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April 11, 2012 6:50 AM   Subscribe

How to deal with a best friend who brings you down. I feel like a bad friend even asking this question.

My best friend of 16 years- we'll call her Judith is increasingly bringing me down every time I talk to her, to the point that I have started avoiding her phone calls. There is always some drama going on in her life- two hours worth of long drawn out repetitive drama.

One example: Judith and 'Dave' have been married for 5 years (they are both in their mid 30's) and have been going back and forth about what they want to to with their lives for the last 3 years. Dave wants to move to L.A. to work on films, and become a big director (with no contacts and no experience) she does not want to move to L.A. She has a career here, but would be willing to move to a place that would be financially more suitable and less risky, but still afford them the opportunity to expand their artistic resumes.
She brings up places- he shoots them down. At this point- they reach this point every 3-6 months- they may just do what is best for them individually. The word divorce is never uttered, just that she will not participate in an absentee marriage.

When I have something really great to share I get about 5 minutes in before it becomes about how my great news affects her life and then spirals back down into to mire of her troubles. An example of that would be when I got pregnant a few months ago with our first child it started out how happy she was for me, then moved right in to how it was going to change her life. We found out we miscarried at 9 weeks. Needless to say my husband and I were devastated, but for her it became all about how she realized that she didn't ever want children and how my pregnancy brought her to that realization and that was not the direction she saw her life going and so on.

Everyone has times when they need a friend to talk to, but I feel like she does all the talking- I literally feel exhausted after I speak to her.
I try to limit my face to face time with her because of all the drama she goes on about. We can't ever just talk about silly things any more (like recipes or hair or girl chat- you know the light hearted quick just-saw-this-and-wanted-to-tell-you-about-it kind of stuff). I also limit when I answer her calls because I know I will get a marathon of bad news. I feel incredibly selfish for even asking this question.

How have you handled a situation like this?
posted by MayNicholas to Human Relations (30 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
It's okay to feel like there's something out of balance about things. And it's also okay to say that TO her.

But it doesn't have to be a big angry "you're always such a Debbie Downer and it's driving me crazy" kind of thing; more like, an observation that she's doing this kind of thing a lot, maybe without noticing it, and it's starting to affect the friendship. And it's making you worried about her, and maybe it's a sign she needs to talk to someone else (as in: a therapist) who's going to be better able to help her than you are. You absolutely support her and want her to be happy and want to help, but the kind of help she needs is more than you can provide all on your own, that's all.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:55 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

She doesn't sound like a very good friend to you. Wanting it to be different won't make it so. Maybe it's time to cut your losses and find someone who can support you in the ways that you deserve to be supported.

Also, it's not a selfish question. You had some difficult times during which you really needed her support and it sounds like she was unable or unwilling to provide that for you, which is something a good, true friend would do. I'm sorry for your loss and for this situation.
posted by Flamingo at 7:06 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

She and her husband have gone the counselling route and she has seen a therapist but can not afford to go regularly- insurance doesn't cover but so many visits (we have discussed this). She is already on anti depressants. She won't speak with her own family about this because they too have a well of troubles. Her mother is on several anti psychotics and anti depressants and does not handle negative news well at all. She talks to me because I am her best friend and best friends always listen.
posted by MayNicholas at 7:07 AM on April 11, 2012

Uh, no, best friends do not always listen unless they are dogs (cats eventually are like "fuck off then, I'm going to the litterbox"). They also talk and share joy and sometimes are just busy. You are being badly used, and it might not be her fault because she sounds depressed but it isn't your fault, either.

Have you ever discussed this with her? Or said something like "hey, I'd like to talk about how this is affecting me right now"?
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:16 AM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Yeah, why Would you still be friends with her? It's Totally ok to set boundaries and drift away from someone who's this self-obsessed. She sounds like a vampire, sucking everything out of the relationship.

If there's a great reason to remain friends, try talking to her about how this is affecting you.
posted by ldthomps at 7:17 AM on April 11, 2012

She talks to me because I am her best friend and best friends always listen.

Therapists also always listen. And there's a reason that therapists get paid and friends don't -- and it's not because of the bonds of affection, it's because therapists have the training to best help someone.

