Cheryl and Steve are no longer dishing out new advice, but we're listening back to episodes we love every week. This episode was originally released October 20th, 2016.
Everyone has had a friendship quandary of some sort in the past, right? This week, the Sugars take on frequently asked questions in "rapid fire" fashion – from hating your best friend's significant other, to hating her politics.
I realize we are all engaged in technology, career, family and activities. My problem lies with the constant stream of friends who say, "I'm too busy!” “I'm swamped!” “I'm running in a million directions!" and on it goes. My translation is: “I'm too busy for you, and you are not a priority, and I am rather important.”
Worse yet is the faceless, voiceless communication. Am I supposed to be satisfied with a lengthy text message update about their life, and/or a Facebook status update to keep in touch? Or with statements being said rather than questions being asked? Things like, "Hope you are well,” “Hope you had a great trip,” “I trust all is well with your family,” “Enjoy your summer,” “You will figure it out.” No asking and listening, probing my heart and mind, seeking my thoughts. I guess no one really is interested or cares.
I have tried to be a good friend, put in the effort with my time, my ear, my physical presence and personal calls that go unanswered, straight to voicemail. Nobody is that bloody busy! So do I just “pull the plug" and walk away from these unsatisfying friendships?
Lone Wolf in Mid-Life
Cheryl Strayed: This is a really common conundrum, especially in the modern age. I’m really of two minds. If you’re finding that you’re feeling dissatisfied with all of your friends, or a large majority of them, and feeling angry and alienated, maybe it’s not them – it’s you. I think you’ve just described me in your letter. One of the greatest anxieties of these last several years has been that I feel like I’m not as good of a friend as I want to be. The reason is that I’m busy – I’m working too much, I’m traveling a lot, and then when I’m not doing those things, I have these two little children and they have to take priority. I have just straight-out said to many of my friends: “I love you, I care about you and, yeah, sometimes we’re going to have to catch up on text.” But what I’ve also done is, every season or so, say, “OK, it’s been three months since I’ve seen you. We must get together.” What I suggest to you is, first of all, don’t take it personally that your friends are busy. Some of these people truly might be using busyness as an excuse to blow you off, but most of them probably actually care about you, and they just simply have to prioritize other things right now. Sometimes with friendships, what you have to do is say, “This isn’t the moment that we’re super close, and there might be other times where we are close.” Try to keep those connections alive, even if they seem really minimal to you right now, because in the long-run, those friendships are going to matter.
Steve Almond: Lone Wolf in Mid-Life, my reaction is exactly the same as yours. Your emotions around this describes something that everybody is doing to one extent or another, which is forgetting your purpose in life: to establish human connections with people who are important to you. We get caught up in the day-to-day, but we need to take a deep breath and recognize, “the burdens ye shall always have, these friends ye shall not always have.” You need to do a little bit of triage and decide which relationships are important to you and cut through that static and say, “I get it, you’re busy, but you’re important to me. Let’s have coffee, let’s have a phone call, let’s exchange letters where I can really hear what’s going on underneath that kind of anxious froth.”
My issue is jealousy. I’m jealous of my friends – almost all of them. Sometimes it’s professional jealousy - I resent friends for their accomplishments, the recognition they receive for their work. Sometimes it’s personal. I’m jealous of friends who spend time together when I can’t, and then I layer on feeling bad about feeling jealous. I mean, I'm not dumb. I know life isn’t as sunny as we all present it to be; it isn’t all awards and happy things. I know that friend who just got recognition for their efforts has been working their butt off for years. I know the friend who presents herself as near-perfect is up at night worrying about her kids and their finances. I’m not naive but I still feel jealous. What the hell? It feels complicated and messy and also, frankly, it feels like a waste of energy. But I keep going there. How do I deal with these feelings? How do I stop them?
Steve: Jealousy is self-doubt disguised in other people's clothes. I absolutely recognize the feelings that you’re talking about. I’m jealous all the time. I’m jealous so much more often than people would expect. I’m plagued by jealousy, and I think the key to this is not to try to ignore those feelings, not to try to pretend they don’t exist. You’re not going to do that. That’s a whack-a-mole you’ll be whacking for the rest of your life. You need to figure out why it is you can’t esteem who you are and what you do, and a big part of that is probably self-forgiveness. Every time somebody does something that you just haven’t managed to do yet – whether it’s find happiness in a relationship, your creative work, your professional life – it’s not an indictment of you. It reflects well on them. You need to think, “Well what can I do and what have I done, and how can I be a little bit more forgiving?”
Cheryl: The long game is about addressing those underlying issues, but I think the short game is playing Whack-a-Mole. So often on Dear Sugar Radio, we talk about the internal story we tell ourselves – those voices in our head that are saying we’re bad, we’re stupid, we’re worthless, or we’re good and people care about us. We’re always in conversation with ourselves about which voice to listen to and trust. I become mindful when I feel jealous of somebody, and I have trained my mind to interfere with that thought. Let’s say Steve wins some big award, and I want that award too. I’m happy for Steve, but also jealous. What I would do in this scenario is tell myself, “That bit of jealousy, let’s just put that aside. Let’s remember what’s really true and valuable – that I’m happy for my friend and that my day will come.” This is really about bringing to consciousness your feelings and telling some of those feelings that they’re invalid, and then turning them away.
I am having a hard time accepting my best friend's relationship.
