It was a detonation wedding: Our friendship exploded

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, MAR 25, 2009


The groom said my husband is dead to him. The bride refused my package.


Dear Cary,

A good friend of mine invited my husband and me to her destination wedding. We were thrilled to be invited as she was a bridesmaid in our wedding, however, when we saw the price for four days we realized we couldn’t go. At her bridal shower, a mutual friend had mentioned that her boyfriend couldn’t go and asked if I would go with her. My amazing husband was nice enough to agree and I went. While there, I overheard other couples talking about how cheap the trip was and how they couldn’t believe it was “such a steal.” I couldn’t help feeling hurt finding out these couples paid less than half of what I paid to go solo but it was too late. I was here now and that was that. The trip was great and the wedding was beautiful. At the end of the evening when I was saying my goodnights, her new groom said “Goodnight, and by the way, tell J he’s dead to me.” I stood on that dance floor frozen, my body numb as if physically slapped. After leaving my husband home because we couldn’t afford to go together, then finding out I paid $1,600 for myself when all of the other couples paid $1,200 together, then to hear him say my husband is dead to him because he didn’t go … I was appalled. I left the reception hall in tears. I got on the bus to the airport the next morning and completely avoided the receiving line and never said goodbye.

After she returned, I finally got the nerve to tell her how I felt. She told me I was selfish, the world revolved around me, how dare I ruin her day and that my wedding wasn’t perfect.

Needless to say the friendship is over, but I can’t help sitting here, six months later, still in shock. Should I have kept my mouth shut? Was it really not a big deal? Do friends just let this kind of stuff slide?

I recently found out she is pregnant, the holidays have come and gone, I attempted to mail her a letter and she sent it back “package refused.” I am just stunned that a friendship would end over this.

Am I a fool to think she was ever a friend in the first place or am I in the wrong?

Stunned

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Dear Stunned,

It is not so important to assign blame. The important thing is to figure out what you want. If you want this person back in your life, it is within your power to begin a campaign to win back her friendship. Your campaign may succeed and it may not, but you can at least take action to get what you want. But first you have to make a decision: Does her friendship matter enough to you that you would devote considerable time to winning her back?

This is the issue. All that other stuff, who was right, who was wrong, whose feelings are hurt worse, who should have done what, that’s all, like, whatever. Do you want her friendship back or not? Do you even like her?

One might assume that you like her because you asked her to be your bridesmaid. But not necessarily. You might have asked her because you thought she’d fit into the dress. Or because she’s popular in your social circle. I’m not sure if you like her or not. You do not make very clear your subjective feelings about her as a person, only that you are terribly upset about what happened, as anyone would be.

It takes some work to find out what your feelings are. But it is worth it. Once you admit what you actually feel, and what is actually important to you, you are free to make decisions based on that. This frees you from the compulsion to do what you think others expect you to do, and it frees you from the compulsion to do things that are, in essence, attempts to redo the past, or color over what happened, or change what is real.

So ask yourself: Is she really important to you? Do you have shared values? During the time you have known here, have you maintained a hope that you and she would remain friends for years to come? Do you enjoy spending time with her, just the two of you? When you think of her, do you say to yourself, “I really like her”? Or is she just a person in your social circle? Does she make you feel good when you are around her? Or have you always felt a little like you were competing with her for the limelight? And what about your husband, does he like her? Does he like her new husband? What about their relationship? Is it totally dead now too?

If you want her to be your friend again, take steps to win her back. Write to her and call her. Do not let her first angry refusal stop you. She may remain angry for a while. You may have to wait significant intervals between entreaties, lest she get the feeling you are some kind of unhinged stalker. But if you keep at it, and she will talk to you, just apologize for what happened; admit that this was a regrettable incident and that you want to be friends again.

Suggest that you and she get together, just the two of you. Go out of your way to be nice to her. If she is a sympathetic person, and you are honest with her about what happened — that you felt humiliated not only because you spent too much money but because of what her husband said — then she may respond in a genuine way.

As to what the groom said, well, guys are weird. Maybe he meant something like this: “Please tell your husband that I really was hurt that he did not come, because I thought he was, like, almost my best friend, and now obviously he doesn’t care about me as much as I thought.” In certain circles, guys can’t really say things like that about other guys. Instead, all they can do is punch each other and say things like, “Tell him he’s dead to me.” That’s supposed to convey this whole nuanced set of meanings, but yes, it does fall a bit short.

So, yeah, I know it sounds really fucked up. I’m not sure if I’d want to be friends with these people. The overarching message to you is that you need to spend some time, now that you are an adult, thinking about each of your “friends,” and trying to determine which ones are actually important to you. Then take steps to salvage the friendships that really matter, and forget the rest.

My friend has gone bad

Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 23, 2008

I hate to lose my best college buddy, but her behavior is beyond the pale.


Dear Cary,

I am having problems with my friend (let’s call her Mary). Mary and I have been friends since college. We are in our early 30s now. Neither of us is married: Mary is completely single and I have a significant other. We have lived, traveled and partied together. Mary has seen me at my best and emotional worst. We have a large group of friends in common whose weddings and baby showers we attend together. In many ways, our lives have paralleled each other’s — we have both moved from coast to coast and, for the third time, we have found ourselves living in the same large metropolitan area.

A year ago, I was laid off from my job. I decided to search for a job in the area where Mary lives. During that time she was very supportive of me — she allowed me to stay with her whenever an interview brought me to her city. I accepted a job near Mary, and she allowed me to stay with her while I searched for an apartment. During that time, despite my lack of income, I made sure to treat her to meals out, bottles of wine, etc.

Six months have passed since I started my new job, and I have settled in to my new life. My friendship with Mary is rapidly deteriorating. She is part of a gaggle of single, professional women who like to have expensive nights on the town during which they “trawl” for men. Mary earns a lot of money and often bankrolls these nights out for certain of these girls who don’t make a lot of money. She even goes so far as to organize and pay for little overnight and weekend trips. As a result, she has collected a group of women friends who really look up to her and will drop anything to spend time with her. In principle, I have a problem with this. Even if Mary would pay for me, I wouldn’t let her. As a government worker, I can’t afford the expensive lifestyle. At first, I went along with these outings, but lately have declined the invitations and suggested alternative daytime activities such as going to museums and on hikes.

Whenever I make plans with Mary, at the last minute, she brings other people along to the activity. For instance, if I invite her to dinner and make a reservation, I find out that at the last minute she has invited other people along and changed the reservation. I once invited her on a hike and to dinner at my house afterward; she invited five people along without asking me first and then wouldn’t let me know whether anyone was coming, even though I called her several times. In the end, I got tired of waiting and made other plans. When Mary called me to let me know they were “on the way,” I explained to her that I had made other plans when I didn’t hear back from her; she got really angry. Another time she invited me on a day trip, and, after I accepted, I received in an e-vite in which she had asked 35 other people to come along; then she told me I would have to find my own transportation to our destination because she had to drive the others who don’t have cars. I canceled.