She's trying to use you as a free therapist. She may not know that this is what she's trying to do, but she sort of is.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 7:21 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

I've ultimately handled it on several occasions by distancing myself from the person. You are right that "best friends listen" but that is a mutual obligation. Best friends don't ALWAYS listen, by the way - sometimes they talk and are listened TO. And sometimes they fail you.

You can try any of the following tactics: changing the subject when she goes into a vortex; cutting her off gently with an "I'd rather keep the conversation positive"; telling her you have something on the stove after 5 minutes of drama; telling her if she cuts YOU off: "I listened to you - now you can listen to me." If you both are lucky, she will respond to these tactics.

However, I do have to wonder if you are getting anything out of this friendship other than relief from unwarranted guilt. It is OK to leave a relationship if you have outgrown it.
posted by Currer Belfry at 7:21 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I responded to this person by calling them and hanging out less because it's freaking exhausting. (Granted, this person was never a best friend...and old friend, but not a best friend.) If you really want to make a go of it, try making her aware of the situation.
posted by smirkette at 7:26 AM on April 11, 2012

The only great reason I have is loyalty.

Maybe next time I will just cut her off and tell her to keep it positive. Of course I have done that before. That always goes in to how something negative happened that day and how she handled it in a positive way, but the emphasis is always on the negative thing. May I will just change the subject to gardening.

Funny that you say that Empress- I was on the grad school track for psychology a few years ago- she was pretty excited she would have a free therapist... Maybe she forgot I lost my slot in the program.

I guess I will have to figure out the right way to word all of this to her.

The stuff she is dealing with in her marriage is the same type of stuff I was dealing with in a prior relationship several years ago. The guy and I were together for 10 years- he wanted to be a rock star in L.A. and I wanted to move somewhere with trees. We weren't married so I finally cut my losses and moved away. I think she may think I have some magical words to inspire her next move. The truth is, I think they should cut their losses and split. However, I would never tell her that. If they work it out and live happily ever after, I don't want to be the one who spoke ill of her husband and told her to leave him.
posted by MayNicholas at 7:36 AM on April 11, 2012

During a particularly rough point in my life, I actually had a close friend say to me "Damn girl, you do realize you're not the center of the fucking universe?"

We're still very close. It was something I needed to hear and it really helped me move past a really horrible place in my life. Sometimes when people get into these neverending sagas, it's hard for them to realize that the continued discussion about it doesn't help. Some people never recognize this and will never understand.

The worst thing that can happen at this point is that you say something, she gets offended and stops being your friend. Which, really she's not being a good friend right now anyway so where's the bad?
posted by teleri025 at 7:38 AM on April 11, 2012 [6 favorites]

I am a guy, so this approach may not work with girls, take it with a grain of salt please.

I had a friend very much like this, hours on the phone, complaints about every aspect of his existence, from mundane, my house is a pig sty stuff, to serious, I don't want to live anymore, drunken pleading stuff.

It took time but I would address his more mundane complaints with obvious answer "clean the fucking house" kind of stuff. If he intimated that wasn't what he was looking for in our conversation, I would (not so politely, we're guys ok?) tell him those topics were off limits then, no need to state the obvious when we both know what you have to do. This ranged from cleaning house to keeping up with bills etc.

When I would talk about myself or highs and lows in my life, if he interrupted me, I just kept talking. We would go on literally for minutes with both of us talking until he realized I was trying to say something. We had shouting matches, abrupt subject changes, and were basically negotiating how to handle our friendship over the phone. Not always pretty, my girlfriend called him my REAL girlfriend due to our lengthy almost daily conversations.

As far as his deeper problems, sometimes I could only listen and reassure him I was there for him. There are times in everyone's life when they DO just want a shoulder to lean on. learn to recognize those moments as genuine and treat the others with short patience if you must.

Sorry about your miscarriage, btw, but as an example, that was genuine unfortunate news, in that circumstance you have every right to redirect her back to your grief and give her short shrift if she doesn't understand. Not all her grievances with her world fall into the "life changing" category a miscarriage or terminal illness of a loved one is. Inform her of this.
posted by Max Power at 7:39 AM on April 11, 2012 [5 favorites]

I cut a much loved friend for this last year. I had been her shoulder to cry on for a long time and mostly we traded evenly, but when a crisis hit, she went silent unless it was about her problems. It broke my heart and still does because I love her and her family. But when I stopped emailing/calling, she didn't reach out, even though she knew things were terrible, and that crystallised for me how unhealthy our friendship had become.

