Barbarella
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Do not keep on with a mockery of friendship after the substance is gone — but part, while you can part friends. Bury the carcass of friendship: it is not worth embalming. — William Hazlitt

I refilled my glass and sat back, taking in everything that had just been shared. “So let me get this straight,” I said. I summarized the litany of transgressions committed by my friend’s roommate — an assortment of manipulative and inconsiderate acts dating back several years. When I was finished, I said, “Those are the facts, right?” She nodded. “In that case, I have to ask — why are you still living in the same house with this person?”

My friend blinked a few times, seemingly surprised by the question. I knew before she opened her mouth that her next words would be intended to defend the perpetrator. As she explained her rationale, I mentally ticked off the three excuses I often hear after asking someone why they hang on to a friendship that has degenerated from the symbiotic to the parasitic: longevity, loyalty, and liability.

Longevity is a tough one. It’s natural to want a return on one’s investment. For a lot of people, leaving a disadvantageous relationship into which they’ve been paying for years is like selling at a loss. But why continue to give to something that has ceased giving back? Why not cut your losses now and use the wisdom you’ve gained when deciding where to make future deposits?

I once had a very good friend named Sue. For five years, I got as much out of the relationship as I put into it. Sue and I were each other’s therapist, party pal, and more. But in the sixth year of friendship, something changed. Sue and I both had boyfriends and we were spending less time together, which was normal; certainly not cause to part ways. After all, we were busy with the exciting newness of our respective romantic relationships, which we each believed the other deserved. Still, as the months passed,

I began to notice that every time Sue called, it wasn’t for a “Hi, how are you?” but a “Hey, I need something.”

At first, I thought nothing of it. After all, Sue was my friend, and I was happy to help her in any way I could. But the less I heard from her, the more apparent it became that she only contacted me when she wanted something. A full year went by during which she emailed or called me on just three occasions, to request my help with one thing or another. During that same year, I had reached out to her a handful of times, simply to say hello or see how she was doing.

Sure, we had history — the memories, the laughter, the tears. But friendship, like a seesaw, requires effort from both parties. I do not subscribe to the “once a friend, always a friend” philosophy. It doesn’t fly with my definition of friendship as an ongoing endeavor. Sue was once my friend, and a very good one. She understood the verbness of the word “friendship.” But she had become no more than a needy acquaintance, resting on her laurels like Corey Haim. So when Sue sent an email asking if I wanted to meet her for lunch, at which she would undoubtedly ask me for some new favor, I responded honestly: No, I do not. No matter that Sue and I had been friends for so many years — our friendship was brain dead, only kept alive by life support. The humane thing to do was pull the plug.

My Irish kin have drilled the virtue of loyalty into me, so when presented with this excuse, my gut tends to disagree with my brain. A pact has been made, and somewhere along the line, two people decided they had each other’s back. Emotionally, it seems the right thing to do is be a dependable person in all situations — to never be the one to break the deal. But unlike most of my cousins in New York, who treat their friends like family (irreplaceable), my brain insists that my allegiance to non-blood relations be conditional. To remain at your post long after your cohort has abandoned his is not noble. It’s foolish.

Anyone who has watched a friend dive headfirst into the deep end of drug abuse knows that to continue hanging on after all attempts to rescue him have failed is to drown in misery. No matter how many interventions you facilitate, no one but the tortured soul you once called friend has the power to drag himself out of that wretched tank. In order to be a friend, one must be able to hold one’s own shit together.

Many people feel obliged to take responsibility for their friends, hence the liability excuse. This one works on two levels. First, most people feel indebted to a friend who has been magnanimous in the past. Say a guy once dropped everything to help you move, or a girl sat patiently while you cried on her shoulder over love lost. How can you turn your back on people who have been so supportive? It seems that many people stay in relationships (friendship or otherwise) because they feel it is the price they must pay for accepting bygone acts of kindness. Or, as my friend with the defective roommate explained, they measure the irritation of one’s present infractions against his altruisms of the past. A real, enduring friendship, however, entails constant renewal — an endless regeneration of connections and kindnesses.

The second part of the liability excuse stems from the fear that the friend you walk away from is going to go to pieces and that it will be all your fault. I used to hang out with a complete nutcase — fun to have around for the entertainment value but also a drain in every sense of the word. When the day inevitably arrived that my exhaustion exceeded my entertainment, I backed away. The girl to whom I had been a friend, but who had never been mine, balked at my increasing absences. At one point, she made the claim that without me around to keep her grounded, she wasn’t sure she could cope. I’m not sure what that meant, exactly, but I was well aware of her self-destructive habits. I wrestled with my decision to withdraw. What if something happened to her, something I could have prevented if only I’d been there? I’m not sure how that would have affected me — I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.

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Comments

MsGrant Jan. 21, 2009 @ 3:10 p.m.

There is another liability factor - the friend who knows your business contacts and who will bad mouth you if break off the friendship. I have had to stay "friends" with someone like this for a very long time, and am slowly weaning myself away. As with your friend, the calls are about needing things, but they are usually of a more tangible and less emotional substance. "Hi, it's X. I'm bored. Do you have any magazines?" "Can I borrow (borrow?) some of your Retin A (at $75.00 bucks a tube)?" It's insulting. She comes over and takes inventory of my bathroom, looking at thing she thinks I don't use and wanting to "trade" for something. Usually this entails my very expensive perfume, which she helps herself to without asking. I mentioned I was going to have a yard sale. Her response? "Let me come over and go through everything first. There might be something we want." She knows she has some power over me, and she uses it to her advantage. I could go on and on, but what's the use? I am just now getting back into my business after a year off, and I cannot afford to make any enemies. Any advice for this situation? I know you are not an advice columnist, but you have a very good head on your shoulders and seem to be able to remove negative influences in your life without much aftermath.