I feel like it is rude for Mary to always include so many other people without asking me when I am the one who has made the invitation. I feel like it is rude of her to wait until the last minute to let me know when we can meet up. I feel like she is doing this because she has to be in control of the situation. I can’t stand being controlled in this way, so often I cancel when she pulls these stunts. However, it gets worse.

Lately, when I have plans to meet Mary, she is really late. A few weeks ago, she told me to meet her at her house. At the agreed-upon time, she texted to say she was getting a pedicure and would meet me in 10 minutes. She didn’t arrive until 45 minutes later — I had to wait the whole time on the sidewalk in front of her house on a dangerous street populated by hookers and crackheads. Last week, at a party we were co-hosting for our college friend from out of town, she arrived almost three hours late. Then over the weekend, when she was supposed to meet me and my boyfriend for drinks and dinner to celebrate my birthday, she arrived one and a half hours late and we missed the dinner reservation. Each of these times, there was no acknowledgment of the tardiness or apology.

You are probably thinking this is a no-brainer: Cut ties with Mary. But it is not that easy. The truth is that Mary and I have many memories and friends in common. She considers me one of her best friends. We actually do have a good time together.

What should I do? It is hard for me to accept the fact that Mary has to be in control and won’t be happy unless I follow her around like a puppy. My heart tells me that, deep down, Mary is very unhappy about something and is acting out. I feel like I can’t have a heart-to-heart with her because Mary would never admit to having anything less than a perfect life.

Help

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Dear Help,

I think you said it very well: It is hard for you to accept the fact that Mary has to be in control and won’t be happy unless you follow her around like a puppy.

So how? How do you “accept” and “move on”?

First you must “fix” this phenomenon. Not repair it, but “fix” it in the traditional sense of the word: See it as permanent. You cannot repair this. But you must fix it, i.e. freeze it in time, see it as a fait accompli. As long as you try to repair this, you will never fix it. You will be swept along in it like flotsam on a wave.

One way is to do as you have done above, only more so. List her transgressions exhaustively. List all her offenses. You do not need to make it in narrative form; it can be simply,

Showed up late for 33rd birthday.

Brought uninvited guest to funeral.

Forgot wedding, etc.

What fascinates me about the inner life, or, if you will, the spirit, is that by “fixing,” or making a pattern of behavior visible (this pattern is “character”), we see the contour of a spirit; likewise, by “fixing” a pattern of behavior we can see the contour of a friendship. Once we can see it then we can let it go.

As kids we made rubbings of pennies and leaves. You place the object under a paper and carefully — or savagely, depending on your temperament and style — rub the flat side of a pencil lead over the paper so the lines of the object appear. (That was such a beautiful thing, to watch an image appear, transferred to a portable medium; also watching a photograph develop in a tray: the same thing! After the image appeared on the Kodak paper, my father would bathe it in fixative, making the image permanent.)

Until we fix the condition we continue to wait for hours on cold steps for our friend. Strangers pass and size us up. We feel powerless and put upon. So we name it. What would you call it? The Incredibly Unavailable Former Friend? The Spectacularly Insensitive Hostess? The Monumentally Uncommunicative, Perpetually Late, Uncaring, Chaotic, Childish Former College Friend?

It matters that you give it a name. But you do not need to be accurate in its diagnosis. You are not going to cure this disease. You just need to name it and fix it in time.

You name it and fix it in time so you can accept it: This is your former friendship. This friendship is lost to you now.

Note the “friendship” is lost to you. The “friend” is still there. That is what is so vexing. The friend is still there but the friendship is gone.

So you say, “this woman I used to be friends with.” You say, “this incredibly selfish person I was close to in college.” Ah. That is hard, no? By fixing it you lose it. Then you have to mourn it.

It’s really, really sad, I know.

You have to feel it. You have to feel it and let it go.

That is what you do. You capture this image; you freeze it, as if taking a photo. Then you develop it and bathe it in the fixative of your own gaze.

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My ex-boyfriend’s getting married to a woman I can’t stand

Cary’s classic column from Wednesday, MONDAY, FEB 7, 2005

I don’t even want him as a boyfriend anymore, but I sure don’t want her to have him!


Dear Cary,

My ex-boyfriend, who is now my best friend and roommate, is marrying a woman I can’t stand, and now all sorts of ugly, hidden emotions are bubbling to the surface.

The details would give “My Best Friend’s Wedding” a run for its money, really. Chris and I dated briefly, intensely, nearly a decade ago. I was his first love, he was mine, we were stupid and young and cocky and selfish; we broke up in a knock-down, drag-out fight and didn’t speak for almost a year. After college I moved across the country and we maintained loose correspondence. Then after a more serious but still failed relationship I moved back to our old college town and took a temporary job with his company. He generously offered to rent me a room in his house without contract so I could stay as long or as short as I wanted, and his kindness was definitely undermined by a desire to try things again.

It was awkward at first, but we settled into an easy dynamic and made surprisingly great roommates: We flirted, sometimes fooled around after a few too many drinks, but were content pursuing other people for more serious fun. My temporary employment turned into two years. I began to date one of our closest friends and the three of us shared the kind of friendship that would constantly have people asking me, “Which one is your boyfriend?” I, being the center of attention, was perfectly happy. Then Chris started dating Dawn, an older, prissy waif who didn’t like his friends, who brought out a whole other Chris — the Chris who feared growing old alone. We weren’t too concerned at first — surely he would see that she was unbearably boring, hear her clock ticking, notice how she changed his personality! He did and yet he didn’t, and a year went by. In the meantime he cheated on her and was constantly on the lookout for an exit. We continued our flirtation, even had sex a few times. We were there for each other, loved each other, were constantly amazed by one another. It made her insane that I lived with him, and I liked that.

Then last month he proposed. To her, I mean. An $8K ring, a trip to Europe, romantic dinners and roses galore. Not being much of a relationship person, it goes without saying that I wouldn’t really want all those things, but now I WANT THOSE THINGS. And most important, I don’t want Dawn to have them. After spending a week in the drunken haze of denial (during which time all our co-workers and friends came to me wanting reasons, answers, for him making what to us is a fool’s choice) Chris told me that it was time to move on, that our “relationship” was through, and I’ve been seriously depressed ever since.

Now my questions: I still have a boyfriend, sort of. Obviously I don’t deserve him since I’ve cheated on him, but he and I are compatible in so many more ways than Chris and I ever could be. I chose him over Chris in the first place. So why, oh why do I want Chris to be single? His fiancée is around more than ever — apparently the rock on her hand makes her more bold — and I have managed not to say a single word to her. They’ll be married in 10 months. He’ll sell the house that I’ve called home for almost three years now (a record, for me), take the cat — that I bought him! — and disappear into married life leaving the remnants of his bachelor years behind. Am I suffering from insane jealousy? Yes. Can I do a thing about it? Not that I can see. But at present I’m teetering wildly on destroying what friendship we have, and I don’t know how to handle all these changes with grace. I’m not going to run after him pleading, “Marry me! Let me make you happy!” — I don’t want that, anyway. So how can I move on? What I want is to let him go, to stop being angry and feeling like I somehow lost. Oh, and for him to regret his decision every second of every day for the remainder of his life, endlessly pining for me.

