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.
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.