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Background

Six months ago two sisters started to attend an association I am volunteering at. I developed a huge crush on the older sister, so I tried to approach her, but without success. Unexpectedly during those attempts, I was noticed by her younger sister, who asked me out. I rejected her because of the age gap (I am 37 years old, and she is 22 years old), but she asked me to stay friends with her. Since she seemed like a nice person and I didn't want to create an awkward situation with other people volunteering at the same place I agreed (we would have probably become friends anyway if she didn't ask me out). But she became extremely clingy towards me, much beyond what I consider the boundaries of a healthy friendship, especially considering our age gap.

She is a very introverted girl and even just talking to other people is very hard for her. So, even if she followed me everywhere, at the beginning I didn't consider it too weird. I was the only one she got familiar with in the association and I expected that with time she would have been able to make more friends and become more independent from me. But it didn't happen. She didn't even try to get close to other people. When I am not at the association she follows her sister everywhere or, when alone, she just sits silently in a corner. When I am there instead she follows every step I do.

But this situation grew quickly beyond our time together at the association. She started to ask me out every weekend, message me every day, giving me random kisses, and asking me to do the same. She discovered that we live quite close, and since then she stopped using her car and started putting herself in situations where I am the only one who can bring her home after our volunteering work (we live in two neighboring villages just out of town). She also tried to suggest that we should always go to the association together, one time she insisted to cook for me, she even came to my home uninvited when I was sick. There's nothing wrong with many of those things, but all together they started to be too much.

What I've done

Of course, when her behavior started to become more and more clingy I started to politely say no to her several times. But when she wanted to celebrate having passed an exam and invited me to her house to spend the night partying with her, just the two of us, she definitely crossed the line. So I talked to her, telling her that many of the things she was doing felt like she was trying to push our relationship beyond the friendship threshold and I reiterated that I had no such intentions toward her. She reacted a bit badly to my words, but then she accepted them and assured me that she considered me just a friend. At the time I felt like we cleared up a misunderstanding and things between us could stabilize from that point onwards.

Did things improve? Yes and no. For two weeks she was even more clingy than before, but after that, she started to ask me out less frequently (around two times a month) and she started to attend the association less than before. But whenever we spend time together her behavior is more or less the same: even if she avoids public signs of affection she still follows every step I do and doesn't even try to talk to others. This became so evident that many people at the association think that we are secretly dating and I am denying it because we are ashamed of the age gap. This is causing me several social issues and a lot of misunderstandings with other people in the association.

The problem

After a whole month like that, I was ready to talk to her again, trying to explain that my boundaries were related to what she does, not to how much she did it. But she anticipated me telling me that she wanted to talk to me. We went for a walk and she said that she was aware that her behavior was weird, but she wanted to explain to me the reason behind it. She confessed to me that she always suffered from panic attacks and this prevented her from making friends for almost her whole life. The only friend she has is a former high-school classmate that lives in another city and just talks to her online. Her panic attacks became so serious during the last two years that she couldn't even take a step outside of her home. To overcome this problem she had to go to a therapist and start taking antidepressants. Now the situation improved a bit, she started to be able to go out again, and she chose to attend the association with her sister as a way to face this problem. Even her attempts to ask me out and become my friend were related to it because I was someone she felt safe around.

I had similar mental health issues in the past (even if I never told anyone that) so I can understand that when you have social anxiety issues you cling to the few people you are familiar with. I never was so clingy though, because I was scared to be rejected, and since I was rejected anyway I had to face those problems all alone. So, if I can help her and prevent her to be alone in this challenge, I'll be glad to do it. Nevertheless, I still think that many things she does are too much. She is basically dumping on me all the emotional needs she never was able to fulfill in her whole life.

I appreciated her honesty but this puts me in a very difficult situation where I am worried about what could happen if I try to enforce my boundaries in a strong and straightforward way, considering that she is definitely in a very delicate and vulnerable moment of her life. I don't even feel free to seek help from other people at the association, since it's definitely inappropriate to disclose someone's mental health issues without their consent.

How do I enforce my boundaries and encourage her to become more independent from me without hurting her and depriving her of the support she clearly needs?

My goal would be to have her:

  • Stop following me everywhere at the association, learning instead to interact with other people too
  • Stop asking me to spend time together outside of the association just the two of us (or at least greatly reduce how often it happens)

Usually, after so many previous attempts resulting in failure, I would just start to avoid her at the association and to gently refuse all her invitations to go out together. This would commonly push the rejected person to search for some other friend. But I already tried without success to have her make new friends by involving her into activities with other people (she always told me there's nobody she feels to have something in common with). So there's a huge possibility that she won't even try to make other friends, but will instead feel alone and abandoned and return to have panic attacks and/or be a shut-in. This is a situation I absolutely want to avoid.