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snackycakes420 Jan. 21, 2009 @ 3:20 p.m.

I once dropped a friend because she was just toxic to my life and mood. We became friends because we were both going through bad breakups at the time, and everybody knows misery loves company. She was a lot of fun at first, but then I started seeing how clingy she was to me and how much drama she caused whenever we went out, so the first chance I could I severed that tie. Luckily, we didn't have a lot of history so I didn't feel the least bit bad about it.

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Barbarella Fokos Jan. 22, 2009 @ 5:36 p.m.

Snackycakes, oh, the rebound friendship! I know it well. I've jumped too hard, too fast into friendships that, like a crush, turned out to be less substantial and wonderful than I'd imagined they'd be. Good for you to snip it.

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Josh Board Jan. 23, 2009 @ 1:09 a.m.

Barb...in this column you bring up great points (as you usually do), but why no details? MsGrant told us details about her person, and it made it more interesting. We read a column like that, and we're dying to know...just WHAT did this roommate do that is so bad that you terminate the friendship? I'm sure you were right to do that, but still. Details would totally enhance this. Can you tell us in one of these posts?

And MsG...with a person like that, two things. Why would you ever tell her ANYTHING? Never say "we're going to a movie," or "we're going to a yard sale," because you never know how that can turn out. That's the first step. Second...anybody that she badmouths about you, probably realize what kind of person she is (especially at the moment she's doing that). And really, why torture yourself over that? I'd want to call her on the BS, and see if she does do that. You could very nicely say "Hey...that stuff is expensive, I can't just let you use it anytime you want." It's like someone that always bums cigarettes off their friends, or never has money when the check comes. You gotta call them out on that, because everyone else just bitches and bitches, and nothing gets done about it.

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Barbarella Fokos Jan. 22, 2009 @ 5:35 p.m.

MsGrant, that is a sticky situation. But I don't understand what "power" it is that she has over you. Most people don't take petty s***-talk seriously, especially from an acquaintance. Thank you for your faith in my advice, and I'm more than happy to give it. If I were you, from what little I've heard, I would begin to create distance. You don't have to "break up" with her. Just be less and less available. She sounds like a real leech, and you're better off keeping busy and having appointments that don't include or involve her in any way. An occasional, "Hey" can be meaningful and honest, but you are genuinely too busy working on the positive to deal with this chick's drama. Remember that the next time she calls to say she ran out of Retin A. Even for the vindictive, there's nothing negative to say about someone who's otherwise occupied. Hope that helps.

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Fred Williams Jan. 23, 2009 @ 11:08 a.m.

Joan Jett says, "Ya got nothing to lose, ya don't lose when you lose fake friends."

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alansez Jan. 23, 2009 @ 12:59 p.m.

Right on Barb. And lets not forget the co-factor. Holding on to fake friends enables them to continue their bad behavior. They'd be so fortunate to be presented with why they are no longer real friends. I rarely have the guts to do this....

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MsGrant Jan. 24, 2009 @ 5:52 p.m.

Josh - were it so easy. This person literally destroyed two people in my old office because she did not like them. They were clients of mine as well, and worked with the same person that she did. We work in the same industry, just in different capacities. Because I like them both, and worked with both of them, she questioned my loyalty to her, said things that got back to me, and even once sent me an e-mail telling me we could no longer be friends because she felt our friendship was compromised. When I said something to the person she worked for, repeating something awful I had heard frenemy said about me, that person (a very good client of mine) told her what I said. Hence the e-mail. I don't know if you, as a man, are familiar with that particular brand of female that seems to wield power over other women because they are afraid if they don't kiss her ass, she will do everything in her power to destroy your business contacts and your reputation. They sense that she is dangerous. I had to suck up to keep my business relationship with her employer. The two that she did not like wound up quitting because she convinced a snarky group of people in the office to hate them as well.

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Barbarella Fokos Jan. 25, 2009 @ 10:53 a.m.

Thank you, Alan! So true regarding the codependent stuff. It takes two to maintain a toxic relationship. Unfortunately, I have experience in that regard. But on the upside, the older I get, the less BS I tolerate.

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Barbarella Fokos Jan. 25, 2009 @ 10:54 a.m.

Cool link, Fred, I wasn't familiar with that one, and I like Joan. Thanks for sharing!

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JohnnyVegas Jan. 25, 2009 @ 12:25 p.m.

Cool link, Fred, I wasn't familiar with that one, and I like Joan.

Wait till you Joan in concert! She Rocks!

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a2zresource Jan. 29, 2009 @ 11:19 a.m.

Sometimes what passes for friendship is merely one seeking the public advantage of being seen with another.

I've been told this is a common theme in many television soap operas...

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Barbarella Fokos Jan. 29, 2009 @ 11:39 a.m.

Meaning one benefits from another's reputation? Like hanging out with the cool kids makes you feel cooler? If that's the case, I need to find some cool kids, stat. My inner dork is on the rise. ;)

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a2zresource Jan. 29, 2009 @ 1:39 p.m.

Hahaha... I was thinking that maybe people were hanging with YOU to appear cool...

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