J

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Dear J,

You know, I’m a married guy, and some of my best friends are married, so I’m not speaking of everybody. But when I look around me and read letters such as yours I’m reminded of what really blows about the whole institution of marriage, how it places a fairy-tale gauze of happily-ever-after over raw social climbing, manipulation and financial maneuvering. In the process it disrupts vital social networks. It isolates people.

True love is all well and good, and people make their own choices. But what bothers me is how once we’re talking about marriage, suddenly nobody is allowed to say, This is a sham and a shame. It’s like marriage is the ultimate trump card. Play that card and, Aha! All of a sudden your social network doesn’t matter anymore. This is marriage. This is a wedding. They’re getting married! So shut your mouth.

Yeah, sometimes it’s all a bunch of baloney if you ask me. And the way people fall into it is appalling.

So what can you do? I dunno. I’d love it if just once, when they come to that part in the pre-game ceremony where the umpire says if there’s anybody here who knows any reason why these two should not be joined in holy matrimony, if just once somebody would stand up in the bleachers and open her mouth and say, “Yeah, I know a reason. Because this guy was a friend of mine, a very good friend, and we had a house together and lots of good friends, and we’re losing all that, and we knew him, I mean we really knew him, not like this chick but really knew him like on the floor puking drunk and up till 4 afraid of dying and sick with the flu and diarrhea, we knew he didn’t like corn flakes because of a childhood accident he never talks about, we knew he had no backhand and always travels after he dribbles, we knew he never read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ but did the Cliffs Notes instead, we knew this guy like a brother until this brittle, frosty chick got her nails done and dug them into his back and dragged him up here like one more expensive rag doll. We lived with this guy and now we’re going to have to move. We grew up with this guy and worked with this guy and we were this guy’s real family and now we’re losing all that. We were maybe the only real family he’s got, and now comes this frilly Victorian one-act play complete with costumes and scenery to say none of what we had with him even mattered, none of that was real, it was all just kids play and now we’re adults and putting away our childish things and setting up house for real. Well, all of that was real, it was probably as real as it ever will get. You’re walking away from your real life, my friend, your real friends, your real house and everything that’s real in your life today, and you’re doing it all for some glossy mirage of a fairy-tale life. So screw you and screw your special little invitations and your ridiculous bridesmaid outfits and your rented glassware and your aphasic caterer and the whole fraudulent kissy-kiss merging of families and pompous parental aplomb.”

And then just quietly excuse yourself.

As the ridiculous white limousine with the spray-painted windows and the tin cans tied to the bumper rolled out of Palookaville headed for the big time, you’d have a bit of explaining to do. But maybe, just once, it’d be worth it.

I’m losing my friend. It feels like a breakup

Cary’s classic column from THURSDAY, JAN 12, 2012

After 15 years, suddenly she’s moody and unreachable — and I think it’s her boyfriend’s fault


Dear Cary,

I’m sure you’ve had letters similar to mine, but I’m sure there are others who might benefit by knowing it’s not just them who’ve dealt with a toxic friendship in their lives. I’ve dated some toxic men; one who was a verbally and emotionally abusive alcoholic. I dated him off and on for about two years. During that time, I was aware that he was not the right one. When I finally had my fill of his BS, I walked away from the relationship. It took Al-Anon and some counseling for me to see the light and gain strength to move on, but I did move on. I have not dated anyone seriously in over three years. Had a few dates but nothing that really clicked.

I’ve had a friend (L.) for about 15 years whom I grew close to due to our part-time jobs in retail (we both moonlight there) and I also lived one street over from her until she moved down a few streets to another house. She has been married five or six times but I’ve only known her last ex-husband. He seemed like a nice guy and she has kids with him. She also had cheated on him (according to her and others). She has dated R. for about five years. R. is a recovered cocaine addict who went through rehab four times before becoming and staying clean and sober. He attended N.A. meetings until he no longer had to (due to court dealings). In the beginning, L. seemed really happy with R. and she and I seemed to get even closer due to some illnesses and surgeries she had a couple of years ago. R. was somewhat supportive when she had cancer but was totally not around when she had her knee replaced later that same year. It was around that time that I suspected that he was not the great guy she thought he was. I had felt like L. was a sister figure to me. We did have a bond and there was a sister love there, for sure. Then, this past year (July to be more exact), L. started to act moody and unhappy. She was short with me at work and didn’t talk much. The following week she apologized to me and things seemed better. Then, only a few weeks later, she comes to work one night and acts angry at everyone. She would hardly talk to anyone and she was trying to give all her work hours away that week (apparently due to personal issues). When I left that night, I told her to call me if she wanted to talk. She called me the next day to apologize again for her behavior and said I was her closest friend and that she should not treat me that way. I was sure whatever the issue was, it had nothing to do with me. She was fine for the most part but you could still see this edge to her that wasn’t settling. Later (while at her house to drop off something), I tried to talk to her about her behavior and how even co-workers had asked me what her problem was. I urged her to talk to a counselor if she could not or would not talk to me. I told her that I loved her and cared about her and that she knew she could call me. She said she knew these things.

Even though she knows these things, her bizarre, hot-and-cold behavior has persisted since this past summer. She sort of blew off my birthday and we didn’t do my birthday lunch until about a month later (and invited co-workers from her day job whom I didn’t know that well). I’ve always taken her out to dinner and given her a card or small gift. I felt slighted and disrespected with how she handled my birthday this past year as we had always done dinner together with just the two of us before.

I’ve known for quite a while what her problem really was and it’s a boyfriend who I believe is not only controlling, but emotionally and verbally abusive. Another friend of hers got engaged around the time she started behaving weird, so I also think that contributed to her overall attitude and behavior. Since that time, it’s a 50-50 chance on what her mood will be. She will be aloof, removed from people or act perfectly fine depending on how she is feeling about her guy. For Christmas, he gave her a ring but made clear it was not an engagement ring and that they were not getting married. She wants marriage (why I’m not sure) and he does not. She has vowed not to live with this man, but last week told me that they were going to move in together later in the summer. I suspect that she will see even less of her friends than she is now. We used to talk regularly on the phone. She has called me a time or two in recent weeks, but I have vowed to not call her unless she calls me and I need to return her call. To sum it all up, I’ve been treated badly by this friend. She has been short, hateful and downright ignored me at various times during the last five or six months. True friends don’t treat people in this manner. And while I can see that the boyfriend is the real issue, I can’t sit around and wait for her to see the light. I’ve returned to my Al-Anon meetings as I’ve found that the principles taught also help with other relationship issues (even those where there is no substance abuse). In reality, her guy might be clean and sober but he’s no longer in his own meetings, which would help him stay centered. He abuses and controls L. who then takes out her frustration on the very people who love and care for her the most.

