Me Without You

I just saw this movie on TV, late at night, and was haunted by its depiction of a suffocatingly close friendship that revolves around need and control.

Have you ever had – or observed – a friendship like that? There’s usually one person who seems more dominant and demanding, and one who allows this to happen. They seem to share an identity, one that doesn’t permit either to grow or change.   But you can’t really cite either one as villain or victim, since it’s a dance that takes two people to perform.

When an exasperated lover tells the Michelle Williams character that her best friend “controls” her, she is shocked. It’s not always easy to recognize the dynamics of a relationship when you’re in it. From my perspective, the controlling friend, played by Anna Friels, was more like an emotional vampire who thrived on sucking the joy from the other girl’s life. She is also a classic portrait of Borderline Personality Disorder, a condition so fucked up and harrowing that many shrinks balk at trying to treat it.

My mother was a Borderline and bipolar, too. Because of her, I can’t watch movies that feature a Maniac character; I still get freaked out by the trailer for The Shining. Because of her, I can’t stand people who try to control me, even though I have married two of them.

The first one is still a “control freak” who won’t even talk to you unless he gets to control the conversation. When I met him, I must have found that reassuring. I was only 16. Later, it was unbearable.

The second one, the Love of My Life, is so controlling that he won’t let me buy the groceries, because I “can’t do it right.” The other day, he said to me: “Let me open the sugar next time.” This gave me a frisson* of perverse glee; I’m 56 and my husband thinks I’m too incompetent to open a box of sugar!

Today, I experienced another secret thrill when I opened the new box of sugar while he was at work.

I think the moral here is that people can only control you if you let them. The control is yours to keep or give away. And sometimes, you can pretend to give it away as long as you remember deep down that you are the boss.


* frisson is the word for this week. Try to use it in conversation or in writing. See if you can keep a straight face!

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33 Responses to Me Without You

  1. kym says:

    Thankyou for you honest post I love reading your blog and think you are an amazing, intelligent, beautiful on the inside and outside lady. Thankyou again

  2. I’ve got a meeting today which might afford me the opportunity to use the word frisson – it will certainly test who’s read your post today! My sister is a schizophrenic and it is hard enough being a sister to someone who has a mental illness and I sort of think the mania element is the most disturbing factor of illnesses across the depression to psychotic spectrum. It is very scary, so as a young child and in your formative years it must be very disturbing to be parented by someone with this disorder.

  3. Dru says:

    What about suffocatingly close parent/child relationships? The only ex-friendship that’s ever left me feeling bad afterwards had more ‘leech’ qualities to it than ‘vampire’, but that really didn’t bother me after it was all over.

    I love the word frisson. If I didn’t know better, I’d assume it was something one does while cooking, and not a noun.

  4. That is one of my favourite films, and highly underrated it is too.

    I have had friendships like that, and still seem to attract such personalities so I really have to be careful. The worst was with a cousin though, back when we were teenagers, so it was very difficult to truly extricate myself.

  5. Jenni says:

    Yes yes YES, two of my best girl friends had a friendship just like this. It started out normal, then over time it morphed into a weird control thing (little did we know they were actually having a sexual relationship at the same time). The tragic thing is, the controlled finally broke away from the controller, but only by cheating on her so she had someone else to be controlled by straight away. 1 year on, the controller is going out and getting high alot, and the controlled is still with her obnoxious boyfriend…

  6. Jill B says:

    Your post was a real eye opener, Sister. After following your BPD link, I realized I have displayed many symptoms of it in my life. Wow.

    I yell at my husband for opening things wrong. He will ignore the ziploc end on new packages of tortillas, rip open the wrong end and just throw it in the fridge, package gaping wide open.

  7. Sister, I am amazed that you not only survived your own childhood but became a fantastic mother yourself.

  8. arline says:

    I see this happening in a lot of situations. I have a friend who is clearly in a toxic relationship. She is by nature a spoiled Diva, and usually quite outspoken.

    This quite sick (trying not to use fuck face) person that she apparently needs to be with, is trying to control just about everything, and will attempt to fundamentally change everything about her.

