherapist and international bestselling author of 13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do, says, "Knowing what to expect from others, and how to optimize the messages you're sending could be the key to your digital communication success."

Introduce your friend to new situations and people. Sometimes clingy people have limited social experience. The more you broaden their horizons, the less they may depend on you. Educator, author, and life coach Sarah Raymond Cunningham says, "It may be helpful to mix in activities that take the focus off just talking. Go see a concert, take in an open mic night, watch a movie, bowl or work out together. Each of these activities keeps us busy and interactive, but usually breaks up the long, drawn-out discussion sessions."

Ask your friend to meet you when you hang out, rather than driving together. This not only gives you an easy way to end the evening, but it also encourages your friend to do things independently. Tell your friend you're running late and ask them to buy your movie ticket and save you a seat or reserve your table at a restaurant. This will force your friend to be alone a few minutes before you arrive, building confidence. Cunningham says to "specify ahead of getting together how much time we have to hang out. "Can’t wait to go bowling. Just an FYI, I can be out until around 8:00 tonight because I have some other stuff I have to do.” We may also decide it’s easier to draw limits when we drive separately and meet somewhere, rather than riding together everywhere we go."

Occasionally respond to invitations with "enthusiastic regret." Sometimes turn down offers to hang out while saying how much you wish you could make it. This is a tactful way to dodge an invitation without disappointing your friend. "Change the nature of your friendship by learning to say "no" and setting boundaries," says Irene S Levine Ph.D.

Offer your friend tickets to an expensive movie or event you can no longer make it to. Gift your friend tickets and ask how the event went. This will further entice your friend to find other people to do things with. Encourage your friend to visit an art museum or take a group cooking class. This type of eye-opening activity will promote their own independence and spark some creativity along the way while meeting new people at the same time. Psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, John M. Grohol, Psy.D., says, "There’s no quicker way to meet new people than to show up in a group of people who are all new to the same thing! For instance, learning any new skill usually means you’ll be hooked up with others who are also learning it simultaneously. Can it be scary or intimidating? Sure, you bet. But you’re sharing the experience with other strangers, and that’s a sure recipe for bringing people closer together." This sounds like the ultimate solution for a friend in need.

Be kind. As long as your friend is respecting your boundaries, avoid acting out of frustration. Take it as a compliment that your friend wants to spend so much time with you. Don't assume your friend is at fault for wanting more interaction than you. People require different things from relationships, and everyone's view of what's normal is unique. Judith Orloff, MD, assistant professor of psychiatry at UCLA, says, "It’ll be easier to set boundaries if you first remind yourself that you really do care for your friend and that you are maintaining these boundaries in the service of the friendship, not in a spirit of anger, punishment, or separation."

Be honest. If your friend wants more out of your friendship and you're just not feeling it, be upfront. Even if this means you and your pal need to go your separate ways, you'll have a clear conscience knowing you were honest about what you were willing to bring to the friendship. Cunningham explains, "By being intentional about our boundaries, we can be honest about our own needs, which is more loving than the alternative — dishonestly pretending we like the way our friendship is going when we don’t. Friends need space to grow, so inserting some balance will ultimately help us experience a more happy and enduring friendship."

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