The Friendship Doctor

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How Much Honesty is Integral to Friendship? A Case of More is Less

It is a mistake to befriend anyone with the hope of changing them.

While everyone wants authentic friendships, it can be challenging to find the right balance between honesty and tact

QUESTION

Dear Irene,

I have a history of dropping friendships and have wondered whether this pattern suggests I'm a horrible friend. I have counseling training and so I know something about relationships, but still seem to be unable to use my training effectively.

My mother used to lean on me emotionally and to this day, I am someone people come to when they want to open up about their lives. My problem comes, when their sharing goes to the level of complaining but they won't do anything about it. Or they upset me in some way and when I raise it, they become defensive.

My experience is that people don't really want authenticity but think they do --- until it gets hard and difficult scenarios come up. I'm very down on myself and realize I speak the truth (although I try to be very loving), but I guess my expectations just don't sit well with others.

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It's my honest feeling that the friends I've had and dropped have been unwilling to work out conflict in an effective way. But I do know my tendency is to want to correct dysfunctional thinking. Sometimes too, I'm just baffled by other peoples' expectations.

How can I manage my friendships, without feeling I can't be honest for fear of losing them? When I've held back I realize I simply build up tension.

Best, Celia

 

ANSWER

Dear Celia,

If you have a "history" of friendship problems, it's great that you're taking stock of the role you may be playing in creating that history.

It sounds like you have a strong, take-charge personality that allows people to feel comfortable telling you their problems and asking for advice. However, even though people may ask for advice, it doesn't mean they are ready and able to make major changes in the ways they approach a situation, whether it's a conflict with a boss or disagreement with a spouse. (Also, that they don't follow through or immediately change course, doesn't mean that they don't necessarily value your advice.) It's natural that they would appear defensive to you if they are not psychologically ready to change.

That said, regardless of your background and training, I think you need to exercise some caution in "taking on cases." Perhaps, you are confusing the roles of counselor and friend. Friendships work best when they are between equals, two people who share and depend on each other in different ways. Behavior you label as "dysfunctional" may serve another individual well or just mean they are unable to change it. It's a mistake to befriend (or marry) anyone with the hope of changing them. In addition, these friends may be more interested in venting to you rather than actually changing their lives.

Regarding truth, there's a delicate balance between being brutally honest (AKA blunt) and being tactful and sensitive to a person's feelings. To remain "authentic" without being dishonest, you may want to find more effective ways to deliver your message. The timing of a message also plays a critical role in whether or not it is heard.

Keep in mind that many people have a hard time dealing directly with conflict. And yes, there is an inherent risk in alienating people with too much honesty. You need to weigh your options carefully and differentiate how you respond to different people and problems. If you can't tolerate another person, you have several choices: to try to be more accepting and patient, to discuss the problem with the other person, or to "drop" that friendship.

Hope this helps.

Best, Irene


 

Some prior blog posts on The Friendship Blog about friendship and honesty:

 

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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