Wednesday, September 18, 2019

How to Lose Friends and Offend People

A woman writes to advice columnist and therapist Lori Gottlieb. She is in therapy and is also alone. Naturally, she does not tell us how old she is, where she lives, her family circumstances or her occupation. As always happens in these letters, we only know that she had defined her being in terms of being romantically unattached. Call it a first symptom, one that she probably owes to her largely incompetent therapist.

Her therapy has taught her that she must learn to accept being single. One does not know whether her therapist or therapists have told her that if she does not need a man then a man will magically appear at her doorstep, with roses and an engagement ring. We do not know whether she drank too much of the cultural Kool-Aid or whether her therapist offered her this piece of nonsense. 

Her second symptom elicited her letter. Being as she is alone and feels largely rejected by men, she does not want to hear about her friends’ relationship issues. Apparently, she is easily triggered. Every time she hears that a friend had a fight with her husband she immediately feels oh-so-sorry for herself, because she does not have a husband. The solution she lights upon, and that Gottlieb strangely endorses, is for her to tell her friends to stop sharing stories about their marriages, their relationships or their children.

I am not going to fault Gottlieb entirely, because she is answering the question as posed. As it happens, the question is a symptom. If you cannot share in the joys and sorrows and anguish your friends experience, you are not a very good friend. You are driving people away from you.

Worse yet, you are telling people to self-censor their remarks because you cannot deal with their happiness. Apparently, the letter writer believes that her current unattached state is the fault of her friends. And that she would feel much better about her condition if her friends did not discuss what mattered to them. 

I suspect, without having any more evidence, that she is more likely suffering for being left out of couples events. When her friends go out with their husbands they are less likely to invite a single friend, because odd numbers are odd. Thus, she is more likely worried about being excluded than about having her feelings hurt. Consider that an hypothesis.

She and her therapist think that the problem is other people, the good and bad things that are part of other peoples' lives. Dare I say that this is just the kind of lame advice you would expect from a therapist. If she thinks that she is feeling bad about being unattached because her friends talk about their relationships, she is seriously off the mark. She can shut them all up and drive them away and she will still feel like crap, because she will still be unattached. And she will have shown herself to be a lousy friend. She is worse than a lousy friend; she is an appallingly self-centered human being. I assume that she learned this habit, this need to control the minds of other people, from therapy. 

If you cannot take joy in the good things that happen to your friend, you are more an egomaniac than a friend. If you cannot commiserate with the bad things that happen to your friends, you are more a self-centered self-indulgent product of the therapy culture than a friend. If she wants to know why she is single, that is a good place to look

This woman should quit therapy and get out of her uniquely self-centered frame of reference. 

For your edification, here is the letter:

How do I tell my friends I really don't want to hear about the problems they are having in their relationships? It is really hard for me to listen to them complain about their spouses or significant others when I am fighting hard to accept being single.  

They assume that because things are going well in other aspects of my life, I am okay with my nonexistent romantic life, and therefore free to listen to them complain. I am not. It's the reason I have been in and out of therapy for the past few years—the inability to accept and deal with the fact that I am single, with no real prospects on the horizon.  

I want to be a good friend, but I just don't think I can hear another story about how he forgot to take out the trash or call right back so the marriage/relationship is over! When I tell them that I don't want to hear it, I truly mean it, but they assume I'm only kidding and keep talking. I have to take breaks from them just to get away before I explode and ruin friendships.

Please tell me what I should do.


Unfortunately, for this woman and for anyone who takes her advice seriously Gottlieb goes straight off the rails. She advises this woman to be open and honest with her plaints, to tell her friends that she does not want to hear about their lives and, moreover, that every time they shared with her they triggered negative emotions. She did not want to share their good and bad times; she felt assaulted. It is completely obvious, even to the untrained mind that this tactic will cause her to lose most of her friends… because she will be offending them.

Gottlieb sees it in terms of grief, incorrectly. This woman is not grieving the death of a loved one; she is complaining about lost possibilities. She is not in mourning. She feels ashamed of herself for having been rejected.

In Gottlieb’s words, in case you think that I was kidding: 

If your coupled friends understood your ambiguous grief—the intangible loss, the not knowing, the toggling between hope one minute and sadness the next—they might show more sensitivity by toning down their complaints and taking your request more seriously. So rather than taking breaks from them or biting your tongue during these conversations, you might find it beneficial to be more direct in sharing your experience with them.

She continues:

When you complain about your partner, it’s like telling me that your meal at a nice restaurant was disappointing at a time when I’m hungry and not sure there will ever be enough food for me.

Don’t treat my romantic concerns as either less significant than yours (because you’re in a relationship) or as fodder for your amusement.

 My dating stories may seem funny or entertaining to you, but they’re often quite upsetting to me, and I’m sharing them with you because I’m seeking your support.

You’re right that things are going well for me in other areas of my life, but please don’t assume that I’m not grieving the lack of a partner. Don’t deny my grief by telling me I should feel grateful for all that I have (I am) or perfectly fulfilled without a partner (I’m not). Try to imagine what it’s like to do things by myself that I thought I’d be doing with a spouse by now, from the big (buying a house) to the small (deciding where to go for the weekend). Don’t deny my grief by saying “I’m sure you’ll find someone,” because ambiguous grief is all about the ongoing uncertainty. The truth is, nobody knows when or whether I’ll find the right person, and when you offer false certainty, you further deny my reality.

Then, Gottlieb takes it back:

Of course, you don’t want your friends to avoid sharing their lives with you, or to feel like they’re constantly on the verge of causing you pain. But an awareness of how these complaints land on you will make your friends less tone-deaf, and that in turn will build your tolerance to hear what’s weighing on your friends (at least in small doses).  

In truth, her friends are going to stop sharing their lives with her. They might feel guilt for causing her pain, but more likely they will write her off as a chronic self-centered malcontent. It would be nice if the woman could learn to share her friends’ lives, but, in truth, the open and honest approach will quickly sabotage that, and make her more alone.

I will mention in passing that one of Gottlieb’s examples does have the ring of truth. If your friend is starving you will naturally not regale her with stories of your last banquet. The rules of good manners will preclude your making such a faux pas. You might invite her to lunch, point her to the nearest soup kitchen or help her to fill out the forms to get food stamps. In this day and age people do not need to starve. And, normally, when two people suffer such a gross income disparity they pull away from each other. They do not tell stories about great meals. It is normal behavior.

Considering how poorly the letter writer seems to have conducted her own relationships, she should listen carefully to her friends and go to school on their stories. If she can get over herself and shed the nonsense that therapy offered her, she might learn something from the experiences of other people, something she can use when she gets involved in her next relationship.


Anonymous said...

All she has to do is change the subject.

Sam L. said...

Has she ever asked her friends if they know some man/men who might be a good fit with her? My two neighbor ladies set me up as/for a blind date, which is how I met my wife.
At a restaurant. With three parking-lot exits, in case it didn't go well.

DocVinny said...

I probably would be a terrible therapist. My answer to her would be to get over herself. The fact that she is whining to an advice columnist on top of being in therapy probably means that actually doing the work to fix herself is too hard, whining to a therapist is oh so much easier. Then let's alienate family and the few friends we've managed to make by telling them you're way too fragile to hear about the difficulties in their lives..

Such a sad existence.