I’m an insecure saboteur

Write for Advice
Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, MAY 14, 2004

I have a habit of destroying all of my relationships after they’re about a year old.

 


Dear Cary,

I have a problem with keeping friends more than about a year, mostly due to my insecurities, but I have no clue why I act the way I do or what to do about it.

I’m definitely not a people-person; I can easily put on a facade and be social when I need to, but it’s a facade, so I feel that hardly anyone I meet gets a clear picture of who I am. The few souls who do, the ones I feel I can identify with to the point of being myself while in their presence, invariably are new to the city, or have just broken up with a longtime significant other, so they’re rather alone and adrift and we quickly become best friends. After a few months, their social structure grows, either through meeting new people by themselves or through me, and I feel jealous and hurt, taking it personally that my new best friend feels the need to have a social life that doesn’t involve me.

So I start testing the friendship, acting petty and spiteful. With the current best friend (she’s a girl, I’m a guy), I find myself putting distance between us, being cold and unresponsive to her, all because she had the nerve to find a girl she loves hanging out with. Likewise, I hold this new friend in contempt, and when either or both of them want to get together with me, I feel like they’re just pitying me or humoring me, and that I’m an afterthought, never a first option.

I’m 28 and, looking back, I can see a clear pattern of this over the last 12 or 13 years. I’ve lost several great friends because of my selfishness, and I really don’t want to lose this current one. How can I just be happy that she, or anyone, is my friend? Why do we have to be exclusive best friends or simple acquaintances, without something in between being a possibility? I’m tired of ditching my friends simply because I’m not No. 1 in their lives, but I don’t know why I do this or how to stop my childish behavior.

Saboteur

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Dear Saboteur,

There is a passage in “The Remains of the Day,” the wonderful novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, in which Stevens, the butler attached to Darlington Hall, is asked by one Mrs. Wakefield about his past association with Lord Darlington. She has been touring the estate with an air that if not exactly contemptuous is not exactly respectful either. Standing to admire the stone arch that frames the doorway into the dining room, she wonders aloud if the arch is “mock” or not. Then, lowering her voice, Mrs. Wakefield says to Stevens, “But tell me, Stevens, what was this Lord Darlington like? Presumably you must have worked for him.”

“I didn’t, madam, no.”

“Oh, I thought you did,” she replies. “I wonder why I thought that.”
Stevens has told a lie that later embarrasses his current employer, and when he tries to explain it, he tells his employer, “I’m very sorry, sir. But it is to do with the ways of this country.”

“What are you talking about, man?”

“I mean to say, sir, that it is not customary in England for an employee to discuss his past employers.”

“OK, Stevens, so you don’t wish to divulge past confidences. But does that extend to you actually denying having worked for anyone other than me?”

“It does seem a little extreme when you put it that way, sir. But it has often been considered desirable for employees to give such an impression. If I may put it this way, sir, it is a little akin to the custom as regards marriages. If a divorced lady were present in the company of her second husband, it is often thought desirable not to allude to the original marriage at all. There is a similar custom as regards our profession, sir.”

“Well, I only wish I’d known about your custom before, Stevens,” his employer says. “It certainly made me look like a chump.”

Of course, it isn’t only custom that motivates Stevens, but protectiveness toward the estate and the life and era that it represents, as well as umbrage at Mrs. Wakefield’s suggestion that the arch might be “mock.”

As I read that passage last week, I found myself thinking about your letter. There was something of fierce protectiveness and attachment both in your letter and in Stevens’ behavior, something touching and noble and utterly nutty all at once.

This is something I understand from personal experience. I, too, sometimes act cold and distant with friends who seem to have strayed; and I sometimes feel compelled to lie or withhold information about my association with, or attachment to, things I hold dear. For instance, I sometimes studiously avoid telling inquisitive strangers that I am a writer or that I work for Salon, as though to divulge such facts were to open myself to possible harm. I am not always sure why I do this. It is a point of pride that I am a writer and I work for Salon; but it is a personal pride, a private thing, not something you wear on your chest like a medal from a war.

What impresses me in your letter is the bright and helpless clarity with which you observe your own behavior, much as though you were observing yourself through a soundproof pane of glass — much as Ishiguro has his narrator, Stevens, describe his actions with painful exactitude while pretending serene unconsciousness of the powerful emotions behind them.

A central theme of the book is dignity — the quality that allows Stevens to function flawlessly on the surface while events unfold that might reduce another man to tears.

At any rate, I wish to say that I understand what you are going through, and I think you can make some adjustments that will lessen your torment. There is nothing wrong with being a person who quickly forms deep attachments to others. In fact, it is a wonderful quality. But you must manage it. It is like a powerful gift. You do not want to use it indiscriminately.

Since you are not a very social person, you should find it relatively easy to be alone. There you have an advantage over extreme extroverts. If you do not need to be with people all the time, you can take the time to choose more wisely, and I think you need to do so.

Since you say that you tend to befriend newcomers who quickly establish a social network that draws them away from you, I suggest that if someone is new to your area, you stand back and let them become acquainted on their own before you offer your friendship. As regards your current troubling friendship, I think you owe your friend an explanation. Simply tell her that you seem to have formed a powerful attachment to her, all out of proportion to what has actually transpired between you. If you feel embarrassed or troubled by this, simply tell her what you feel. Do not put this in the form of a demand or ultimatum. Just stick to the facts. Tell her that you want to remain her friend, but that you wish you could spend more time together. And concentrate on spending time with her alone — not with her and her friend.

You may find that she is more extroverted than you realized, that she needs a certain hubbub of people about her, that she doesn’t have the ability to concentrate on one person for long enough to develop a deep and lasting bond. If so, take a lesson from this episode: If you want to develop a close and lasting friendship, choose more carefully; take more time; go more slowly. And if possible, choose someone who is not radically more outgoing than yourself.

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