My friend has been going through a messy divorce, and she turns to me for advice all the time. She calls constantly and even shows up at my house uninvited, always to complain about her split. I feel terrible for her and want to help, but I’m starting to notice that even after I’m sure I HAVE helped, or at least gotten her to see things in a way that will make her feel better, she’s back to her same complaints a few days later. I’ve also noticed that when I have to cut her off because I have other things to do, she gets angry and accuses me of not realizing how hard her life is.
It has gotten to the point where I don’t know if I’m helping, or if I can take much more of the complaining. Am I a bad friend?
Tired and Talked Out
Divorce is not unlike smoking: nobody warns us about the dangers of secondhand misery, you know? It sounds like your friend is sucking you dry. You’ve tried listening, but it’s never enough. You’ve expressed your logical opinions, and found that they never sink in. Talking with her leaves you feeling tired, stressed, and — let’s be honest — a little angry.
Before figuring out how to proceed, let’s tackle the two questions you ask in your letter. The first is whether or not you’re helping your friend, and the answer is yes…but maybe not in the way you’d hoped. You’ve been acting under the false notion that she wants answers; that your advice will provide some kind of a roadmap out of the emotional thicket she finds herself in. You keep hoping that if you just apply enough logic, she’ll get through the tough stuff. What’s become clear, though, is that she’s not looking for guidance or logic. Like so many people who’ve struggled through a divorce, she’s learned to self-sooth by venting. Ironically, the angrier she gets, the better she (temporarily) feels. Your role in this ongoing interaction isn’t really to talk — or to interact, frankly — except for the moments in which you reaffirm her role as victim.
Don’t beat yourself up about being used this way; I once spent five years listening to a friend who was convinced her divorce made her The Most Wronged Person in the History of the World, even though she ended up with her kids, her health, and a big pile of dough. What I came to realize was that the blow to her ego was so enormous — how could anyone leave ME? — that the way she survived it was to grow her sense of victimhood to the size of Godzilla—and that if I kept standing in her path, I’d wind up crushed. Sounds like you’ve got that scaly green foot poised above your head, right about now.
Your second question is, “Am I a good friend?” and I’d say you are, because you mean to be helpful. But now that you realize what’s overtaking her — enough bitterness and self-regard to destroy a Japanese metropolis — the way to continue to be her friend is to disengage. Cut way back on the number of her calls that you answer. Pick up your car keys the next time she just shows up at your door, and pretend you were just heading out. Listen for only so long, and then politely change the subject. She may throw a few fits your way, but eventually she’ll get the point.
Which is that surrounding herself with herself is the best way to end up alone.
You’re not trying to end the friendship; you’re trying to return it to a state of actual friendship. The two-way kind. The kind where you can eventually be direct enough to say, “I love you, and I can see that this is very hard on you, but you need to stop letting it take over your life — and our friendship.”
I wish I’d been brave enough to do that with my former friend. I might have really helped her. Hell, I might have saved Tokyo.
Get some rest!
Philip Van Munching is a New York Times bestselling author of advice books, including “Boys Will Put You on a Pedestal (so they can look up your skirt).” Philip, who grew up in Darien and recently moved (happily!) back to town, is also a guest teacher at St. Luke’s School in New Canaan. If you’ve got a question for his new “Ask Philip” column, email it to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.