Try not calling or emailing her for a couple of weeks. When/if she calls, tell her bluntly that you need to vent or talk for a while, and see if she gives that to you. If she doesn't contact you, or rides over your requests, or you find that you're just so relieved not to have to comfort her in the middle of your ignored pain, then you know it's time to say goodbye to that friendship.

I hope she calls and listens.

If it does end, be smarter than me and quietly filter out her posts on facebook etc and allow yourself time to mourn. I do find it comforting though to continue remembering and praying for her and her family, even though we haven't spoken in over a year now.
posted by viggorlijah at 7:39 AM on April 11, 2012

I guess I will have to figure out the right way to word all of this to her.
No, you don't. You don't have to. You can just let things drift away. You do, probably, have to stop calling her, and stop returning her calls. You don't have to have a big talk, though. You don't have to explain to her why her negativity drove you away. You can just let it go.

I'm guessing she'll whine a bit at first, mostly about how she's lost a friend, about how hard this is on her, and about how she misses you. But then, and I'm still guessing here, she'll find someone else to dump on. Your challenge is not letting it happen again, with her, or with someone else.
posted by MrMoonPie at 7:53 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

MayNicholas: "The truth is, I think they should cut their losses and split. However, I would never tell her that. If they work it out and live happily ever after, I don't want to be the one who spoke ill of her husband and told her to leave him."

If I didn't know any better, I'd say that she's deliberately setting you up to do exactly that; she just doesn't want to be the first one to utter those words.... and if it's wrong, you end up taking the blame for it.

Honestly, this seems like a no-win situation for you. My recommendation would be to be honest with your friend, if only because it sounds like you're pretty stressed about having this on your chest.
posted by schmod at 7:53 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

My best friend doesn't always listen. She tells me hard truths that I need to hear about how I'm behaving.
posted by ead at 7:54 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

You must tell her how this makes you feel. She isn't participating in this friendship as an equal friend; she merely sees you as someone to vent to who isn't worthy of the favor being returned. I, too, have miscarried and am now pregnant again, and if a friend of mine told me how much my pregnancy affected her (seemingly negatively, by your description), I would have said something right then and there. Do you realize that she's doing this as she's doing it, or is this something you reflect on after she's done talking (which sounds like she never stops!)? I would call her out on it when she's doing it and tell her how it makes you feel. Say, "you don't ever really seem to care about what I have to say or what's going on in my life, and you always seem to turn it around to make it somehow about yourself. What's the deal with that?" If at all possible, leave as much edge and tone out of your voice as possible. For me, that would be impossible, but I think that if you ask her this genuine question, it might zap her out of her frankly shitty behavior.
posted by ThaBombShelterSmith at 7:56 AM on April 11, 2012

Hey. My best friend of many years and I drifted apart, and it sucked. It was becoming kind of one-sided, as your relationship with your BFF is now. I feel like you can see the writing on the wall here. I mean, you knew everyone on AskMe would tell you to DTMFA, right?

You may drift back together later in life if she gets her shit together. Changes in long-standing friendships are weird and difficult to negotiate, but the fact is that she is being awful to you right now, and you deserve better. You don't have to have a blow-out fight with her (although you could). You don't have to gently express to her that you wish to see her less/hear about her drama less (although you could). You don't have to quietly wait for this situation with her husband to resolve itself (although you could). But you also don't have to continue to go with the status quo in this friendship (although you could, and that's what you're choosing so far. How's that working out for you?).

In my opinion, the only obligation you have here is to yourself. You've tried to be a supportive friend to her, and even though she's crap at expressing it, somewhere underneath the layers of self-absorption, she appreciates it. But someone has to advocate for YOU in this situation. There's only one person who's really going to advocate for you, and that's you.

Also, going back to her for a second, it doesn't really help her to have someone indulging her selfish, yucky behavior constantly. It doesn't help the universe for her to be negative and drama queen-y and for you to accept that as okay when you aren't really okay with it. So if you can't quite get to the point of putting yourself first (although you should!), reflect back on your pre-psych training and think about the negative impact it has on HER life in the long term to be indulged constantly.
posted by pupstocks at 8:05 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

Thank you all for the condolences on our loss.

