The Friendship Doctor

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Befriending a "bad egg" in the office

A reader asks how to handle a friendship breakdown in the office

QUESTION

Dear Irene,

I was a close friend with a co-worker for 5 years. At one point, she had a huge fight with a mutual co-worker, someone with emotional problems with whom I remained friends. She wasn't comfortable with the other woman; the stress between the two of them was palpable. I really don't blame her for that.

Anyway, my friend and I used to share an office and got quite close until she left for a while. When she returned, she got a nice promotion, and seemed very busy. While she was gone, I got a new officemate and struck up other office friendships. A group of us regularly go for drinks and occasional lunches.

For at least a month, I sensed a vibe from her of not being very friendly toward me. I probably didn't reach out to her like I should have but I have had personal issues (surviving my cancer, depression in my family, and a mom with dementia in a nursing home) that make some days a challenge just to get through.

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I went to her a couple of days ago and asked if something was wrong. She told me she was disappointed that I wasn't the friend she thought. She said that everything was about me---I never asked how things were going with her, etc. Basically, she said she didn't consider me a friend any longer but would work with me without any problems. She also said I spend my time with the "others" and never reached out to her (although I have not gotten an invite from her for a while). She's had similar episodes and ended two other close friendships.

I will admit I did get lazy, but not intentionally. As I said, my energy level is not at its highest. She is not well-liked around the office, known as a troublemaker and gossip, and I had often found myself defending her work and work decisions. When we were friends, I always tried to give her the benefit of the doubt.

Anyway, I was pretty upset, after she insinuated that I was a piece of crap as a friend. I told her that I had been extremely busy lately, was sick, etc. I also told her that life is short and if people are really friends, they should get past that. I sent her a short email later expressing that, too.

I feel really badly--and guilty. Am I an evil, selfish, all-about-me person? I never meant to hurt or disappoint her. We were like kids sometimes, giggling and having a good time, and I miss her company. I am guessing the best thing to do is to step back and hold off asking her to lunch, as it would seem fake at this point. I'm also vowing to never establish a work friendship again-it is just too difficult if it doesn't work out.

Signed,
Sad Sara

 

ANSWER

Hi Sara,

Your letter raises two basic questions: 1) Are you responsible for the uncomfortable relationship with your co-worker? and 2) Should you avoid future friendships at work based on this experience?

First, it's understandable that you would feel awkward when a close friendship falls apart and you have to see the other person every day at work. Yet under the best of circumstances, your friend was high-maintenance. She was volatile, possessive of you, and tended to get into conflicts with co-workers. It sounds like you overlooked a lot of negatives to maintain the friendship. You tried to resolve the misunderstanding and handled yourself as well as one might expect.

Given everything that has happened in your life recently, you have every reason to be less patient and less tolerant of a friendship that is weighing you down. Your inability to navigate this difficult relationship doesn't make you a bad friend. If anything, you should feel a bit miffed at her. Does your friend even realize that you are coping with a lot right now and may need support rather than more demands placed on you?

In terms of the second question, workplace friendships can have their upsides and downsides so they need to be handled cautiously. Of course, befriending a known troublemaker greatly increases the risk of potential problems. You need to step back and concentrate on taking care of yourself-focusing primarily on your work, at work. Maintain a cordial and professional relationship with your once-close friend and don't give up all your other office relationships because of one bad egg.

I hope this is helpful!

Best,

Irene

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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