Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer “radical empathy” and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.
Today the Sugars think about how to respond when a friend behaves inappropriately. A married woman writes that a friend of hers is making unwanted sexual advances. She wants him to stop, but isn’t sure of the best way to say so. Cheryl and Steve offer slightly different suggestions for how to respond.
I am 46 and still happy and in love with my husband, who I’ve been with for many years. We have a mutual good friend that we both knew before we met. We have many friends like that, as we grew up in the same neighborhood and knew many of the same people, but didn’t end up crossing paths until we were in our later 20s. One friend, though, has been acting in a way that makes me uncomfortable and angers both me and my husband. We’ll call this friend “Frank.” He’s always had an openly perverted personality, uses inappropriate humor and is flirtatious, but in the past has kept it funny and impersonal. Everyone knows that’s “just Frank.”
I’ve never been bothered by it until recently when it became personal. A couple years ago Frank texted me when I was at work. He started flirting heavily, which caught me off guard, and even asked me for the address for my office so he could come by. I didn’t respond further. The next day he texted me and said he was sorry he was so out of line. He said he’d been drinking and didn’t mean to be so obnoxious. I said, don’t worry about it. My husband and I talked about how the text conversation got weird. I had my husband read the texts to make sure I wasn’t overreacting. My husband felt betrayed by Frank’s behavior and told me that Frank had been unfaithful to his wife in the past. This was news to me. I realized then that Frank isn’t just all talk.
Last summer my husband worked a lot of overtime. While he was working, I attended several social events with our group of friends that includes Frank and his wife too, whom I like very much and also consider my friend. At one event, Frank, after a few beers, sat down next to me and looked me in the eye and said, “Have I ever told you that you have always been on my bucket list?” He meant, of course, having sex with me. He went on and on about how he’s attracted to me. I was utterly stunned and embarrassed. I didn’t know what to say and was worried that someone would overhear him and think we were having an affair. I made a light-hearted comment, as if he’d been joking, and excused myself to talk to someone else.
Sugars, I know Frank is at fault here and I know I have done nothing to lead him to think I would be interested in a relationship with him. What is the best way for me to set him straight? I have trouble being blunt, even when I should be, because I hate hurting another person’s feelings. I want to say something to Frank that makes it clear that his behavior isn’t OK and must stop. I’m not sure how to say it, partially because I know if I say something he will say, “Oh I’m just joking” and try to make me feel stupid. I need help with making my point short, sweet and clear. Please help me find the right words.
Cheryl Strayed: This is a very easy question to answer and a hard thing to carry out. Frankly Annoyed, it’s very apparent to me that you are a people-pleaser and somebody who likes to smooth things over and not make anyone uncomfortable. But sometimes, in life, we are required to go against the natural thing we’re inclined to do and do the opposite thing. It’s a great test of our own strength and character, and it leads to us becoming better people. This is going to be one of those moments for you. You know the words. You know that Frank is acting inappropriately. He clearly has some sexual desire or sexual fantasy about you, and you do not want him to share that with you anymore.
It doesn’t matter if you hurt his feelings. He’s not concerned about hurting yours by making you feel so humiliated. So you need to say, “Frank, I am married. I am not interested in having anything but a friendship with you, and you must stop saying these inappropriate things to me. And if you don’t stop, I am going to stop being your friend.”
Steve Almond: I’m going to take it a step further — I think Frank is being a bully, and I think what you have to say to him in this moment is, “I have received this unwanted attention from you even after I’ve made it clear that I don’t want it. I’ve showed my husband your texts, and the next time you say one inappropriate word, your wife will know about it and it will be an issue in your marriage, because you’ve made it an issue in my marriage.”
There’s a predatory nature to his behavior, and because you’ve rebuffed his advances, he’s humiliated and ashamed. And the way he’s dealing with that is pushing further — bullying you, making things uncomfortable for you, even when he knows you’re not interested. It’s this moment when the spurned lover becomes your enemy, and the only way to respond to that is by saying, “You’re messing with my marriage and my social circle, and I’m going to mess with your marriage and your social circle. If you really want to be enemies, we’ll be enemies.”
You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear more about dealing with conflicts in friendships.
Have a question for the Sugars? Email email@example.com and it may be answered on a future episode.