Really good friendships are hard to find. I’ve been there for L. always and don’t feel like I’ve ever let her down but I can’t say the same about her for me. I would never, ever let a man come between her and me, but that’s exactly what’s happened here. I want her to be happy and she’s always had a guy during the entire time we’ve been friends, but this guy has her brainwashed. He doesn’t want her to spend time with me or even her kids. That seems plainly obvious to me.

This whole situation has hurt terribly. In some ways, it’s just as painful as letting go of a romantic relationship. You don’t expect your friends to hurt you as badly as a guy can. Maybe, in time, she will see the light. In the meantime, I realize I need to be around more positive friends — ones who don’t take out their frustrations on me instead of the person who is really upsetting them. It’s so very hard to move on, isn’t it?

I would appreciate some advice and tips for accepting this situation as it is because I don’t see any possibility in the near future that she will leave this guy.

Thank you.

Hurt By a Friend

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Dear Hurt By a Friend,

This letter contains two important things, things that are hard to learn, things that are painful to accept, hard, priceless little gems that point to bigger truths. One is how the principles of Al-Anon can help in relationships where no drugs and alcohol are involved. The other is how friendships can be just as painful as romantic relationships.

I love that those two things come out here. That is why I chose to print this letter, because while I may not have any brilliant answers for you, people who read this letter and think about it will see the patterns here and may recognize similar things in their own lives and may be moved to take action that will free them from those patterns.

Frankly, for me, reading this letter mainly just makes me realize how bad a friend I’ve been over the past few years. When I think about how I treat my friends, well, it’s not pretty. I’m so thoughtless and self-involved! I am! It’s terrible! I am a terrible friend! I have no time for my friends! I’m so wrapped up in other things! I’m over-scheduled! I’m obsessed with my “work.” And if you ever do get me for dinner or lunch or just to hang out, I’ve got one eye on the clock; I’m thinking about some story or some song.

I should be in a band. I should live in a tribe. I belong in a supervised unit. I’m not much good at being a secular adult. It’s really kind of pathetic.

But I go on. I write my column and do my stuff. It’s all very magical and cool. But I am a terrible friend. So that’s my resolution for the New Year: I’m going to be a better friend. So watch out if you think you are a friend of mine! I’m coming for you. I’ll be on your porch! I’ll be hanging out in your backyard! I’ll be throwing stones at your window!

See, that’s my model of friendship; it’s something I crystallized when I was 12 and hasn’t changed. When I was 12, I knew how to have a friend. You rode bikes around and played with stuff and talked. That was a friend. Sometimes you snuck out at night. You had adventures. You explored stuff, like broken ships’ hulls, and swamps and forests, and you captured small invertebrates and studied them. That was a friend. What is a friend now? I dunno! Someone you have dinner with? I hate the having dinner with! Having dinner with is not fun! Dinner is what you have to quit playing and come in the house to have! Dinner is something your friend can’t come out because he’s having! Why is everyone always having dinner? I don’t want dinner! I want to go out in a boat!

Having dinner is too adult. I want beanbag chairs and an outdoor swing. I want party treats, noisemakers and funny hats. I want cake and a screaming fit.

Seriously, I think everything I know about friendship I learned when I was 12 and I’d like to go back to riding bikes and playing war and talking about nothing we understood.

Except I don’t like to ride bikes anymore. That’s the problem, see? I don’t even know how to have fun as an adult even if I had friends to have fun with! I don’t like riding bikes anymore because it’s not fun. Now it’s work, it’s a way to get to Petaluma in only five hours, it’s sanctioned races and funny shorts. What’s fun for me now? Going down to the seawall to watch the sunset. We have a pretty-new friend, Madison, who joins us on the seawall for the sunset. That’s our fun. We have a few other friends, too, and they know who they are and how badly we treat them. But mostly, it’s us cleaning the house and me frowning over numbers.

Every therapist I’ve ever been to asks me what I do for fun. Are they trying to tell me something?

But enough about me, right? Because you see what’s going on here, right? You see why I’ve got no friends? Because it’s all about me! You come looking for a sympathetic ear and I turn it all to me. Isn’t that typical?

Sorry. But look, you’re the strong one here. You’re going to be OK. That doesn’t mean your feelings aren’t hurt. They are. And you deserve to be treated well. But you know, going to Al-Anon and all, you know the limits; it may be time to mourn the passing of this friendship and find some people you can have fun with. Your friend is caught up in something that you can’t fix, and you know that. And you know that toxic relationships can seem a lot like drug addictions: The person is irritable and moody, unreliable, disappears on you, doesn’t show up, is erratic, misses work … just like a drug addict.

You know all this from your Al-Anon meetings. Wow, thank God for Al-Anon.

So what I want to give you is some encouragement to go out and enjoy yourself and find some new friends who appreciate what you have to offer. You know the drill. You’ll be there for this friend of yours when she comes around, if she comes around, but you’re not going to chase her down. You can politely decline invitations if they’re not going to be the one-on-one situations that you require. You don’t have to sit with a bunch of strangers like some out-of-towner.

You were her best friend. That meant something. Now she’s lost to you. So mourn that. Mourn it deeply. It was a beautiful thing. Mourn that thing but do not go chasing after her. Be strong. Turn to others who are happy and healthy and can enjoy your company and make you laugh.

Pray for her, if that’s what you do. Offer her Al-Anon. Let her know that if her relationship ever gets to be too much, there is a group that can help her. Just let her know it’s there, and be willing to take her to a meeting if she ever wants to go.

And then let it be. Take some heat off yourself. There are people out there who want to be friends. There are people out there who know how to be friends. (God knows I don’t!) So look around you and let some friendships happen. Let them happen.

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My best friend is marrying a guy who’s nothing but trouble

Cary’s classic column from TUESDAY, FEB 21, 2006

She says I must either accept the situation 100 percent or forget being maid of honor.


Dear Cary,

I have a very good friend who is getting married soon. She’s smart, funny, talented, beautiful and successful. We’ve been friends for about 12 years (since high school) and we’ve always had the label “best friends” on our relationship, although we’ve definitely had ups and downs. Unfortunately, we seem to be at a crossroads. To make a long story short, a while back I introduced my friend to a group of guys that I used to hang out with sometimes, and she got involved with one of these guys. They moved in together really quickly, got engaged a few months later, and they’ll be getting married in about three weeks. My friend asked me quite some time ago to be her maid of honor, and of course I said yes.