    I have watched her demise over the past couple of years, and it is not looking bright. She comes to me when she is in pain, and sort of wants solution, however, she goes back to him like any good addict goes back to crack. A frission of excitement that the first taste brings on, overpowers everything else, all recall is gone, and once more the insidious cycle begins again.

    Somehow she needs to be in this situation, and is really as much the culprit.

    Of course there are many levels to all of this, and whether it is a parent, sibling, lover or friend, it is still a viscous cycle to break away from.

    As an observer, it is hard to watch a person go down a path of self demoralization, but it is futile trying to get them to break away from the pattern. Any addict in any form, has to be completely ready for health.

    What I have to look at, in dealing with my friend (or any other person that I care about in this kind of situation) are my feelings and emotions that surround that unfavorable behavior.

    I’ve had to look at my own neediness, which is something that I loathe, LOATHE. I am also reminded of a toxic relationship that I was in for a VERY long time, and all the feelings surrounding that, and I have had to look at my fear of entering an intimate relationship. I have been single for a while now, and quite honestly have fears of abandoning myself, just to feel loved. HA!

    YES that is irrational, and even though I have done a lot of work around my “issues” the fears are palpable.

    Being faced with these fears, is I’m sure helpful, as it shows me where I am still stuck.

    Thank you for the therapy session Sister, I need to go paint now.


    Oh, and you open that damn sugar box how ever the fuck you like!

  9. Oana says:

    Wow, I’m so glad you brought this topic up. I used to be friends with these two girls, one of them very controlling and the other acting like a puppy around the other. Everything had to be done the way the controlling one wanted, she was never to be contradicted – it actually reminded me of a master-slave relationship. The other girl wasn’t allowed to wear purple because the controlling one ‘owned’ the color. This was obviously not helping either of them – the controlling one was expecting everyone around her to obey, just like the ‘slave friend’, while the other was slowly loosing her true personality.
    They had their good sides, but everything faded away because of their weird relationship, as if they forgot how to be humans all by themselves – one was always trying to control, while the other was becoming invisible.
    I lost touch with them because they didn’t actually allow people to become close to them. Really odd.
    As for the mental illnesses you’ve mentioned, as a young psychiatrist, from the patients I’ve seen and the experience I’ve had so far dementia is by far the worst. While you can get along with people with Borderline, Bipolar Disorder, etc someone with dementia will just drift further and further away. I’m not saying be grateful you have a control freak in your life, I’m just saying things can be much worse.

  10. rebecca says:

    In defense of the controllers,
    I am always the overbearing one. The one who does the grocery shopping because it cannot be done right. The one who has such a strong clutch on herself and the people in her life that any deviation from my plan is seen as a personal attack and is therefore subject to emotional retribution.
    (By the way, I might add that I’m not proud of this behaviour and work very very hard to, erm, ‘let go’ a bit, and ‘let things be’ a lot and am a lot nicer and easier to deal with since this has happened).
    My defense is this:
    It comes from a place of deep fear.
    Fear of losing control of oneself, and ones life.
    Fear that without being in control, life will crash down around, well, I speak for myself here, so me. And fear that without these controls in place, I (we?) will be deeply, primally vulnerable. Out in the open. Sheep with no wool. At school with no clothes. Standing in the middle of a firing range with no armour, no gun and no view of the shooters.
    It’s not an excuse, and it’s not correct behaviour, but the reasons for it run quite deep.

    I love your blog, btw.
    And doing commando-chaos attacks, imo, is the best way to deal with this kind of thing anyway :).

  11. hammie says:

    I wish our mothers could have met. They might have cancelled each other out. xx

  12. Jenny Dunville says:

    WHOA! Great column. rebecca, very insightful. I find myself on both ends; controlling & not giving a damn, but not too often in the middle. How to get there? Do I need to?

