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Exasperated Friend

Monday, August 12, 2013
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Dear Miriam,

My good friend, let's call her Debra, has been dealing with a difficult family situation. Her mother, a Holocaust-survivor in her nineties now, has dementia, is in a care facility and requires Debra's regular support and management. Debra, the only daughter, is (like me) past retirement age and has her own severe physical and financial limitations. For about five years, I have tried to be a good friend in a bad situation, but as I get to know Debra better, I am seeing her limited ability to be a good friend back to me. When I try to talk about myself, she ends the phone call! This is a woman who has been in first-rate psychotherapy for years, but she's driving me crazy with how unable she is to get out of her own narrative. Do you suppose there are ways to let her know how narcissistic she has been acting with me without losing her as a friend?  She is honest, intelligent and trying hard against all odds to do a work of righteousness with her Mom who, believe me, must have been a real trial to grow up with.

Signed,
Exasperated Friend


Dear Exasperated,

It sounds like Debra probably had a hard childhood with her mother and is now having a hard adulthood with her. That's a shame. It's a heartbreak. It's a difficult situation, but ultimately, it's not your difficult situation. It's too bad that Debra hasn't been able to separate these parts of herself in order to find ways to be a good daughter and a good friend while also taking care of herself, but she hasn't. Now, the best you can do is extricate yourself from her circumstances.

You say that Debra is in psychotherapy, but you also reference her physical and financial limitations. Talk to her directly if you think you can, or talk to mutual friends or other members of her family to find out if she is receiving any specific professional support for her other problems. See if you can work with anyone else in her support system to be sure she is getting the help she obviously needs. If she doesn't have anyone in her support system besides you, that's another red flag that things are awry in her personal life in a way that you can't change on your own. 

You also say that you're still getting to know her better, so I assume you're not childhood friends or something where you feel an obligation that extends beyond the present circumstances. You can either keep being her dumping ground, or you can take control and make it stop. Talk to her honestly and openly about your feelings and the inequality that rules your friendship. The worst that could happen is that you lose her as a friend, and actually, losing her as a friend could be really healthy for you. Tell her you can no longer devote long hours to listening to her problems. Tell her that unless your relationship becomes a give and take, it's not working for you. If this sounds like language you might use to break up with a significant other, that's right: it's time for the dumping ground to do some dumping.

Of course, you can also tell her all this and then give her the opportunity to change. I'd love to say that once Debra knows she's being a bad friend and being hurtful to you, she'll change. I also know that it's very rare for someone to receive that type of criticism and then immediately turn around and make amends. Perhaps, after her mother has passed away, she'll have a clearer vision of what the past few years have been like, and she'll seek you out to be a friend on more equal footing. But she might just be narcissistic, and in spite of her good characteristics, she might not be a good friend to you. It's time for you to find other friends who fill that niche in your life and move on beyond Debra. When you have other friends and some space from her, if you want to give her a call and find out how she's doing, that would be a kind gesture, but if you do that, do it just for yourself and your own righteousness, and not for hers.

Be well,
Miriam

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