Welcome to the latest installment of Ms. Opinionated, in which readers have questions about the pesky day-to-day choices we all face, and I give advice about how to make ones that (hopefully) best reflect our shared commitment to feminist values—as well as advice on what to do when they don’t.
Dear Ms. Opinionated:
My best friend just broke up with me. She has been with a guy for 8 months now, but after their first date, I expressed concern that he was still married and had an toddler. I was clear that he may be a great guy but he was still married. Our friendship fell apart after that: she disappeared, and then reappeared in my life months later still upset because she said I didn’t know him. She is acting like his child’s mother but has yet to talk to him about marriage, finances, kids, etc. They are moving in together at the end of the month. Yesterday she broke up with me. I’m kind of devastated but I knew it was coming.
Looking back I’ve kind of realized that she is insane. If you look up narcissism it is a dead on description of her. I didn’t see it till it became so obvious It is almost like her relationship with this man has set her into a deep depressed spiral where she has lashed out at any person who has expressed concern about the relationship. She even started reading these blogs of women who pontificate about falling in love with a man and equating that with happiness. She prefers echo chambers that tell her everything she is doing is good. I actually didn’t think narcissism was a real condition. I never saw it but I’m finding out my friends always saw it but didn’t see it as their place to tell me my best friend was crazy.
I guess I’m looking for advice on building better friendships with mentally healthy persons. Are there signs I should look for? I know a big part of this is my own fault. She didn’t just turn into a crazy person overnight
Most of us have all been where you are right now – post friend-dumping, knowing that the root cause was having opened our yaps about something we thought was important that the friend didn’t want to hear about a significant other. So I really sympathize with how much it sucks to have lost a good friend and to be feeling like all you did was tell her one tiny thing she just needed to ignore to stay in a relationship.
But, it also demonstrates the fine line between telling someone something they don’t want to hear, and coming across like you’re judging someone. No one likes to be judged, or to feel judged – and one thing good friends (eventually) learn is how to bring up a difficult subject without sounding like we’re just being judgmental and without falling into the “You don’t know him (or her)!” trap. Because she was right: you didn’t know him, and it sounds like you weren’t acquainted with his situation except insofar as she told you about it. That’s a hard place from which to make sound judgments. It’s also a place from which, when you do make judgments, you’re judging based on your friend’s description – which is going to almost automatically inspire a kind of defensiveness because it’ll naturally be only part of the story.
So how to get around that? One great way to avoid those traps is to talk about your friend rather than about whatever sketch partner you’re side-eying. It’s not really enough to preface that he might “be a great guy” – you should always focus the conversation on your friend. You perhaps could’ve said, “Are you sure that you’ll be happy taking on the responsibility for a toddler at the start of a relationship? That might be really hard on you,” and then listened to her answers. Or you could’ve said, “I’m worried that you won’t get the great relationship you deserve from a man who’s only just barely ending one long-term relationship and caring for a young child,” and let her respond to that directly. But the way you framed your concerns created a situation in which she – and most people would have – felt like she had to defend going out with him, having any feelings for him, his honor and their relationship instead of listening to the real root of your concern: her feelings, her future, her happiness.
It’s something to learn for next time. It doesn’t mean you have to bite your tongue when your friends enter into situations that you believe are tricky at best and harmful at worst, but it does mean that you have to make the effort to frame your concerns in a way that makes it clear you’re coming from a place of concern for their feelings and future and not about the problematic nature of the partner per se. And if or when you get nowhere, if the friendship is of value to you, you have to back off, hope that you’re wrong, allow your friend to live her or his life and not gloat if or when you turn out to have been right. Friendship isn’t about who’s right and who’s wrong about whose life choices, but about loving and supporting the people with whom you surround yourself, trying to be there for them and allowing them to be there for you.
It’s interesting that you suggest a symptom of the problem is that she “started reading these blogs of women who pontificate about falling in love with a man and equating that with happiness.” You don’t have to go out of your way to read blogs like that, nor to receive the cultural messaging that a relationship is, in and of itself, a goal worth pursuing and one that will lead to lifelong happiness. It’s sort of par for the kyriarchal course and while it can feel really sad and disappointing to watch a friend turn herself (or himself) inside out to fit into a relationship, any relationship, the fact of the matter is that it’s not even non-normative and there’s nothing one friend is going to say to talk a person out of it. It isn’t what you would choose (or think you would choose), it doesn’t make sense to you for your friend to choose it, and it seems like you think it’s out of character. But people get lonely, and relationships are positioned as the end to loneliness – even though bad ones are actually the expressway to loneliness – and society suggests that (cisgender, hetero) women are in competition for a limited supply of (cisgender, hetero) men so we ladies need to grab ‘em and not let go. When a friend falls for that, or chooses to accept that framing, all you can do is shrug, make your own choices about if and how deeply you want to be in a friendship with someone like that, and get on with your own life.
Now, I understand that you are grieving the friendship and that anger is part of the grieving process, but I’d also encourage you to reconsider some of the armchair psychology in your letter. It doesn’t help you make better choices – or better understand her her – to declare her “crazy” or “insane” or decide she was depressed or a narcissist. You don’t actually know any of those things from a clinical standpoint, and it comes across as extremely judgmental of people who do have mental health issues. It isn’t exactly textbook narcissism to prefer positive feedback from your friends than negative feedback, nor an automatic symptom of “a deep depressed spiral” to choose to enter into a relationship with a person with a complicated life over your friend’s objections. It’s not even “insane” to end a friendship with someone who you feel judges you and your relationship choices in a negative fashion – it seems pretty normative, given how often I’ve seen or heard about it. There’s a lot of anger in those descriptions, a lot of negative judgments about her mental health (and other people’s struggles with mental health) and a whole lot of negativity that is only going to take a toll on you and your ability to be a friend to your existing friends and make new ones. You really need to let all of that go.
So, when it comes to making better choices for yourself, the best thing to do is ask yourself how your friends add to your life. You have a lot to say about why your friendship with this woman ended, but not a great deal about what you got out of your friendship before that. Did she make you feel loved and supported? Was she always there for you in a crisis? Did you guys have awesome wild nights out partying until sunrise? You don’t really say.
Friendship, like any relationship, is a two-way street, so it’s both about what you give to others and what you get back. You have to be a friend to people, and you have to make sure that they are being friends to you – and if the people you choose to be friends with don’t seem like people on whom you can rely for love and support, then the best choice to make (as your former friend did here, whether you agree with her evaluation or not) is the one where you find new friends.
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Photo credit: Kate Black, kateblack.com