  13. just remember my mom and her “best friend”. But am really glad for my mom, she’s in the states now. Finally free from her friend from hell. I guess my mom has no choice but to be with her. Cos her friend is kind of a tyrant bitch. A few years ago i finally said all the things my mom should have told her. Anyway turned out am the ungrateful one. I don’t care. She’s out of our lives now. good riddance.

    i love you sister wolf! great post.

  14. Jules says:

    Wow. When I first started reading this, I could think of a few friends I’ve had like that, but the definite front runner is my mom! I have just come to terms with the fact that my mom is bipolar(#1) and borderline personality. So gnarly. And so hard to deal with because I have two kids who I don’t know if I should be letting around her or not. I’ve come under a lot of back lash recently for writing about all of this on my blog. She thinks everyone she’s ever known has read it and thinks she is some psycho now.

    It’s funny because there is this character on ER played by Sally Field who totally reminds me of my mother on the show and in real life too (they look very similar). She plays one of the nurses’ mentally ill mother and it just hits WAY too close to home for me. Now every time I see damn Sally Field, which is more often than not thanks to her being the poster child for Boniva, it totally freaks me out.

  15. Talisa says:

    After 50 years I feel I am finally in control of my life. 22 of those years were spent with a control freak that about put me right over the edge. No longer will I allow this to happen and work very diligently to assure that it doesn’t. I know we do not have control over everything but as of now I am in control of ME.

  16. It’s also very difficult to be a controlling person, as some commenters have noticed. I think it comes from not having had a sense of security in childhood (I know–cue the violin strings) so one wants to impose a sense of routine (safety) on one’s life . . .

  17. H says:

    Money plays a big part in letting someone have the control. I have just been thinking about why I let my best friend dominate over me. Her parents always gave her money when she asked (unlike mine) and she would always pay for things when we hung out. I think that was a reason why I would let her talk me down or boss me around. It might also be the case for married couples I know whose parents pay for their house or rent. I’m not married, but I wouldn’t want my future mother-in-law to have a hold over me like that.

  18. I have seen this movie, and if you’ve ever had a relationship like this, you will immediate recognize it. People like the Anna Friels character can be intoxicating, but then there’s always a crash, they take over your life, they want to have part of you or be inside you. But of course, if you’re on the other end, like you say, you are a part of it and, in my experience, you have to completely extricate yourself from the relationship. This is, of course, much harder to do if it’s your family than a friend…

  19. dust says:

    Controllers can be charming as long as they are not manipulative.

  20. Suspended says:

    Don’t like that Dawson’s Creek girl and I like Anna Friel even less (She’s better known in Britian for a lesbian soap-opera kiss and always talking about her ‘best mate’ Kate Moss.) Dull girl.

    So, I don’t think I’ll be catching this movie anytime soon.

    Very much enjoyed the topic. I’ve had a few tantrum throwing, stalker friends in the past. Lucky for me, I’ve never been the type to hold on to anything I don’t understand, or, maybe I just like the easy route, and let’s face it, “Fuck Off” is soooo much easier.

  21. Deni says:

    My x was a controller to the nth degree. He always did the grocery shopping and paid the bills, arraigned the groceries, and kept files on everything including me, and I was lazy and unmotivated enough to allow him this level of control. It ended with him putting 100K on credit without my knowledge. My landlord is a control freak who refuses to talk to me, he calls my x whenever he feels there’s a “problem” in communication, as in he won’t make any repairs. I’ve learned to release my inner bitch when I have to deal with him . . . and I’m trying to release her when it comes to others too! I’m so cautious of control freaks because I’ve had my fill of them, and sometimes the easiest solution is to stay away from them completely . . . if you can.

