It had been a particularly difficult week for *Alese. She had contacted me a couple weeks prior when she headed home for her lunch hour, finally experiencing the straw that broke the camel’s back. She was unaccustomed to dealing with the unusual dynamics she faced in her neighborhood and needed to figure out a way to navigate the trouble in her relationship with her neighbor, Cheryl.
The first two sessions with Alese were spent listening to her explain the new circumstances she had found herself awkwardly navigating. I took notes to make sure I understood the timeline of events.
Alese had moved into the neighborhood three years ago, when the houses were still being built, as did her neighbor, Cheryl, and her family. The first year and a half had been pleasant. A couple plans to do a block barbeque, homemade cookies shared between households on Christmas morning and stray text requests to borrow missing recipe ingredients over the back fence. It was a very nice arrangement, and then it changed – drastically.
Cheryl’s husband, Steve, left her. She was left alone in the house next door. The first few months, Alese tried to be as available as possible for Cheryl. They became fast friends. There were late nights spent talking, laughing, crying, sorting through the emotions of Cheryl’s divorce, shared meals, movie nights, more laughs and a lot of armchair friendship therapy. As weeks and months passed, though, Alese realized there were too many of her days, evenings and weekends spent entertaining her neighbor. She had offered friendship to a woman going through a difficult life change, but now realized she was having to actively defend her priorities, responsibilities and schedule. As she recalled events, it was evident there was much more to it.
“I realized my plans were no longer my own. It was expected that she would be over at my house in the evenings to eat dinner, watch movies, whatever.” Alese confessed. “I was almost embarrassed – no, I was embarrassed. I hadn’t realized it had gotten so out of hand. She was texting me so much that I tried to leave my phone on silent most of the time. Then I started missing texts from other people that I wanted to hear from. I figured out you can choose ‘Text Tone: None’.”
“Did you feel the same at her first text of the day as, say, the tenth text?” I asked. After allowing her to take the last two weeks to purge the confusion of her circumstances daily, I now encouraged her to recall how she felt.
“Yes! The second the phone started buzzing I could feel the anxiety kick in. I wasn’t always able to reply. I mean, maybe because I was at work or at lunch with a friend or on a call. And if I didn’t reply within an hour or so, she sent another text asking why I hadn’t replied yet! I tried to tell her it’s not always easy to get right back to her, but she shot back with such a snarky comment. Here’s the thing – she didn’t change. No matter how I tried to explain it, nothing changed. Oh! And if I didn’t reply before I got home, she just showed up at my door. The last time, she let herself in! That was the day I called you. She crossed the line, right?”
“Okay. That’s not acceptable. Did you tell her that she needed to knock?” I asked.
“Yes! Well, sort of. I was so shocked! I think I said something sarcastic,” she recalled. “No one I know, friends or family, would just walk into my home! I certainly don’t walk into her home! None of my other friends would assume they could decide what my plans would be for the evening! When we have dinner, if I ask her to bring the makings for a little salad, she ‘forgets’ or says she didn’t want salad anyway. Seriously, a salad! That’s with anything I ask her to contribute! I’m happy to have a friend over for dinner. I’m happy to help if my friend is having a tough time financially. But not every night! If I don’t want to watch a movie she has recommended, she still brings it over and I’m stuck watching it. I complain, ‘Really? I told you not this one,’ and she goes on and on about how I really need to see it and tells me, ‘It’s so good, though.’” Alese was clearly feeling overwhelmed and in her mind, she was right back in that moment with Cheryl. Her voice was strained and the pitch became higher as she continued. “Last Thursday I had a very long day and I was really tired. I tried to tell her I needed to get to bed early, but she wouldn’t leave! When I finally said ‘Hey, I can’t stay awake,’ she shot back, ‘you’re kicking me out?’ I couldn’t believe it! There wasn’t any humor, it was all sarcasm and she was indignant like I had shouted ‘Get out!’ As if I was a bad friend because I was tired!”
“If anyone else said and did these things, would you say something?” I urged her to consider.
“Of course, there isn’t a single person I wouldn’t put in their place! I can’t understand why she isn’t hearing what I’m saying! But I also can’t see myself just standing firm with her. To just – her,” Alese trailed off as she was thinking it through.
She took a few minutes to gather herself. Alese prided herself on being easily able to remain calm, to handle tough situations and people with diplomacy. She grabbed a tissue and dabbed at her eyes.
“Do you want a water?” I asked, giving her another moment to collect her thoughts and then we pressed forward. “Is there something that you can identify in why you feel this is specific to your relationship with Cheryl?”
Alese considered my question. “I have had clear communication with everyone else in my life, even if we didn’t agree. No one else just shows up at my home. No one else insists I respond or interact in a way that I am uncomfortable with. But really, no one lived right next door. I can’t imagine how awkward and uncomfortable it would be if she doesn’t ease up.”
I have shared this story as a glimpse of a coaching relationship. This story is based on multiple clients’ personal stories. *Names and details have been changed for privacy.