Friday, October 9, 2020

Happy, but Friendless?

Another day, another therapy success story. The case concerns a thirty-something woman-- at least, I assume the letter writer is a woman, because of the tone-- has gotten herself into therapy. And, she is really happy with therapy, because-- well, it has cost her all of her friends.

Now she has learned, presumably through therapy, that all of her friends, friends of long standing, are toxic. So, she managed to break with nearly all of them, sometimes intentionally, sometimes accidentally. Many-- but not all-- of these toxic friends are male-- because, nowadays when you say “toxic” you must think in terms of masculinity.

You might think that therapy ought to repair friendships, not destroy them. You might think that therapy ought to help you to maintain your social connections, not to undermine them. Many of these friendships go back to childhood. 

You would apparently be wrong. And yet, the woman in question, who calls herself Happy but Lonely, thinks that therapy has been great. It’s a neat trick-- destroy an individual’s social network and be praised for as much.

As a sidelight, the woman is engaged to be married. She has had to postpone her wedding because of the pandemic, and we hope that that is the only reason.

For the record, here is the text of her letter, written to Ask Polly at New York Magazine. I will spare you the usually tiresome rant that Polly has to offer. The more interesting part is the letter writer's testimony to how much therapy has helped her. Even though it has not.

I started therapy two years ago and I’ve been doing so much better. I realize now that most of my friendships were very toxic, and my best friend of 20 years was a sociopath. My fiancĂ©, friends, and family had warned me, but it only became obvious to me a few months into therapy (and his lying and stealing got completely out of control). When I told him I had been hurt by what he did and needed space, he didn’t apologize or even ask questions. He simply disappeared after 20 years of being in touch every single day. I haven’t seen him since, even though he lived a few blocks away from me. It was hard to swallow initially, but I felt much better as the months went by, and I never once regretted it.

We do not have details here, but if she is right about his psychopathic tendencies, she is perhaps well rid of him. Then again, don’t you find it somewhat strange that a young woman’s best friend, of twenty years duration, is a male.

But now, therapy kicks in, and she sees abuse and toxicity everywhere. It makes us wonder how accurate her perception of the first friend was. Now, she sees abuse and toxicity in a girlfriend who she alienates, for apparently no good reason.

But now I feel like I can’t “unsee” many toxic tendencies in other people. I lost a close friend because I felt my happiness always seemed to be hindering hers and I always felt bad after seeing her, even on my happiest days. When I told her this as kindly as I could, she didn’t take it well and she hasn’t wanted to speak to me since.

The note about how her happiness seems to be hindering her friend's, sounds like therapy speak. Sharing such drool with a close friend sounds like precisely what a therapist would invite her to do. Another friendship bites the dust.

And then there is her social worker side. Another close male friend is a mentally ill drug addict. We have some grudging admiration for her willingness to adopt people who are down and out. It comes from a charitable instinct, and charitable instincts are not a bad thing. But, is it a good thing to simply discard someone who is in so much trouble. Taking some distance is one thing. Tossing someone in the trash is quite another.

For now, however, she has had enough of him.

Another one of my closest friends is mentally ill and a drug addict. For years I have offered him my couch when he was homeless. I was always there for him when no one else was. We normally speak every day but when he’s on a bender, I don’t hear from him for weeks and I often don’t even know if he’s alive or dead. I have seen him in police stations and psychiatric hospitals way too many times. He has never once told me he wanted to get treatment or to get sober. He obviously has many wonderful qualities and is a great friend when he is stable. We’ve been friends for 15 years and he only has been acting this way in the past couple of years. I would miss him terribly if I decided to break this friendship up, but I cannot handle that state of constant anxiety anymore.

So, one understands why she wants to break off this friendship. But, can’t she or her therapist consider that there is perhaps a middle ground between being a favorite social worker and ending the friendship. If, perchance, she is the only person who stands between this man and oblivion, how does she know how he will react if she cuts ties. And how does she know how she will react to the way he reacts.

Besides, we note that the man has been caught up in the system, the psychiatric system and the police. Could she not become slightly more distant without ending it entirely.

One finds it bizarre that her fiance seems to do no more than to advise her against this sort of toxic friendship. He does not seem to have a very active concern for the way she is conducting her life-- something that raises suspicions.

As for her, she has a caring, social worker mentality. She ought to get over it, but tossing aside friends in need might not be the best way.

And now, there is her business partner. We do not know what kind of business she is in. And we note that we are not dealing with a simple friendship here. We are dealing with someone who works with her, with whom she has a business relationship. And, he too has mental health issues. During the pandemic, she has become his go-to confidante. His therapist, if you like.

It’s one of the hazards of therapy. Patients begin to believe that they should become therapists themselves. And they try to help their friends. I would point out that when two people are involved in an ongoing conversation they both bear some responsibility for the course of the conversation. If she shows considerable interest in listening to him complain and if she seems willing to try to help him out-- well then, she might be steering the conversation, and making it more like therapy than a business partnership.

Another close friend is my business partner. We work well together but I’ve been feeling so suffocated by him on a personal level for almost a year. He’s very depressed and I have become his sole confidante during the pandemic and I just don’t feel strong enough to carry all that weight. Seeing his name pop up on my phone makes me feel so anxious, which makes it very hard to work together. I don’t even know how to explain that to him, as it would make him even more depressed.

She does not have to explain anything. She would do better to steer their conversations towards business matters.

But, that’s not all. Other friendships are breaking down. She has decided that they are all toxic, so it is no great loss. We need to ask whether she is now doing something to cause them to break down.

Other friendships are breaking down, too. I have a couple of friends left in the city I live in, but many are moving abroad or aren’t “everyday” kinds of friendships.

It isn’t a coincidence that these bad friendships all started years ago when I was very lost and vulnerable. On top of that, I was supposed to get married this past June but had to postpone because of the pandemic. There’s nothing like a wedding to make you reevaluate your friendships. The guest list I have in my head now looks nothing like the initial one. It makes me realize that I have very few friends left. I always prided myself on having such close, strong friendships (even if they were toxic) and now I feel so lonely.

I believe I’ve done the right thing by walking away, but I also feel so sad because I can’t re-create the intimacy of a 20-year friendship. I have a great fiancĂ©, who has great friends of his own whom I like and we see a lot, but it’s not the same. I miss having lots of friends to talk to every day. I miss having friends who know me by heart, and at the same time, I know I couldn’t keep these relationships going. What do I do with the remaining dwindling friendships? How do I cope with the loss? How can I make new friends during a pandemic?

Happy But Lonely

You cannot be happy, but lonely. One finds it bizarre that her fiance is so little present in this. Be that as it may, she is so actively involved in therapy that she might have been induced to reduce her circle of friends.  

Surely, the therapist does not want to think that therapy has caused this woman to trash her friendships, the good, the bad and the ugly, and also to damage her business partnership.

One notes, and one is not happy having to note this, but many forms of therapy work to cut the patient off from his or her circle of friends-- because it is an easier way to control him or her. For all I know, and for all any of us know, this might be the case here. 


whitney said...

I bet all those toxic male friends were gay men. Then her letter starts to ring true

Anonymous said...

I think the woman probably did well to cut off the non-functioning friends. She misses their attention and the fact that she could feel superior to them; but the price was too high. They probably weren't surprised that she cut them off as I imagine many others had already done so. The real problem in my view is that she wants to tell others how they affect her. What does she expect them to do about it? This is an unforced error on her part. Her other problem is looking for toxicity all over the place. This has become a habit that she has to break. Everyone is toxic to some degree. Humans are annoying and irritating beings. One has to determine the amount of irritation that can be tolerated.