    Control freaks, they come in many forms as mentioned in other posts: energy vampire, and leach, and I’ve found ones that are behavior control freaks (they poo poo one’s self identity. Example: I had a “good” friend that would comment on everything about my behavior from how many almonds I ate, how I sliced an avocado, and to what kind of jokes she thought were appropriate . . . . just stupid, petty stuff. She was overly critical about everything. And one day while we were hiking I had had enough, hiked home on my own, and never called her again. Then there are the selfishly needy types too. I have a friend that is needy for lots of attention, lives in the past, and is overly aggressive in getting people to listen to her, she is bi-polar and has no sense of what is appropriate behavior in a friendship (calling 10 times a day is not appropriate, especially if it’s to continue the same conversation from last weak, and last year, just repeating the SOS). Our conversations are always one sided, there’s no segue from one topic to another because . . . it’s just about her, her, and her, and her e-mails are all about how lonely she is, and why she doesn’t have friends . . . which is the exact same thing I hear from my x’s mother (another bipolar, BPD type. The last time I saw with her she talked about herself non-stop. I got a migraine, dizzy, and thought I was going to puke out my dinner. (She talks in rapid fire, no pause, end of the world, gotta shit out my mania style.) I had to actually walk away. And then when I came back she said, “I can see I make you sick,” and then without a pause she continued her conversation.”

    After all that being said, can I really blame someone’s brain chemistry, past traumatic experiences, etc, for their behavior? I have empathy for people that are bi-polar and BPD, and some are exceptionally talented, funny, and intelligent a lot of the time. However, I have to know which line they can’t cross with me. It’s a fine line between being empathetic and supportive, and being manipulated by them.

  22. Moda says:

    I agree with Iheartfashion. You’ve done so well to get through your childhood and to be a good mum. I also strive to be a much better parent than my mum was. I try to do the opposite to what she did. So far it works surprisingly well! I’ve been in those destructive relationships too but I was lucky to get out before they pulled me under. Because deep down, like you said, I know I’m the boss. Fantastic post Sister Wolf!

  23. MJ says:

    Yikes! That brought back the memories – I was in a friendship with a crazy controller for a few years. Finally broke it off when I realized why I tolerated her – childhood with Mom had trained me to make nice and accomodate the screaming crazy lady (so she wouldn’t shiv me) but friend wasn’t someone I was bound to, and I wasn’t a helpless child any more…so I cut the cord. Best thing I ever did AND life with Mom is easier now too that I see what she’s up to (and that ignoring the crazies and making it clear that I won’t play in tones her down).

  24. erika says:

    I love that everyone is sharing their experiences. Like Arline I have been single a long time too and am ambivalent about getting involved because someone may want to dominate or control me. I tend to be pretty agreeable in relationship. I like middle ground but I think most people are used to dominance in one way or another. I tend to spend a lot of time alone for this reason too. F’ing childhood issues with dominant, abusive, older sister – aarrgghh!!
    okay working on it. It’s a lifetime project.

  25. theresa says:

    my dad used to run a company and the only thing my mom has to show for her life is my sister and me. She could’ve been a painter or an ice skater- but bipolar disease and anorexia got the best of her. Needless to say, my grandparents consider her a failure. They made her feel stupid and worthless- so the only thing my mother valued about herself was her beauty, grace and lithe physique. When you get older, obviously all that shit slowly disappears.

    Not the grace. she’s still the most pathetically graceful human being I know.

    So here I am, a product of her depressive, obsessive smothering- considered a Huge disappointment because im not doing anything with my life that is easy to understand or at the very least, good fodder for bragging. The way I dress, speak and conduct myself, the things I love- they all embarrass her. She’s turned the pressure to live for her away from me and on to my sister.

    To conclude: My dad sold his company and now communicates to me like an employee of a family company (literally threatening to take away college funding every other week if I don’t do precisely what he asks- this ranges anywhere from writing a letter to get a work connection I don’t want, making Excel spread sheets for my weekly schedule and sending them to him, apologizing for raising my voice, going to a psychiatrist, taking medication for borderline (which I DO NOT WANT to do) or taking an internship that seems practical to him.) My mom has her own demented control issues.

    Every step I take is a self aware rebellion in the direction of doing what I love: writing poetry. But doing what I love means I break the hearts of the people I love who love me.

    Its fucking agonizing and I hate it. and I hate it more when I break down, forgetting the last time I tried to make them understand what I do and watch as they blankly scan and say “thats nice.” or worse, “does it have to be so crude?” or “when you use the word fuck, it makes you sound uneducated.”