But the more my friend has told me about this relationship, the more worried I’ve become. He’s called her names that I can’t repeat. He lies consistently about where he is and what he’s doing (she catches him and laughs it off). She’s called me sobbing because he says he’s coming home but doesn’t arrive. In most of these cases she’s already called him, found him drunk at a bar, and he’s brushed her off, basically saying that he’ll come home when he wants to (driving home drunk, by the way). He has multiple kids by different women. There are plenty more examples, but you get the idea.

My friend has a history of being in abusive relationships — not bad enough for a movie of the week, but definitely not acceptable either. In the past, I’ve been outspoken about my concerns. In every case, this led to our not talking for some period of time. I now realize that I’m not going to change her mind about any man, so I’ve become resigned to being as supportive as possible but being ready to be truthful if asked. Eventually she asked, and I told. I still tried to focus on the positive (“I just want to make sure that you’re happy for a long, long time,” etc.) so that she would be receptive, but she knows me well enough to have a pretty good idea of how I feel.

I have given this a huge amount of thought and reached the conclusion that the best way I can handle her wedding is to focus on the fact that I’m there to support my friend. I’ve made the decision to be there for her, and she’s made the decision to get married. The getting married part isn’t up to me. The being supportive part is. If I stay focused on that part, I know that I can be positive on her big day, which is of course what she wants. I can feel good about doing so because I know that I’m standing by my friend at a major event in her life. Obviously I will be warm and polite to everyone at the wedding. That’s how I’ve been planning to handle things.

Now for the twist: She recently told me that I need to either “choose to change my feelings” and be 100 percent supportive of the situation, or choose not to be involved. I’ve told her that I am 100 percent supportive of her, and that’s what really matters to me. I can change the way I behave, but I can’t erase my concern. I also can’t “choose” to abandon my longtime best friend during her wedding. I really believe that whether or not to include me is her decision. I think she’s avoiding the decision because she doesn’t want to be responsible for kicking me out. I don’t think she wants me to be there, and at this point it would be much easier to avoid it, but I’m afraid that I’ll regret that for the rest of my life.

I don’t know what to say or do. It’s her wedding and I want to be there for her however she sees fit. I know that if I’m “disinvited” from the wedding, that will be like a nail in the coffin of our friendship. But I also don’t want to cause trouble for her by shoehorning myself in where I’m not welcome. At this point I just want to handle the situation with consideration and class, whatever the outcome is, and I just don’t know how to proceed.

Here Comes the Bride, There Goes the Friend

 

Dear Here Comes the Bride,

It’s understandable that you want to support your friend. But standing up for her at her wedding implies that you approve of what she’s doing when you really don’t. It’s saying to her, Well, I may have had reservations, but now I think everything will turn out OK.

You and I know that’s not true. We don’t think things will turn out OK. We think she’s headed for stinky husband breath faintly redolent of Budweiser and paint thinner, mysterious car dents, implausible explanations for implausible whereabouts at implausible times of the night, sudden empty wallet syndrome, “friends” who are burglars, the phrase “child endangerment” uttered by state employees, oxygen-deprived skin tone exacerbated by severe bar tan, crushed beer can sculptures in the garage, multiple unpaid parking tickets, third-degree threatening demeanor, unorthodox sleeping outside in the grass and eventually a case of extreme indoor burliness.

This last condition, extreme indoor burliness, describes something I can’t otherwise explain, except to say that it arrives late at night with loud, indistinct speech and bad shoes.

Anyway, what I mean is, if she has to drag this guy out of a bar before they’re even married, think how much fun it’ll be after they’re married with three kids. Can you see her showing up to drag him home and he’s sliding his kids down that polished bar surface like so many shot glasses? It’s going to be really fun dragging him out of the bar then — because the kids are having fun with Daddy!

She’s made her choice. She’s given you your options. If you want to be true to yourself, if you want to handle the situation with consideration and class, I think you have to take her at her word. You have to call her bluff. You have to bow out of the wedding.

Does that mean you’re not supporting her? Just what is this “support” we’re always trying to give our friends, anyway? Is it support when we help them drive off a cliff? Nah. I don’t think so. I think what we owe our friends is our influence for the good. And if that conflicts with their knuckleheaded intentions, that’s OK. “In opposition is true friendship,” Blake said (though he meant something quite different at the time, I’m afraid).

The interesting thing about this is that I see redemption down the road. I don’t agree that this is the nail in the coffin for your friendship. It’s more as if, in a classic move by a drama queen, she’s setting up the second act by pushing you out. Once she hits bottom with this guy, you come back onstage as the good friend, the one who never bought into her whole crazy idea of marrying a troublesome dude just to see how troublesome he really can be. You get to be the hero.

Like I say, this is just the curtain on the first act. In fact, before you leave the stage, I think you get to make a little speech here. You get to tell her that you will always be her friend, that you will always be there for her, and if things go great for her you will be happy. But if things don’t go so well, and she needs somebody to talk to, or somebody to bail her out of a tough spot, you’ll be there. You can be there when he drives into a ditch with the children in the car and she decides she can’t take it anymore. You can be there when he calls from the police station to tell her that they’ve booked him. You can be there … whenever it’s time for you to be there.

Trust me, there will come a time. Don’t change your phone number.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

Why did you skip the funeral?

 

Cary’s classic column from Monday, Aug 23, 2010

A tragic death among deeply close friends: Her burial was like a ghost town


Dear Cary,

I want to say, first of all, that I am so happy to hear of your recovery. I always look forward to reading your thoughtful responses to letters.

I have, perhaps, many things I’d like to ask for advice about but for now I will get to the most pressing and troublesome issue:

I hate my friends. Not all of them, just a certain group of my oldest friends — 10 girlfriends, most of whom have known each other since kindergarten, and all of whom went to elementary through high school together. These friends have been neighbors, classmates, teammates and confidantes — we have spent a great deal of time with each other’s families, gone on vacations and to summer camps together, and maintained a very close-knit group for the past 20 years or so (we are all now 24-26 years old).

I never had any reason to doubt that these people would be my core group of lifelong friends up until about a year ago, following the sudden, tragic death of a member of the group, who was also my closest friend within the group. She passed away unexpectedly at the age of 25 under ambiguous circumstances that we will never fully understand as the autopsy results were inconclusive and the acquaintances she was with at the time remain either unable or unwilling to disclose the exact events preceding her death.

I know that often people rave about the departed as though they were saints and eulogies often tend to be excessively laudatory, but for my friend who passed away all of those things would be 100 percent true. She was a beautiful, fun, bright and incredibly loving and open-minded person. It was no surprise when she chose a career as a social worker — she was so warm and generous with her time and her spirit, she was selfless in her work and did not let roadblocks set up by her jerk boss deter her from pursuing a career she loved where she had the opportunity to really make a difference for others. She was a realistic and practical person but also somehow managed to stay optimistic in difficult situations and no matter what was going on in her life she was always there for her friends. If I called her even when she was incredibly busy with something, she would stop everything and talk to me about my problems — she was one of those rare and precious friends who would tell you to call anytime, day or night, and really mean it … and anytime you spoke to her you were in for a good story. She had a gift for storytelling, a propensity for spontaneity and adventure, a great sense of humor and a lighthearted appreciation for all the little silly and absurd moments in life.

