Expert Judith Sills, PhD, answers readers' questions about friendships in trouble.
The more friends you have, the more likely you’ll lead a joyful life. So when a good pal gets on your nerves, don’t just back away — get your relationship back on track. Here are some common relationship problems and how to solve them.
Q. My friend constantly complains about everything that’s wrong with her life. I spend hours offering advice, but since she rarely acts on it, I feel like I’m wasting my time. What should I do?
A. Ah, the doctor/patient dynamic — one friend has problems, the other leaps endlessly, and fruitlessly, to the rescue. Stop trying to improve her and redirect that energy to make positive changes in your relationship. Set a limit on your girlfriend’s griping by saying, “I know it’s important, so I’ll give you 15 minutes to talk about your boyfriend. Then it’s my turn to talk about what’s happening at work.” Give her a one-minute warning, and when time’s up, announce it in a cheerful tone. When she asks for help, offer sympathy — but no solutions. Rehearse your responses (“How awful. What are you going to do?” or “I don’t know how you should handle it. What do you think is best?”). By renouncing the role of savior, you’ll help even out a one-sided friendship, which isn’t working for either of you.
Q. I have a friend at work who’s always pestering me to join her at a lunchtime yoga class. I'm grateful, since her prodding has helped me get in better shape. But I often feel pressured to go even when I’m too busy. How can I get her to ease up?
A. Lucky you to have such a friend! On the other hand, you don’t want to let her dictate how you spend your lunch hour. To avoid having to fend her off daily, set a schedule for yourself and politely inform her of it. Say something like, “I appreciate your encouragement about yoga class. I can go with you two or three times a week, but I need the other days for errands.” If she continues to badger you, have a few responses ready, such as, “Thanks for asking, but I have to finish up something tomorrow and work through lunch today,” or “I’d love to, but I’m meeting a friend for lunch.” It’s up to you to be firm.
Q. My friend is competitive when it comes to her teens versus other people’s kids. If I say my son loves science club, she’ll start listing her kids’ achievements. Is there a way to make her stop?
A. Your friend’s need to trump your children’s accomplishments stems from a complex set of factors — a competitive nature, anxiety about her parenting abilities, the absence of other arenas in which to shine. She’s not conscious of her behavior and how off-putting it is. If she’s a good friend, you might want to try to help her change. The next time she starts bragging, say, “I feel like we’re caught in some kind of competition over our kids. I’m afraid it might hurt our relationship, and I don’t want that.” If you’re lucky, she’ll laugh at herself and say, “Have I become one of those mothers? Next time I do that, kick me, okay?” Or you might get a chilly response, but at least you’ll know you tried to remedy the problem.
If the relationship isn’t close, it might simply be better to avoid a possible confrontation and accept that this friendship has its limits. She isn’t someone who you should share the joys of parenting with, so keep them to yourself. Whenever she boasts about her kids, just say, “You must be very proud.” If she continues, repeat the phrase. She’ll eventually get the message.
Q. I have a friend who was a big help to me years ago when I was going through a really tough time. Now that I’m doing fine, she seems distant and is inclined to return my calls only if I need help. How do I win back her friendship?
A. Did the two of you ever enjoy a close bond during happy times? If so, a heart-to-heart talk is in order. A friend who pulls away after helping you through a rough patch does so for a reason — perhaps she felt exhausted, or you haven’t been giving enough back — but you won’t know unless you ask. First, express thanks for all the help she gave you. Then say, “I’ve really missed you lately. I’ve been wondering if I’ve done something to make you not want to return my calls?” Most likely your friend will be reluctant to tell you what’s on her mind. But if you press — sincerely and gently — she might open up and clear the air.
Of course, it may be that she’s strictly a foul-weather friend. There are people who actually prefer relationships where they’re constantly rescuing a friend in need. They’re always ready to listen to your problems, come over when you’re sick or comfort you in a crisis. Friendships on an equal footing, however, make them uncomfortable, perhaps because they’re intensely competitive or they have an unconscious need to be the strong, superior one. If that’s the case with your friend, you should probably resign yourself to letting go.