    ITS ABOUT YOU, MOTHERFUCKER. it means I love you! Somewhere in that image is an apology. Somewhere in that alliteration IM begging for your approval.

    They don’t realize that writing a decent poem requires a knowledge of music, cosmology, mythology, biology, literature and of course, contemporary poets and poetic movements. working my ass off: Im the editor of two school publications. including its fanciest literary mag.

    fortunately my bitter angry grandfather supports me, but thats about it.

    Now, If somebody tells me to do something, a perfectly decent logical request, I have to force myself not to do the opposite of what they’ve asked.

    of course, this whole diatribe is probably romanticized a bit, but I can’t help it. Im melodramatic.

  26. angela says:

    I fortunately have the most stable, peaceful, wonderful, loving mother in the entire universe, but I also have a borderline (bipolar he’s been told by many psychiatrists…but refuses to believe them…), evangelical christian, manipulative, controlling father, who is married to a woman who is the same if not worse than he is.
    I struggled with it for a long time while I was a kid and living with him, and am still struggling with it in different ways, but it finally took me saying ‘this is my life, you get out of it, and let me live it the way I feel is right’ to free myself from his control.
    I look at him now, with more emotional disconnect, and see a lonely, hurt, sick individual who is essentially driving everyone who’s ever loved him from a non sick place out of his life because he is so afraid to lose them. It is sad, but it is also impossible to have a conversation with him, because it always ends up being about why I am not good enough, why I need God, and the basic projection of his mistakes and unhappiness onto my life…
    I am eternally grateful to my mom for being such an amazing foundation for me, for my entire life…and I am glad that she was strong enough to get out of that controlling relationship with my father however many years ago that she divorced him. However, he is still trying to control her…
    Anyway, Sister Wolf, this was a great post, thanks.

  27. hammie says:

    my husband has gone to bed, before I go up I am opening the new packet of vac packed ground coffee and putting it in the tin. Because he can’t do it right.


  28. tomorrow i will use the word frisson. and inappropriately. i’ll use it to describe how i feel when crispy flakes of newly fallen snow litter my hair. oh the frissons!

  29. kate says:

    Me Without You is a fantastic little movie…though I was too distracted by the fun of the recent period-piece fashion narrative it constructed to pay too much attention to the simplistic virgin/whore dichotomy it explored. At least the divide crashes in on itself by the film’s end, supporting what you say about control being something one gives permission to another to take.

    I’m a Marina (externally) myself and have had many Hollies, and though the good-girl always has it harder, being the conversely dramatic one never allows you to be taken very seriously, and the sweet friends who have put up with my shit have never been above playing the wounded martyr. Plus, having to be controlling can be just as taxing as being controlled. Some of us just aren’t complete without someone else to intertwine psyches…maybe all of us to some degree. It’s all woefully unhealthy and makes me think that roles and preconceived notions of personality expectations should be reversed every other month in order to strengthen relationships and help foster sanity. Whew.

  30. Dru says:

    On a side note: I think Anna Friel is lovely. She was adorable as Chuck in Pushing Daisies, and back in 2004 when I first heard that she’d got together with Remus Lupin (I mean, David Thewlis) I had a moment of squeals and giggles. She’s prettier as a brunette though!

  31. ginger says:

    Wow, I’ve just been learning how to deal with having a borderline mother and a narcissistic father. Talk about fucked up foundation. It’s always a relief to meet others who’ve been raised in the eye of the storm.

  32. WendyB says:

    Well, you know my experience with borderline personality disorder, but I’m not going to elaborate on it here. I’m saving it for my book 😉

  33. Sister Wolf says:

    Deni – Thank god you got away from that prick.

    theresa – Parents should never think they have the right to control their child’s path in life. They’ve made their choices – now you get to make yours. They should root for your happiness. Stay strong and risk their displeasure. You obviously know what your calling is, which is more than most young people can say. xo

    ginger – BINGO, I have the same. Get even with them by surviving your childhood. It’s a noble goal.

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