Before her death, I thought our group of friends was very structurally sound. We were just beginning, in the years during and after college, to transform our little group from childhood/adolescent friends to adult friends. The 10 of us went to 10 different colleges in eight different states and wound up in similarly far-flung places after college, but we did a very nice job of keeping in touch: made great efforts to spend time with each other whenever possible, often circulated update e-mails or letters, exchanged phone calls and Internet communication, etc. I felt we had strong, irreplaceable bonds to each other that did not seem to dissipate over time or through the distance between us. In many ways she was the leader of our group; she was the one to call when you went home for the holidays because she’d be most likely to know when everyone was getting in and where we would meet. I’ve thought since her death that perhaps she valued and nurtured our friendships more than we did for her in return. When she died, I assumed our other friends would step up and try to fill that caring, nurturing role for each other. I thought in our grief — when most of us were confronting mortality for the first time as adults — we would cling relentlessly to each other for support and kinship, that we would be present for each other and for her family and other friends — to hold each other, to cry together, to show our love to each other and to her, to share our many wonderful memories of her and mourn her death together.

But most of our “friends” were not present.

Not only did only three friends out of the group actually attend the funeral, many didn’t even bother to call or write, save for a text or a quick message on the Internet here and there. Most of our friends were completely emotionally/spiritually and physically absent from the whole terrible situation. It seemed the expectation of those who absented themselves was that we not share with each other the unfamiliar and overwhelming pain we were experiencing, or worse — that they didn’t feel the pain at all or chose to ignore it.

When I expressed to my parents and a few other friends how baffled, hurt and disgusted I was with the lack of support I received from some of those old friends, they assured me things would change with time — no one knew what to do or say right now, our wounds were too fresh, that I couldn’t cast them off yet, they were hurting too. But as time went on and I still didn’t hear from them — as my attempts to call or write either went unanswered or insufficiently answered — I began to sincerely hate them. They weren’t there for me, collectively or — with the exception of two still wonderfully supportive friends — individually. More important, they weren’t there for her family; most important, they weren’t there for her. Almost all of them had managed to make it to her wedding the year before. But weddings don’t require anything similar to the constitution needed to endure a young friend’s funeral. Where were they now? When will they say goodbye? Will they go on thinking and acting as though things are the same and that friend with whom they once shared a life is still here with us now instead of being gone forever?

Despite my hate for them, and it is real and palpable, I still desperately want them to reach out to me, nearly a year after her death (she died in September 2009). I could never forgive them for all the months of abandonment, but I also don’t know that I want to completely cut them out of my life and I think for the sake of our shared histories and the bonds that our families still share back in our hometown, I should make an effort. I still have a certain amount of faith that they will reach out to me on their own and I fear if I say something — even in a very gentle and neutral way — I will lose them completely too, because obviously they’re incredibly uncomfortable with the whole thing. I don’t want to lose them; I’ve lost enough.

One of the other supportive friends from the group and I have talked extensively about how to handle all of this and while we both want the others to know our true feelings we also kind of feel like we shouldn’t have to make that effort because if they cared, they would have reached out to us in some way by now.

So, how do we handle ourselves around them? We all hung out as usual when we were at home over the holidays and I tried to make things as pleasant as I possibly could. We avoided the topic of death. There has been scant communication on the Internet/by phone but still the topic of her death hasn’t been discussed to any considerable degree.

Maybe it’s important that I explain that in other facets of their lives, these old, neglectful friends are very decent people — they hold noble jobs (two whom I consider the worst offenders of grief/consolation avoidance are respectively a child advocate and a youth counselor), are close to their families and are mostly either married or in committed relationships. This is the first time I have ever seen them act in a way that shows they don’t care about others and it has been shocking and all the more distressing to me to see kind, intelligent and sensitive people be so horrible when it comes to dealing with death.

I just don’t know how much longer I can keep my feelings to myself and I know that despite the outcome of whether or not I share my feelings, I could never truly be friends with them again. I want to do something that would have pleased my friend who died. I think she would encourage me to forgive them and would want me to maintain ties with them; maybe she’d even want me to take over her role as the core/leader of the group, but as much as I don’t want to completely lose what were once strong bonds of friendship and as much as I want to do the right thing by our departed friend, I feel like I could explode at them at some point and I have so much anger and hurt, I don’t know how much longer I can act civil, let alone friendly, toward them.

Hurt

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Dear Hurt,

We assume we will behave well when tested. But we are tested when we least expect it — in the middle of the night, in an unfamiliar area, when we are weak or distracted or afraid. If we could study first, we might perform better. But we are never prepared for life’s biggest tests.

We know the right thing to do. Anybody could tell you: The right thing to do is to make the airline reservation, pack the suitcase and show up at the funeral. But in a crisis, a part of us resists.

In our weakest moments grow seeds of doubt and indecision and avoidance … in subtle ways our best intentions are betrayed; we make grievous errors of omission. We become shameful no-shows. We experience memorable failures of moral nerve.

But through such failures we can learn. We fail to show up and we learn: You don’t let things slide. Not again. Next time you show up. Forever after that, you always show up.

That is, you get to learn from this as long as your friends stick with you through your failures. If your friends give up on you because you fail one test, then you may never learn. You push it out of mind. You say screw this, screw them, whatever.

Because of that, you, my friend, have an opportunity here and I hope you take it.

This is a chance for you to do some good. You can turn this around.
I suggest you do the right thing: Open communication with these people.

Reach out. But how? The conversation needn’t be an accusation or an interrogation. You don’t need to air the dark feelings you’ve had. Rather, think of the other person.

What do you say? Well, what you say is not as important as how you listen. Say as little as possible. But here are some things to avoid saying: Do not say point blank that you are hurt by their failure to appear at the funeral. Rather, say that you are still getting over what happened, and would like to talk a little about it. Then just listen. Keep your mouth shut and listen.

If your friend asks you for your feelings, you might say something like, “I really missed you at the funeral. It was hard knowing that you could not be there.”

She might talk about her decision not to attend the funeral, or she might not. I wouldn’t press her. She may feel guilty and find herself becoming defensive. If anything, just ask open-ended questions — how she felt about not being able to attend the funeral, what she was doing while the funeral was happening, if she was thinking about it, how it felt to miss it. Maybe she was relieved that she didn’t have to go. That would be difficult to hear but courageous to say; truth is often difficult to hear. Whatever she has to say, I would just listen and let it sink in.

In this way, you can perhaps let go of some of your anger toward your friends, and take a step closer to them, and make progress toward living with this terrible loss.

Your departed friend was a social worker. She was in service. Being in service means, strangely enough, overcoming other people’s objections to being helped.