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    You write that you've already told her once that was she was doing was crossing boundaries, that she first reacted a bit badly but then accepted your position. What's stopping you from just doing the same again over and over (which is usually how boundaries are enforced), seeing that her bad reaction was only initial/temporary? As for what to tell her, our help center states questions asking for what to say are off-topic, so I've edited that out and rephrased the 'what to do' to 'how to do it'.
    – Tinkeringbell
    Mar 9, 2023 at 13:38
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    @Tinkeringbell I edited the question, thanks Mar 9, 2023 at 14:41
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    @CloudAndLeaf: did you tell her about your past mental problems? Did you encourage her to seek some professional support? If yes, how did she react? The way I see it, the problem to be solved here is not the "being clingy" (that is just an effect), but the panic attacks.
    – virolino
    Mar 10, 2023 at 8:43
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    @virolino I don't buy the panic attack excuse. She is asking this individual out constantly, that has nothing to do with panic attacks. Mar 10, 2023 at 14:40

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One particular aspect of the situation seems slightly contradictory to me. You say she is introverted and suffers from panic attacks... and yet you met her at an association where you say she noticed and latched on to you, and then proceeded to repeatedly ask you out. I'm not suggesting that true introverts never leave the house and can never enjoy association, but this and other actions do raise flags to suggest the possibility that there may be other root causes for her behaviour rather than introversion.

When introverts push themselves to associate, they expend energy; whereas extroverts draw energy from social situations. In other words, both may start out similarly, but an extrovert may become more energetic and giddy as they feed off the situation, whereas an introvert may become tired and begin to withdraw (for more information, see this article). What you have described - the girl intently following you around when you are there, but sitting in the corner the whole time when you're not - sounds a lot like someone sulking because they aren't getting what they want.

A healthy relationship of any kind works both ways and is enjoyed by both parties. What you are describing is almost entirely one-way. You are able to describe her as "needy" because she has repeatedly communicated to you what her wants and needs are - she wants your attention, your company, your time. Your question here is about your needs - you want space from her, clear boundaries, and time to yourself. In a healthy relationship, you should be able to clearly state these things and the other person should understand. The fact that you don't feel you can do these things makes it pretty clear this is not a healthy relationship.

I have experienced something similar myself - many years ago, I got talking to a girl without any expectations of where it might lead, but fairly soon I knew that I could not be interested in her, romantically. She was also very needy - early on in our conversations, she recounted all her past 'bad' relationships, telling me how she'd been hurt many times. It made me feel a sense of responsibility not to hurt her the same way, but she would not allow me to easily maintain a comfortable distance, phoning me regularly and trying to escalate the relationship. I decided to tell her straight that it would not go anywhere and that I didn't think it was fair to carry on any kind of contact as it would give her the wrong idea. She reacted badly, repeatedly asking why, and then questioning my ability to know my own feelings. When I stood my ground, she tried to use silence and looks of disbelief to make me say more. She would not allow me to end the conversation, even though she had nothing to say. Her reaction made it very difficult for me to walk away from it. I had to just maintain my stand, even though she made me feel bad. I think she may have made a couple of attempts to get in touch after that, which I ignored. Not long after this, I saw she had joined a dating site, so was clearly able to move on once she knew there was absolutely no possibility with me.

So, I may be reframing the question slightly - because I don't believe you can enforce these boundaries without hurting her feelings. I think her behaviour is somewhat controlling, manipulative, and passive-aggressive. She has said and done everything possible to make you feel like you must give her the attention she wants otherwise she is at 'at risk' of panic attacks and her mental health possibly regressing. You have to believe that none of that can be made your responsibility. These issues existed before you met her, and can only be worked out by her and the help of professional therapy which she says she is already making use of. You also mentioned how she at first reacted badly to you telling her that you were not interested in her romantically, and then how, in a very short space of time, she changed to the polar opposite position of telling you that you are just a friend. Quickly switching between extreme positions is a tell-tale sign of manipulative behaviour - the person takes you to one extreme to get what they want, and when you don't react the way they wanted you to, they adopt the exact opposite position to see if that will have the desired effect.

You must first be very clear in your own mind what your boundaries are. Do you want any kind of relationship with this needy girl at all? Remember, you are not obliged to. Ask yourself: what are some situations that I do not wish to be in that she has already tried to push on me? And, be clear with yourself about why you don't want those situations - for example, because you don't want the friendship to develop into anything else, or because you want to be free to pursue possible romantic relationships with other people. You may not plan to say all of these things to her in one go, but you should be prepared to respond to anything she may say to counter your position, or that she may argue for as mitigation. For example, if you prepare only to say you are uncomfortable with certain specific situations she may suggest different situations in the hope that you will agree to those instead.

Once you are clear about what you want, you must articulate your expectations clearly. In other words, you must tell her straight, and not hold back on any detail. Of course, not wanting to hurt her feelings means you are not going to be cold and aloof when you do this - you should choose your words carefully. But don't leave any room for ambiguity. Be clear. And expect some drama, because she has already demonstrated that she may try to heap consequences on you.

You may not be able to 'soften' what you say in terms of impact, because I feel her reaction will be to the resulting implications for her rather than how you put it across; however, if you do put care into your words then you will feel happier that you did all you reasonably could to not hurt her, and it should also remove any cause for complaint that other parties could have.

The main points you need to put over are:

  • That you need to express how you feel (a reasonable thing to expect of a friend)
  • that you acknowledge her feelings and situation, and that she may have very specific needs due to her anxiety issues
  • that you have thought clearly about this and have reached a definite decision
  • that you believe the decision is in both your best interests
  • that you will remain friends, but your friendship/association will be limited to [whatever you think appropriate]

It may seem selfish to focus so much on what you want, but she's already communicated her wants to you many times. Also, if you were to take the approach of "I think you need [such and such]" then likely she will just disagree and say your opinion is wrong, given that she has jumped between positions before.

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