As far as telling her that I need to vent for a bit- I don't. I don't have anything I need to vent about. My life is pretty good. If something in my life is really bad I talk to my husband (he is my real bff but don't tell her that). I miss being able to talk to her about the mundane stuff that my husband doesn't care about (girlfriend chatter). I am generally an upbeat person and don't let too much get to me. I don't have any raging dramas. Losing our baby was devastating, but I am a resilient person. I grieved, rationalized, grieved, and then looked towards a positive future. That is just how I try to handle things.

Please understand she does have her happy times. But they fewer and further beween than the drama times now. I guess I just keep hoping that the old happy her will come around again, so I want to support her through what ever this is that she is dealing with.

Part of me wonders though, if this isn't just who she is becoming in her adulthood.

I could just try the direct "Damn girl! Stop being such a negative Nancy!" Maybe that is all she needs.
posted by MayNicholas at 8:13 AM on April 11, 2012

I have a friend who was going through a divorce, had issues with depression, and was legitimately having a bad time go through a stage where she was unloading on me like a therapist. I'd go to a coffeeshop with her and spend 2 hours hearing about her problems and leave exhausted and this was happening pretty regularly for 3 months.

One day, I just snapped and told her that it's been way too one-sided, that we can't always and only talk about her and her problems, that she was venting to me and not talking with me, and that we needed to talk about me sometimes and other things if she was interested in maintaining this friendship. I kind of chewed her out and I wouldn't go about it this way if I had to do it over again, but she started keeping herself in check and our friendship blossomed.

The thing is, my friend wasn't an emotional vampire. She was just going through a really bad time in her life. If "Judith" has been this way for a while, it might be just how she operates. Worth saying something to her about this and see if anything changes.
posted by vivzan at 8:13 AM on April 11, 2012 [4 favorites]

Your friend sounds a bit like me. I am not good conversationally, and flounder when the conversation lags. And then I try to fill up the space, and instead of filling it up by drawing the other person out, which I suck at, I inevitably fill it up by talking about me. (Ironically, this is what I'm doing here.) Part of this is because I'm nervous about asking questions to a ridiculous degree, and am never sure what would be intrusive. You'd think just raising the subject would be a loud & clear signal that you want to talk about something, but for us conversationally challenged people, sometimes it's just a little more complicated than that.

The thing I would like to put out there, though, is that when I do this, I talk about the other person's problems by talking about anything I can think of that I can relate to the other person's experiences. That, is by talking about what relates to the problem in my life, what I am trying to say is, "I feel your pain"; that I'm sorry; that I hurt for you; that, to whatever degree possible, I am drawing on my recollections to try and relate to what it is you are telling me.

Is it possible that your friend is trying to convey her sadness & concern through parallells? Or is she just going off in her own direction oblivious?

Also, there's nothing actually wrong with saying, "hey, can we talk about me for a minute, I could really use [fill in the blank]." It may feel awkward, but if she actually cares & is just missing the subtler cues about what you need, it's a good way to reset the channel from blather to "attend and LISTEN."
posted by Ys at 9:03 AM on April 11, 2012 [2 favorites]

My friend and I had a way of telling each other that we were being rather selfish, without being too direct when the other one was having a tough time. If I called her and was on a whining binge and she needed to opt out, she'd say "I need some Becky time right now, ok?", which told me she couldn't listen/give feedback/validate or whatever it was I wanted from her right then. We also would preface conversations with "I need Keri time" when it was especially dire and we really really needed to talk something through. Using this code keeps our friendship from falling apart when one of us is particularly needy (which happens to everyone) and the other one is starting to feel used.
posted by hollygoheavy at 9:12 AM on April 11, 2012 [3 favorites]

I was being repetitively whiny with a friend once, and she said she'd read in a book how some native Canadians have a sort of women's lodge where the rule is that if a problem is brought up three times, it can't be raised again unless some significant change has been made in the situation by the woman herself.

I heard her.
posted by zadcat at 9:19 AM on April 11, 2012 [38 favorites]

Drop them. Life is too short to be involved with toxic folks
posted by pakora1 at 9:21 AM on April 11, 2012

Do you like her? Do you ever enjoy spending time with her, or talking on the phone with her? Because if the answer to those questions is "no," then she's not your friend, and she certainly isn't your best friend. Friendship isn't some sort of stable state that persists irrespective of the two parties' feelings toward each other. It's ok to outgrow someone, and "because we've been friends in the past" isn't really a good enough reason to stay friends with someone who you don't want to see or talk to.
posted by Ragged Richard at 9:41 AM on April 11, 2012

I think she may think I have some magical words to inspire her next move.