We might be inclined to say, well, shit, if you can’t fill out the paperwork, then maybe you don’t really want the food stamps. If you can’t make it to your appointment on time, then maybe you don’t really want the counseling.

But those are our standards and our assessments. We may be like a jury, eager to convict. But we don’t know what’s in someone else’s heart. We don’t know their fears and demons. We don’t know what barriers they face.

Likewise, it is ironic that the child advocate and the youth counselor did not show; you’d think they would be most likely to rise to the occasion. But perhaps their jobs leave them so emotionally taxed that they have nothing left over for moments such as these.

So your friends did not show up at the funeral. They did not rise to the occasion. Yes, that is bad form. Yes, it reveals some weakness in them. But that is what it is: It is weakness. It is human frailty made palpable.

But this was your group’s first experience of death, and you, collectively, had no tradition for such a thing.

So perhaps you may think of this as your group’s first failure, as a passage out of innocence into experience. It was a defining moment; how each person responded to this death becomes a permanent mark.

Maybe you can now rise to the occasion and make something good come of this.

Listen. Try to heal your relationship with each of these dear friends.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

If I could do it over …

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Cary’s classic column from FRIDAY, OCT 17, 2003

I’ve been with one woman for my adult life, but now I feel closer to someone else.


Dear Cary,

I am a 42-year-old man married for six years; previous to marriage, my wife and I were together for 15 years. Do the math, and you’ll see that I’ve been with her all my adult life. She is 10 years older than I am, with a grown daughter; we have no children. The one certain fact is that we love each other very much, in the deep way that comes both from the many years together and the work we’ve done together to keep the relationship alive.

So here’s “but.” I have a woman friend of 10 years (call her J), to whom I’ve always been attracted. Years ago, I persuaded myself that it was primarily a physical attraction, and that intellectually and emotionally, my connection to my wife was stronger and more important than anything else. It doesn’t feel that way now. I can’t point to anything that’s changed lately; it’s just a growing feeling that J is the person I feel closer to, feel more at ease with, and want to be with all the time. Maybe it’s the fact that she is the opposite of my wife in some key areas: She’s independent, financially responsible, stays on an even keel emotionally, and does not use her keen intellect as a weapon. Somehow, this remarkable, wonderful woman can’t seem to find a permanent mate and is still single.

J is not perfect; I don’t have her on a pedestal. And none of this is new. When I was deciding to ask my wife to marry me, I went through a process of weighing pros and cons and the equation included my attraction to J. If I could do it over again, I would come to a different conclusion.

The path of least resistance is to maintain the status quo. Even after allowing a proper interval for the dust to settle, there’s no guarantee that I could ever be anything more than friends with J. Separating from my wife would have to be couched in terms of wanting to be single to find a new relationship that would make me happier and more fulfilled. Putting it in those terms would force me to tell a half-truth — I would have a hidden agenda, an unappealing prospect. I just feel stuck and would really appreciate some compassionate advice that you’re so good at dispensing.

Ponderously Pondering the Possibilities

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Dear Ponderously,

I have pondered this and here is how I see it: Right now you have two good relationships, one with your wife and one with your friend. Neither one is perfect, but they are both good and valuable. And each has the capacity to grow and change, to become better. So you are in a pretty good spot. If you separate from your wife, you lose one of those relationships right off the bat. So you are down to one relationship, the weaker of the two, a relationship that might be weakened still by your new single status. It might blossom, but you have no reason to believe it would. Keep in mind, your independent friend may value the fact that you are married; your status may in fact form a boundary that makes the friendship possible. So you are contemplating throwing away one good relationship and putting another at risk in the hope that you will become happier and more fulfilled.

If you want to become happier and more fulfilled, I think there are less destructive, less risky, and more innovative ways to go about it.

The question you need to ask, I think, is: How unhappy are you now with your marriage? Are you so unhappy that it would be better to be alone? It’s normal to be unhappy at times, and it is hard to pinpoint exactly what is making you unhappy while you are still in your routine, so it is common to say, Well, if only I weren’t married, maybe I wouldn’t be unhappy. If you simply need to be alone in order to have some peace of mind, perhaps you could go somewhere for a few weeks to get out of your daily marriage routine and try to re-inhabit some of your native contours.

I would try that, first. You seem to have good communication with your wife, so you could explain your need for some solitude to her. But perhaps there are other things you need to talk with her about. Perhaps you have been wounded in some way that you haven’t fully acknowledged; perhaps you are angry at your wife for something she did, but you aren’t coming clean about it. That may be the reason you find yourself drawn to this other woman, with whom you have a less difficult history. Think about it. Is there some way your wife hurt you that you would like to get back at her for? I don’t know for sure, but when you describe your friend’s best qualities, you contrast them with some traits of your wife. You mention that your wife uses her intellect as a weapon. Has she wounded you with her intellect in some way that you have yet to acknowledge? If I were you, I would look at that, and see if you can’t make peace with her.

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I’m sleeping with my best friend’s fiancé

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Cary’s classic column from WEDNESDAY, JUL 16, 2008

I didn’t like him at first because he was treating her bad, but now I’ve got him under my skin.


Dear Cary,

My best friend got engaged to the father of her kids about four months ago. I didn’t like him because in the beginning of their relationship he used to cheat on her and just treat her terrible. I’ve known my best friend a little over 14 years now and I hold a grudge toward him because of this. I really didn’t like him until he confessed to me that he liked me and had feelings for me the first time he met me.

At first I wanted to tell my best friend, but I didn’t want to get involved in that so I just decided to keep it to myself. Ever since that day he’s been texting me telling me that he wants to make me happy and just wants me to fill a void that he’s missing. He says that he loves my best friend but he feels incomplete. But now I caught feelings for him because I got to know him more than what I knew before. I understood why my friend was still with him even after all the cheating and lies because underneath it all he is a good person.

So I finally gave in and slept with him and now his feelings for me have been getting deeper. Now I feel the same way. I know what I’m doing is wrong but I can’t seem to shake off these feelings for him. I’m stuck and don’t know what to do.

Stuck

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Dear Stuck,

You need to end this relationship. If you don’t, you will get hurt. If it is too difficult to end it while you are still living where you are living then consider moving away for three months to a year. If you have relatives, say, in California, or somewhere like that, ask them if you can come and stay with them for a while.

If you cannot get away, then you are just going to have to break up with him in a direct, straightforward way and stick to your decision. Tell him that this relationship is wrong and it is over and that is that.

After you have broken up with him, here are the rules: You cannot see this man. You cannot have coffee with him or talk with him on the phone. You cannot accept texts from him. You have to cut off all contact with him. You have to end this thing.

You may continue to feel a strong desire for him. That is OK to feel. You can feel it. It won’t kill you. You can live with desire. You can also redirect the desire. If the desire is mostly sexual, find somebody who turns you on to have sex with. If it is also that he gives you a warm feeling, a feeling of being liked and cared for and understood, then seek this feeling too, with friends or family. Find someone — not your best friend! — that you can confide in about this. Give yourself what you need. But end this relationship.

