Human beings can be surprisingly forgiving. We love redemption stories, seeing people make the most of second chances. We’d like to be redeemed ourselves. Sometimes we’re the ones who need the undeserved do-over. It keeps society going in a way. Mercy is part of the human condition. Of course, there are punitive systems in place all over the world that pillory certain groups for being too poor or too Black or not practising the right religion. Women get the pointy end of the stick everywhere. These prejudices play themselves out interpersonally. Nevertheless, within any “in group” or clique, there can be a surprising willingness to accept apologies and try to move forward from a betrayal. Some people are trying to avoid further conflict, but I think most people value the relationships that have been damaged and are genuinely trying to repair them. A certain kind of person exploits that.
We’ve all known someone who just wasn’t quite right. They were always pushing boundaries, being slightly inappropriate, saying the wrong thing, asking invasive questions, oversharing, doing too much. None of the transgressions were ever big enough to spark much of a response beyond “That was a little odd,” though. All the blips on your radar were too shallow, so you shrugged the warning signs off. After all, no one’s perfect, and being overly judgmental about some of the small transgressions will make you look like the unreasonable one. If the offending person also knows how to turn on the charm, you can end up trapped in quite a destabilizing set of circumstances. One moment you’re being praised, the next moment you’re being berated, and the next your privacy is being invaded, then you’re being praised again. Most people cling to the feeling of kinship and downplay the abuses of trust. These matters always come to a head, though. The boundary-pushing finally crosses a firm line. The invasion of privacy escalates to stealing something of value, the small white lies escalate to slanderous gossip, the overfamiliarity with your significant other escalates into an outright come-on or worse. In extreme cases, you may wind up being stalked.
Most of us start having these experiences when we’re teenagers. We all watched the extreme “I’m your best friend!” “No, I’m your best friend!” contests play out. All that talking behind people’s backs… The sheer volume of the vicious gossip was unfathomable. Sometimes we were one of the players, sometimes we were the victims. It was almost impossible to avoid being part of the audience. All that pressure to be seen with the right people, looking the right way while having the right things is crazy-making. All the emotions are so heightened, everything is so dramatic. Most of us leave it all behind enthusiastically. I think many of us shake off the lessons from this period of our lives too quickly, though. That pressure cooker brings out people’s personalities more powerfully than we’d like to admit. Of course, people mature. People change, but only so much. The assumption that every adult has a baseline level of maturity is another thing that gets us caught up. All that high school drama never really stops. The settings for it change.
It can be quite surprising to realize that yes, I’m a gainfully employed adult negotiating “mean girl” shenaningans. I’m talking about more than that, though. I’m talking about people who display a pattern of behavior that makes it unwise for you to maintain a relationship with them. They’re bad people, because they are continually doing bad things. The serial liars. The petty thieves. The manipulators. The common thread is that they’re all some stripe of grifter. Their personas are phony and shift depending on their company. This is one of the reasons those experiences from your teenage years are so important. Adolescents are trying to figure out who they are. They try on different personalities sometimes. Some people never stop doing this. They never develop a true sense of self. This makes it impossible to have a meaningful relationship with them. Some of them are so far gone, they don’t even realize they set up the grifter-mark dynamic in all their relationships. Finding out you’re one of their marks can be quite painful. It usually takes a long string of violations before people allow themselves to accept the truth.
When you find out your friend is low key a bad person, you have a choice to make: to continue the relationship or not. It sounds simple, but there are usually other entanglements hanging in the balance. There’s nearly always a wider group of friends, perhaps even a work relationship, and grifters often manage to fool some people completely. There’s always someone there trying to convince you they’re not so bad. Speaking out about your issues with the person often opens you up to character attacks. This whole dynamic is abusive, and it’s meant to control you. It’s difficult, but separating yourself is necessary, because there is always some escalation that ends badly. Getting yourself out of the blast radius of the explosion can put you in a lonely spot for some time, but it’s worth it not to have someone digging shrapnel out of you down the line.
Some bitter tonic: Someone who treats you poorly treats other people poorly. While you were in the “honeymoon” phase, did you pay close enough attention (or any at all) to how your friend treated people who weren’t “important”? Realizing you’re not the exception cuts a lot of this off at the pass.