Interrupt the repetition and cut to the chase: "You two need a couples therapist," "Maybe you should think about divorce." Stuff like that, without criticizing her personally.
posted by rhizome at 10:11 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

Teleri025's nailed it dead on - she's the center of the universe. The conversation following your miscarriage, for example, is a staggering example of her world view being ALL about her. Ugh. Other than my usual favorite line, "Do something about it or shut up about it," I am not sure if anything softballed at her would be heard.

So there are two parts to your complaint: she is full of neg, and she doesn't listen/participate in an equal friendship. For part 1, I'd ask her what she plans on doing about it - and when she gives you all of the reasons why she can't (it's her husband's decision, not enough money, blah blah) then circle back and ask it again. ("OK, so given it's not all your decision/not enough $/whatev, what are you planning on doing about it?") I'd repeat that until she either stops talking about it because she isn't getting the response she wants, or until she gets pissed at you and stops talking altogether.

For Part 2, I'd just flat out ask her if you can be listened to for this part of the conversation. Many people try and empathize by recounting their own similar experiences, and maybe in her own (badly done) way that is what she is trying to do. But if not, then I'd ask for what you need - either to be a sounding board, adviser, shopping buddy, whatever. This might be hard for her and she may not be good at it at first but if you want to be friends with her try it.

If neither of these pan out, then I'd fade away. I can't handle people like this at all, personally. Good luck!
posted by 8dot3 at 10:18 AM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

My father, whom I loved a lot and who was a kind, generous man in many ways, had this same failing: whenever I would talk with him about what was happening in my life, he would turn the conversation to either how it affected him, or to something similar that was happening or had happened in his life.

I had some success in saying "Dad, I am sorry about your back pain, but right now I want to talk about my broken leg" and similarly direct things.
posted by Sidhedevil at 10:34 AM on April 11, 2012

My best friend and I have known each other since we were 5, for about 44 years (!) We've had times where I thought and related this of him and vice versa. My sister once commented, "Friendships have phases."

No guess about the broader context, if your pal has always been like this--which seems hard to imagine--but no reason some distance has to be permanent. Also, as people have noted, if she's really, truly done with you after a heart-to-heart talk, the loss is not substantive.
posted by ambient2 at 12:46 PM on April 11, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had/have a friend somewhat like this and I handled it by fading out the friendship. We used to be very close, but I came to feel like he never *heard* anything I had to say about myself, but it was all about him, how it affected him, his latest drama.

One day into an hours-long phone call I just decided I had had enough. Why should I exhaust myself hearing about his problems when he didn't care about what was going on in my life? From that day I stopped taking his phone calls and stopped responding to emails in my formerly warm and supportive way. Understandably, things have been somewhat chilly between us since then, but honestly, letting the friendship go I feel was the best way to handle it.

When you regularly feel exhausted after dealing with someone - that's not a sustainable friendship. I mostly feel relieved I don't have to deal with being "close" anymore.
posted by asynchronous at 1:51 PM on April 11, 2012

I would go about resetting my boundaries in a clear fashion. For instance, set a timer for 20 minutes, then get away from her. (Take your cellphone when you see her, set the timer beforehand.) That's time enough for a short chat without having to get totally drained. Make sure you don't get glued to your chair or phone for longer than 30 minutes, even if it seems rude to cut her off. You need to physically move to a different activity so you don't remain engaged in her sphere for too long.

Also, say everything of priority first before she gets too wound up in herself. If she goes off your topic, make a point of redirecting her back to yours. Hold up your hand to interrupt her or make another gesture in case she doesn't realize what she's doing. Again, this may seem rude, but she's not picking up on the cues you're currently giving her that she's going on too long. Or she's ignoring or misinterpreting your current cues. I've heard secondhand that I seem ill or in a moody to my Long Talker, when it's actually me being polite for longer than necessary.

When I was reading the responses about, I began to think your friend could be a candidate for the Ding Training if you're both amenable. I haven't done it to my Long Talker, but it seems like a good deal to me.
posted by dragonplayer at 6:13 PM on April 11, 2012

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