The Friendship Doctor

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Coming to Terms with an Imperfect Friendship

You may need to ratchet down expectations.

Friendships are rarely perfect; they come in more flavors and textures than Ben & Jerry's ice cream. Sometimes, coming to terms with a less than perfect friendship is a matter of viewing it realistically, putting it in perspective, setting boundaries, and deciding to get and give what you can so the relationship is mutually rewarding.

QUESTION

Dear Irene,

I've known Sue for two years. We're both realtors in the same town, although she's been at it for many more years than me and has had considerable success. At times, I don't know how she gets all the listings she does, but she's always swamped. The problem? Her boastfulness and huge ego are getting to be too much to bear. Instead of basking in her own success, she constantly feels a need to one-up me-and on our mutual colleagues---about everything.

Okay, so I'm jealous. But it goes beyond that. She's told me how she wrote thank-you notes to her zillion clients when she didn't bother to send me a birthday card for my 35th birthday last year-even when she knew I was stressed out over it. She said she had remembered my birthday but forgot to send the card.

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There's more, but you get the idea. On the good side, she's single-handedly helped me advance my career more than anyone else. In fact, she's supported me when no one else did but she's just not consistent and sometimes feels like a frenemy. We get along famously outside of this crap, but days like yesterday make me want to sever ties completely. I get so frustrated.

I've mentioned numerous times to her that I need her to stop telling me how much work she has when I'm down-in-the-dumps, but she doesn't seem to hear me. What are my options? I don't want to give up on the friendship completely. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

Signed,
Siri

ANSWER

Dear Siri,

You have described a less than perfect friendship, as many of them can be. You are saying that your friend is very self-promoting, begrudges the success of others, and brags to the point of being insensitive to others. More worrisome, she is inconsistent and may not be totally honest. If she remembered your birthday and forgot to send the card, couldn't she call instead? On the plus side, she's an engaging friend and has been an important mentor to you.

Telling her how you feel about her competitiveness isn't likely to change her because it hasn't worked in the past. For better or worse, personality is usually enduring although you might be able to tinker around the edges. She is a package---and you probably will have to learn to accept or reject her as she is.

My suggestion would be for you to slowly back off from the relationship a bit and to decrease the frequency of your contacts. Maybe you are less in need of her help than you were in the past. Continue to develop nurturing relationships with other friends and colleagues.

If you feel like she only derives pleasure from feeling one-up when you feel one-down and you can't establish a more reciprocal relationship, you may need to ratchet down your expectations. Perhaps you need to think of her as a office colleague or "friend at work" rather than a soulmate.

Hope this helps.

Best,
Irene

 

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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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