Welcome to "Friend or Foe," a regular Double X advice column for your queries about the trickiest of all love affairs: friendships. Lucinda Rosenfeld, author of I'm So Happy for You, a novel about best friends,is now taking questions at email@example.com.
Dear Friend or Foe,
I've had a life-changing year that included a new marriage, the unemployment of family members, housing-crisis woes, an annoying injury, and a promotion at my job that has me traveling and working long hours. As my life has gotten more complicated, I've found that my tolerance of fair-weather friends (FWFs) has diminished completely. These days, a few canceled plans, missed call-backs, or insensitive comments, and I delete said FWFs from my social repertoire.
For example: I have a "friend"—"Jenny"—who, while very sweet and well-meaning, invites me to too many religious events, even after I've told her "thanks, but no thanks" when it comes to Bible-thumping. If we do have regular plans, she tends to cancel either right before or stands me up. She apologizes with a variety of eyebrow-raising excuses. She is one of five FWFs I've recently dumped. Others have been jettisoned for reasons ranging from: "I'm too old to get drunk every night" to "uses people for money" to "one shared interest is not enough."
To be fair to myself, I do see my good friends on a regular basis. Throughout a year of ups and downs, they've been supportive and spectacular. Meanwhile, I feel very guilty about my serial-dumping, but I can't seem to have the same open-minded acceptance that I once had. My question is: Is it OK to dump those friends who don't fit 100 percent in your life? Or is it a selfish act?
Help, I'm a Serial Dumper!
If you told me that, after a year spent losing your patience and temper with Sally, Ann, Mary, Suzy, and Kate, you found yourself completely friendless—and with not a single pal in your rolodex with whom to see It's Complicated, I'd suggest you review your approach. But since you say you have a core group of great, supportive girlfriends, I'm not sure why you feel so bad about spring-cleaning the riff-raff. We all go through periods during which we realize who our real pals are, and move away from those with whom we lack any meaningful connection.
Regarding "Jenny," I received a letter a while back from a hard-core secularist whose born-again friend wouldn't leave her alone on the subject—and I suggested that the friendship was doomed. I don't know enough about you and Jenny to know if this is the case. But the facts that she's been bailing on your plans and that she only invites you to religious events suggest to me that she's keen to end the friendship as well. You might as well hold the guilt.
Perpetual money borrowers are best crossed off the list for the good of your bank account. Ditto—on behalf of your liver—for those boozy buddies. But I do think there is such a thing as a one-activity friend, which is to say that not all your friends in life have to be the closest and mostest. You could have, say, a jogging friend. Or a knitting friend. Or even a friend with whom you exclusively compare notes on dumping your other friends.
Friend or Foe
Dear Friend or Foe,
"Shelly" and I have been friends for almost 20 years. But she and her husband don't learn from their mistakes. Three years after they married, they declared bankruptcy. Today they're on the verge of doing so a second time. Their debt load boggles my mind. Although they both asked for my advice, that advice was ignored. But the phone calls—in which they whined for two hours about the financial strain—continued. Another example: Shelly insisted her husband needed therapy for depression. Since we have the same insurance coverage, I researched and sent her a list of half a dozen therapists in their area. She never called any of the names. But almost every call since then included her complaining about his behavior.
Three months ago, I took a break from the relationship. When we did eventually talk, I tried to be gentle. But there's no kind way to tell someone, "You take advantage of my willingness to help. You ask for input and seem to laugh as you do the opposite." I'm far from perfect myself. The difference is that I take responsibility for my actions. People call me the "research queen," knowing that I'll spend days examining the pros and cons and weighing long-term benefits vs. immediate gratification.
The problem is that even though Shelly gave me headaches, I miss her terribly. Part of me worries I was being judgmental, ignoring the stark truth that she's an adult and can do as she pleases. I grew up with a viciously judgmental mother, and I strive to be the opposite. I need to know if it's just guilt that haunts me each day, or if I was an unsympathetic, finger-pointing quasi-friend.
Confused and Lonely in the Midwest
Have you ever heard the phrase "You can't solve other people's problems"? If not, it's a cliché you should take to heart. Bitching and moaning—at least in my circle—is practically the definition of female friendship. Your mistake is in thinking that the moaners expect you to do anything about their moans—except maybe listen, mutter "that sucks," and agree that you would be annoyed by what their husband/mother/boyfriend/partner/boss/other friend did, too.
You're clearly a very empathetic person, which is a lovely quality. But if you have this talent—and also one for research—what about volunteering at some kind of shelter or social welfare office where the inhabitants have clearly come looking for help?
Meanwhile, if you miss Shelly—and assuming she's still willing to talk to you—why not give her a call and suggest the two of you do something fun and nonwhiny. (Though I wouldn't phrase it that way.) Invite her to the movies. If she can't afford to go, maybe you could pick up two tickets. Or go get a drink somewhere and dance. If Shelly asks you for advice again, tell her you've hung up your Dear Abby hat—and that you don't believe she really wants your counsel. If you guys are good friends, you'll find something else to talk about.
Friend or Foe
Dear Friend or Foe,
On a few recent occasions, my close friend "Jane" has made irritating comments to me. While at dinner, I was sharing my concerns that my boyfriend "Clark" doesn't want to get married. Jane disdainfully said, "Yeah, but do you really wanna marry Clark?" with a facial expression as if she'd just smelled a fart. Another time I was shopping with Jane and made a joke about seeing unkempt, large women with very attractive men. I then joked that people probably make the same comment about Clark and me, as he is very thin and I am definitely not. Jane, who is 25 pounds lighter than I, said, "But you're cute in the face."
Then this past month at dinner with another friend, I was asked how my new job was going. I was very excited to say that I was expecting a substantial raise this year, then another the next. Jane is a teacher and mentioned that she and her colleagues would not be getting raises due to the budget shortfall. I told her that, despite the salary, she will always have something that I don't yet have. I meant that she absolutely loves her job. Jane, however, looked me dead in the eye and said, "A degree?"
My boyfriend chalks up Jane's behavior to her being comfortable in the friendship. But I would never say things like that to friends, or anyone else for that matter! My own theory is that Jane may be a smidge jealous—that she sees herself as the more attractive and better-educated one, and can't believe that I'm the one with the better paying job and great guy. In recent years, she has been through a string of unavailable men (read: are cheating on wives/girlfriends with her) and sex buddies. Should I say something? Ninety-nine percent of the time, Jane is caring and fun-loving.
We're Both Equally Awesome, So Shut the Hell Up!
From her comments, Jane sounds like a classic underminer. (The "degree" comment was so quintessentially bitchy it was almost funny!—sorry.) But I also wonder if you're being sensitive enough to her situation. Here you are, complaining about how Clark isn't ready to marry you—knowing that she's single (and clearly has capital "I" Issues with men and relationships). You're also rejoicing about your raise while she's dealing with a pay freeze. It's quite likely that Jane is jealous. Who wouldn't be jealous of your recent good fortune? But it's also possible that she's getting you back for insensitive perorating about your own fabulosity.
If you still think Jane is awesome, I'd let the comments go and instead make an extra effort next time you see her to ask about a) her dating prospects and b) how teaching is going. You could even propose setting her up with a friend of Clark's. If you take this approach, I guarantee the bitchfest will soon die down.
A final note: When exciting things happen, there's nothing wrong with gushing to your good friends. Just make sure it doesn't become a pattern. You never know when you'll be the one on the other side of the table, feeling like all the luck belongs to the other ladies.
Friend or Foe