For some readers, the question of whether you confess to your friend that you slept with her fiancé will be the big issue. I’m sidestepping that, OK? She may find out. She may not. You may feel compelled to tell her. You may not. He may tell her. I am focusing on what you must do now and in the long term to build a good life, given what has happened.

And I’m thinking about your best friend. I feel for her too. What is she going to do? Do you want her to marry this guy? Really? Will she be better off with him or without him? What is he going to do for her? How is he going to help her live a good and happy life?

I am really concerned about your friend. She has children to support and a fiancé who cannot be trusted. The two people closest to her are deceiving her. She is a single mom who must support her children.

Plus, I must say, you owe this friend of yours. You have deceived her. You owe her. So after you have broken up with this man and severed all contact with him, I would like you to turn your attention to your friend. Ask yourself what you can do for her. Wouldn’t it be great if you were to settle down and get married and have kids, and your kids and her kids could grow up together? That would be a pretty good way for this to end up.

There are many reasons why she needs your presence. Given the situation she is in, she may be in for a hard few years and could use a friend nearby. This man, her fiancé, may cause her all kinds of heartache if she marries him. And if she does not marry him, she will be a single mother trying to make ends meet. So either way, she is going to have her hands full. And you are in a position to act in a new way, a way that will make you feel good about yourself.

What if you could find a good man and fall in love with him and marry him and have kids with him and live near her? I know you’ve been deceiving her but you can change. Or maybe you don’t have kids. Maybe you stay single. But you put together some kind of stable life. If you can put together a stable life and live near her and remain her friend throughout the next 20 years or so, while her kids are growing up, you can do a very good thing in this world.

People don’t tell you these things. We see families grow up around us but people don’t really tell us why some families and friends remain happy and others drift apart and end up lonely and bitter. Part of it is that some people are just situated near the ones they love. Sometimes it’s geography. So think about it at least. You obviously care for this person even though you’ve been deceiving her.

Twenty years may seem far in the future. But before you know it, 20 years will have gone by. It is in your power to decide where you are going to be while those years go by.

So that is what I would do. I would break off this relationship firmly and permanently. I would try to settle down and live near this friend. I would try to live a good life and maybe get married and have some kids and be there for her, so that whatever happens, whether she marries the fiancé or decides that he cannot be trusted, whether she finds another man or stays single, you can be a stable, ongoing presence in her life and in the lives of her kids. And you can continue to enjoy her presence as a lifelong friend.

It can be done. It would be a good thing.

Cary Tennis Newsletter Sign Up

I’m an insecure saboteur

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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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My former best friend became a stripper

 

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Cary’s classic column from December 10, 2010

Wow. We were so close in high school, and now she’s doing drugs and hanging out with gangs


Dear Cary,

“Jenny” and I were the best of friends in high school. We did everything together and were more like sisters than friends. After high school, I went away to college. She never went to college, but moved to a larger city about an hour away. Although we kept in touch for the first few years, our contact dwindled. It was both of our faults. She didn’t call me much, and I didn’t call her much. There was no falling out. At this point, I haven’t seen or spoken to Jenny in four years.

I was shocked recently to find out that Jenny got her 2-year-old son taken away from her. The reason was failing drug tests and suspected gang affiliations. I also found out she is working as an exotic dancer. This is all wildly out of character for the Jenny I knew. I’m extremely concerned about her health, safety and well-being. I don’t have her current contact information, but I think with minimal effort I could get it.

My dilemma is this. I am now 29 years old and married. My husband and I own a home, and I have a steady public sector job. We are currently expecting our first child. In other words, we have a lot to lose. I am worried about making contact with a person who is a drug user and (suspected) gang member. I don’t know what type of people she associates with now. I’m worried about putting my family or my job at risk by reaching out and associating myself with her. On the other hand, I’m terrified that I’m going to pick up the newspaper one of these days and read that her body was found in a gutter. I would feel so guilty for not having tried to help.

Should I sacrifice my family’s safety to reach out and try to help a friend who was once like a sister?

Guilty BFF

Dear Guilty BFF,

It must be upsetting to hear this news about your friend. You obviously care about her and do not want to see her hurt. However, this is her life.

Her life is not an emergency. Her house is not on fire. She is not hanging from a cliff yelling for help. She is living her life, such as it is.
She probably does not have a nice clean kitchen where the two of you could sit and chat. It may be hard to make an appointment with her if she is busy getting a fix or getting bail or dealing with child protective services or managing her complex social life.

So if you want to see her, I suggest you drop in where she dances. It will give you a chance to see her without making an appointment. You might find, after seeing her dance, that you’re not really ready to call her or see her privately. It will give you a chance to feel what it’s like to be in her world, without making yourself known.

You might not like the environment. But it will help you understand what her life is like.

Her dancing may well be the high point of her life.
To you, it may seem like a pretty disgusting way to live. But this is a life your friend has chosen. It’s not a prison in which she is being held against her will.

I know that kind of life. And one thing I know about that kind of life is that when you are living that kind of life, you do not look out at all the shiny, clean people going about their orderly lives and wish your life could be like that. You have your problems, but you do not envy the straight people. You look down on them.

Such a life is not an unremitting horror. It has its ups and downs. She may occasionally be beaten and taken advantage of. She is probably exploited financially and occasionally robbed and threatened. But it’s her life and it has its rewards and its logic.

Whether by choice or not, your friend’s life is a life that many, many people in this country lead — a life of minimal income, frequent scrapes with the law, battles with social institutions, sporadic nightclub employment, frequent drug use and drinking, and association with people who have done time and are likely to do more time. In this world, violence happens with some regularity and usually has some logic to it. It arises out of personality conflicts or disputes over money or property or intimate relationships. It is something to be avoided if possible but not something that would in and of itself cause a person to flee the environment altogether. It is just something that happens, and you learn to live with it.

Think about what your friend was like when you knew her. What was her personality like? Did she have a lot of pride? Was she a passionate person? Did she like to drink when you knew her? Was she a thrill-seeker? Did she seem moody? Was she honest? Did she steal? Was she more interested in sex than you were? What kind of family did she come from? Try to connect that person you remember with the person who is dancing naked in a bar for money, who cannot pass a drug test even to keep her baby.

What do you come up with?

The most interesting thing to me in this is to ask what do you have in common? What traits do you have that might have led you into a similar life? Are there things about your friend that you used to admire, things that now you see have led her this way? Was she, for instance, a great dancer? Was she tough and stubborn and fun-loving. Were you?

If you approach her, approach her as a friend. If you can stay in touch with her, there is a chance that sometime down the road, if she reaches a true crisis, she will reach out to you for help, and you will be there. But until she asks for your help, do not assume you are there to rescue her.