Lifetime Connections

Exploring women's relationships in families and friendscapes

Friends Don't Let Friends Feel Bad

How to deal with downers and one-upsmanship.

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In recent blogs, we have been exploring the unspoken rules of friendship. This next rule is all about a cardinal purpose of friendship—to increase a friend’s happiness in life. When your own life is filled with hurdles, or you feel that you’re a target for others’ anger, disappointment, or frustration, sometimes the company of a good friend is the most effective antidote to the negative energy that is being sent your way.

With friends, you can complain about the world in general, as well as the particular inhabitants who are raining down grief and suffering upon you. Ideally, friends will respond with understanding, empathy, sensitivity (and maybe even chocolate). They will also do what they can to cheer you up and help you re-connect with the joy and pleasure you long to feel again. Unfortunately, some of us may have picked up a different type of friend along the way—the kind who seems incapable of spreading joy or bringing happiness to others.

There seem to be two unique versions of this friendship rule-breaker.

  1. Matching You Woe-for-Woe. First up is the friend who seems driven to top every tale of woe you share with an even bigger and badder tale of their own. You had a lousy day at work and will be facing three unfinished projects on your desk in the morning; your friend had an even lousier day and may not even have a job to return to in the morning. Your tween-aged daughter didn’t turn in an assignment at school and ended up in detention; your friend’s teenage daughter is two months pregnant. These friends seem to work from the principle that their larger share of bad luck somehow “undoes” or “disqualifies” your own despair. It’s not even that this friend is trying to seek your sympathy—simply winning the “bad luck battle” is their goal.
  2. Misery—Free Delivery. The second type of friend is the type that seems perpetually incapable of bringing any joy to your life—or their own. While the friend described above is trying to match you woe-for-woe, this type generously leaves tragedy and pathos on your doorstep—no investment on your part required. You know this friend—the one whose life would be nothing without a daily dose of injustice, misfortune, or pure bad luck. We can spend a lifetime desperately trying to help this friend see the sunnier side of life, find the silver lining, or take the wheat and leave the chaff. But we would probably be just as effective trying to spin straw into gold—it’s not going to happen. This type of friend uses your friendship as a dumping ground for all the resentment and unhappiness in their lives. You can offer sympathy, understanding, a cup of tea, a bottle of beer, and a shoulder to cry on—but they are seldom the balm that is sought. There’s just no way to mitigate their misery in a meaningful manner.

So What Do You Do?

If you are low on friends, and the few that you have make you feel low, life can become lonely. Sometimes friends can be companions, but not good company; but sometimes just having someone there beside you can be enough. Therefore, you have to weigh your options and consider your investment in the friendship. If you are trying to beat your “bad luck battle buddy” at his or her own game, you have the power to shift that relationship: Just stop playing. Yes, you want to share your trials and tribulations with someone, but if your friends need to top them, so be it. Let them get their bid in for the top low, then just acknowledge and validate their experiences and let it go. Head out for dinner, hit “Play” on the remote, head for the mall, have your workout, whatever. Just let it go and enjoy having the company.

For the friend who only brings misery, and refuses to be soothed, you have a couple of choices: The first is to be the model of a good friend. Be upfront and honest with your friend and tell her or him that they are bringing you down and taking the joy out of your friendship. If your words are ineffective and the complaining continues, you may have to make a tough decision. If you're at the point where being alone is preferable to this friend’s company, you can disengage from the friendship. Be busy when the friend calls, be unavailable for future plans, and when interaction is unavoidable, listen politely as long as circumstances dictate, and make a get-away as diplomatically as possible. You probably don’t want to provide any additional material for your friend’s next rendition of the “bad life blues.”

Friends tolerate an awful lot from one another, but there are some rules for which consequences must be enforced. Don’t let a friend suck the joy out of your life just because that’s how they add satisfaction to their own.

Please feel free to share your personal experiences of "toxic friends" through this online survey: What was the breaking point or the crisis point in a friendship and how did you handle it? Did you walk away? Did you work it out? What are your experiences with toxic friends? Click here for the Toxic Friendship questionnaire

Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, is a licensed counselor and professor at Northern Illinois University.
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