Bad Friends: Everyone Has One

bfSHE CAME TO MY HOUSE EVERY DAY, bearing freshly squeezed orange juice, pots of chicken soup, and loads of advice. My friend Alice(*) was a godsend, there for me at a horrible time when I’d lost my job and was feeling miserable. I’d weep, and she’d tut-tut and put her arm around my shoulder, bucking me up and reassuring me that my previous employers weren’t fit to shine my shoes. When yet another job interview became a dead end, she’d come over, fix dinner, listen to my new tale of woe, and tell me that my limitless talents would be appreciated more the next time.

Alice was as solid as a friend could be–until I found another job. Then, this woman who had been on the scene in my darkest days seemed to vanish. My phone calls to her went unanswered, and when I did finally reach her, there was coldness in her voice instead of enthusiasm at my good fortune. I agonized: What had I done to drive her away? I missed her, but she didn’t seem to miss me. I felt like I had been dumped. And indeed I had. From her point of view, with my crisis over, there was no place for our friendship to go except out the window.

We’re told that real friends are those who stick with us in bad times. But sometimes we discover, painfully, that the true test of a friend’s staying power is her ability to be supportive when things are going well.

Alice, it turned out, was a perfect example of a foul-weather friend, someone who thrives during your disasters. This kind of negative friend “is really a very needy person,” says Helen Fisher. Ph.D., an anthropologist at Rutgers University and author of Anatomy of Love. “She’ll tend to downplay your successes to secure her position in your life and feel abandoned when you don’t need her. Her role as `crutch’ is threatened when circumstances change.”

A foul-weather friend can also be someone who dwells on the negative aspects of your life, effectively creating a one-woman foul-weather system. Or she could be the pal–they used to be called busybodies–who ferrets out your troubles and even helps to create some you didn’t know you had.

Those descriptions are familiar to Andrea, whose decade-long friendship with Edie is a source of anxiety. “When Edie calls, she always ends up saying something awful. My husband has chronic fatigue syndrome, and she’ll say, `How’s Ed? I just heard of someone whose husband died from that.’ Or she’ll read something negative that could affect Ed’s business and will be the first one on the phone to ask if it may lead to a corporate takeover.”

Andrea admits that she doesn’t really enjoy seeing Edie. But, she says, “I feel obligated to stay in touch. Edie and her husband don’t have a lot of friends. We’ve curtailed our time with them, but I’m reluctant to cut off the relationship altogether.”

Her justification for maintaining the friendship is revealing–and not uncommon. “Sometimes, women feel it is better for them to suffer a negative friend than to break it off because they don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings,” says Karen Gail Lewis, Ed.D., a Washington, DC, family therapist. “There’s this image that it’s better to take the hurt and discomfort yourself for months or years rather than give it to someone else for five minutes–to tell them you want to see less of them or don’t want to be friends anymore.” Often, adds Lewis, women think it’s just easier to stay with old friends than to risk making new ones.

But there’s another, larger problem. Most of us don’t really know how to behave toward friends. “Unlike marriage, there is nothing that binds us to a friend legally or morally,” says Jacqueline P. Wiseman, Ph.D., retired professor of sociology at the University of California, San Diego. “Friendship is purely voluntary.” Problems arise, according to Wiseman, because “there’s an unacknowledged contract, but it’s never discussed. Though you don’t talk about the expectations you have for a friend, you expect certain things anyway.”

For many women, raised to be compassionate and nurturing, friendship is not only an essential part of their lives, but goes to the very core of who they are. “We re-create family-of-origin issues in our friendships,” says Lewis. “Someone who grew up feeling unloved may find the only way she can get a sense of self-worth is by giving up herself and doing for others. If she grew up being criticized, that’s how she’ll show `caring’ in her friendships. But if she’s the kind of woman who was raised being valued, then she’s going to look for much more mutuality and won’t be satisfied with a relationship like that.”

It took a while for Karen to catch on to what her friend Lena was up to. “I remember being in bed with the flu once and her only comment to me was, `What did you do to bring it on?’ Like it was somehow my fault.

“She’d question everything. For a while, I was seeing a very nice man, but she kept saying that he was taking advantage of me financially if I told her we had split the dinner check. The point is, she’d use criticism as a gift–she’d be the one to tell me things that other friends wouldn’t, and that was what made her more valuable.”

But they remained friends for five years because, Karen says, “she seemed so strong and perceptive, and I really believed she was doing me a favor when she brought up the difficult questions. I thought she was a good balance in my life.”

Finally, Karen was able to put the “friendship” in perspective and take the initiative to end it. But when a foul-weather friend abandons you, it can be very hurtful–even if you know you’re better off without her. Annie still remembers the sting of betrayal she felt when Roz left her behind. “She’d been incredibly supportive,” Annie says. “My marriage was very unhappy, and she was right next door, listening to all my problems. But when I made the decision to divorce and take some control over my life, she withdrew.

“One day we were at the neighborhood swimming pool, and I asked her why she was so distant. `I can’t be your friend anymore because you don’t want to be best friends with me,’ she said. The reason–she told me she thought I was becoming friends with someone else–didn’t make sense. She wouldn’t listen when I told her that wasn’t the case. She just cut me off. I was thirty-five years old, and sobbing like a girl in grade school who had just been rejected.”

Now happily remarried, Annie is philosophical about the episode. “I guess she was like the boyfriend who moves in too fast, with too many flowers and too many boxes of chocolates,” she says. “I was very flattered by her attentions, but there was something in her behavior that made me think there might be a very long emotional string attached. And there was.”

Helga reacted similarly when her foul-weather friend found a replacement. “Leslie would be so eager to hear every little detail of my bad days at the office,” Helga says. “And if my kids had trouble at school, she wanted to know what they’d done. One time, I remember, I showed her my daughter’s report card, which was quite good. She looked at it and said, almost in triumph, `But she got a C in gym.'”

Helga finally got tired of the negative nit-picking and started to see less of Leslie. “Then I went to a party and saw her fawning over someone else–and it hurt my feelings. It was like running into an old boyfriend you don’t want, but feeling jealous anyway.”

How do you handle the mischief–even maliciousness–of a foul-weather friend? “The only thing you really can do,” says Lewis, “is to be strong enough to say to yourself, This woman is trouble. And move on.”

Friendships change as our lives change. Some friends stay with us, some don’t. But the key at all times, says Susan Jeffers, Ph.D., author of Dare to Connect, is “to draw friends who make you feel confident instead of frightened, and who build you up instead of diminish you.” And, of course, to be a good friend yourself.


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