The Friendship Doctor

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Defining Loyalty in Friendships

How should you treat your friend's ex-es and enemies?

QUESTION

Hi Irene,

I pride myself in being a loyal, good friend. However, recently I have run into a problem. I don’t know how to handle myself in the company of people that my close friends consider their “enemies.”

In some social situations, I have felt awkward with people who I know have offended or no longer speak to a particularly close friend of mine. Often these so-called “enemies” of my friends are people that I know and like, and whom I have no problem with.

Yet, if my friend sees me talking to one of these people at a party or hears I have been with that person in a group situation, I can tell they feel hurt and betrayed by me. I have at least eight to ten people I consider my close friends so where should I draw the line?

Everyone has a little drama with someone, and if I avoided all of my friends’ enemies, I would be walking on eggshells wherever I went! These enemies include ex-husbands and boyfriends. Is it disloyal to say hello to them?

I recently said hello to the daughter of a close friends ex-boyfriend at a wedding. I said hello to the girl in passing, and since I had nothing to really say to her, I asked how her father was, and told her to send him my regards! I told my friend the next day that I saw the girl and what I said, and she is no longer speaking to me! I thought it was harmless party talk but she said I betrayed her. I probably should not have repeated it to my friend but it was innocent and I was shocked at her reaction. I apologized but she won’t speak to me.

Another friend’s son was accused of bullying someone at school and a large group of moms have ignored and avoided my close friend because of the incident involving her son. An old friend of mine is the aunt of the victim and we are still in touch, my close friend gets upset whenever I see her or speak to her. The list goes on and on. Where do you draw the line? Do we fight our friend’s battles?

Signed,  Allie

ANSWER

Hi Allie,

Each of the situations you described sounds pretty innocent to me. There is no blanket answer to your question. Rather, what constitutes loyalty and appropriate behavior depends on a number of factors:

1) Why your friend sees the person as an enemy

If something extreme or very heinous was done to your friend, you could understand how he/she might feel hurt to think you would befriend the “enemy.” For example, if the other person threatened your friend, he/she might feel like you should have nothing to do with that person.

2) When the rift occurred:

If your friend just got divorced from her husband, you could predict that it might still be raw and hurtful to think you were maintaining a close relationship with her ex.

3) The context of the meeting:

Having a date or private tete-a-tete with an “enemy” is very different than innocently bumping into that person in a social situation—for example, at a party or wedding.

4) The nature of the interaction:

If you discuss your friend’s personal business with the enemy, it’s natural this would be seen as disloyal.

I guess the guiding principal would be that although your friend has an enemy, that individual doesn’t have to be your enemy. It’s not disloyal to remain a friend or acquaintance of the “enemy,” per se, unless it’s insensitive because of one or more other factors like those described above.

It is surprising that you run into this problem so often. Perhaps your friends are very sensitive or they are misreading your intent. If the latter is the case, and you are close friends, you should explain that your relationship with the “enemy” doesn’t negate the close bond you share with your friend.

Hope this helps.

My 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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