Annie (names have been changed) has been my best friend since our freshman year of college, almost seven years ago. We're very close, even though we live in different cities now. We talk about EVERYTHING and agree on a lot.
However, there is something that we don't see eye to eye on. She has been dating X for about 2 years now, and from the very beginning, I knew she could do better. He was in an "open relationship" with another woman when they started dating. Then, once they became exclusive, he started to show signs of being very controlling and also very jealous.
The straw that broke the camel's back for me was when she contacted me via Facebook Messenger to discuss flirty dreams she'd been having about a co-worker. When I asked her why we were having this conversation on Facebook instead of texting, she said that it was because she did not want it in her text messages, since X had been known to go through her texts.
Some years ago, I was in an abusive relationship myself, and X shows a lot of the same symptoms as my ex-boyfriend. I have told Annie this numerous times, and she always seems to be in at least partial agreement, but they stay together.
I'm worried about her, especially because she's been talking about marrying this guy. I have two major fears. First, that something really bad could happen to her. Second, that their relationship might harm our relationship. I don't want to lose her for any reason. Do I have any power to do anything aside from what I've already done? Is there something I can say to her?
Cheryl: I have struggled with this same thing for many years. I have a close family member who has been in a number of relationships with abusive men. It’s a terrible, difficult situation, and there's no one thing that you can do to make Annie see the light and leave this man. What you need to do is try to be as supportive and loving and truth-telling to Annie as possible. In my own situation with my family member, what I decided to do was to always speak the truth. I would say, “He shouldn’t talk to you like that,” or, “He doesn’t have a right to read your text messages,” or, “I’m really concerned about you.” And it does drive a wedge between me and that person, but what it also did was it told her that I cared and that I wasn’t going to pretend that the abuse didn’t exist. In the short-term, I think she felt like I couldn’t be trusted because I was going to try to break up her relationship. But in the long-run, she knew that I was always there for her, I was on her side, I was going to believe her and if she ever needed a place to go to be safe, I was that safe harbor. And so, what I advise you to do is to make it really clear – don’t play any of those games that Annie needs to play to pretend that this guy’s OK even though he does this, that and the other thing. Continually say, “It’s not OK, and if you ever need me at any hour of the day, I’m here.”
Steve: It might be helpful to spend an extended amount of time with her away from this guy, simply to allow Annie to have the psychic space to talk about her own internal misgivings in a way that doesn’t feel prompted. It’s like with kids — the more you listen the more they talk.
I've been a member of a women’s book club for six years. I've provided meals for these women during times of trouble, and they've done the same for me. We've shared lots of secrets, struggles and also enjoyed discussing a ton of books. They’ve all attended many of my parties.
At a recent meeting, we discussed meeting weekly for coffee now that our kids are in school. I later learned that the group had been meeting without me for some time. I was the only one who had been left out. I learned this because I was included in a group text, and I could tell by the way they were talking that they had a regular meeting time and place. Since that first text, I've gotten two more weekly group texts. My name never comes up (while others are asked things like, "Julie, you haven't responded. Does the new time work for you?"), so it's either that they all are oblivious to my presence on the chain, or they're ignoring it, hoping I won't show up. I honestly can't tell which one is more likely.
I'm usually someone who likes to clear the air, but maybe I should remain silent and act like nothing happened at our next meeting. Or should I bow out? No one has asked why I've missed all these get-togethers, so I'm thinking they must not be my friends after all. Or perhaps that's a ridiculous leap?
Odd Woman Out
Steve: My immediate impulse is to say you are party to this really cruel exclusion that we would say is endemic of certain kinds of loose-knit friendship groups, where you can get away with this kind of stuff in a way you can’t in family relationships or others. It’s genuinely unclear to me if these women are being really cruel or whether it’s more informal. One thing you might try doing is sending a note saying, “What’s going on? I’m confused,” and if there isn’t a good explanation, I think their actions speak for themselves.
Cheryl: We finally disagree! Odd Woman Out, I do think that you're making a ridiculous leap. I think you’re taking this personally. I think these women like you and care about you. They’re in a book club with you. They, at a recent meeting, discussed meeting weekly for coffee, which also included you. And even though you’ve discovered that they were meeting before, you don’t really know the nature of how that came together. I know that feeling of being left out because I also have a lovely circle of women friends. There are times that we’re all on the same text and we all decide to get together, but then there are other times when little branches of us break off because, sometimes, it’s nice to get together with one people or two people instead of six or eight people. There is often this sense of, “Oh, we didn’t invite so and so,” or, “They all got together and did this thing, but why didn’t they ask me?” What I’ve learned is, this is really silliness. We all love each other. Nobody was sitting there plotting to keep you away. Trust me. Not everyone can be invited all the time. Just be happy you have this lovely circle of women who makes meals for each other in times of trouble. Laugh it off, join the group. You’re going to realize that you’re a member of that tribe.
How do you break up with a friend who has not done something to warrant a breakup? I've outgrown our friendship, but have no reason to give her as to why. As time passes, I realize we don't share any common interests, morals or goals. She considers me to be one of her best friends, and I am unhappy the whole time we are together. She's truly a great person, but I find myself lying constantly about being busy to get out of plans with this person. I am worried I’m a bad person because I can't justify my feelings. Am I? How do I break off this relationship? Or can I even do that?
Cheryl: This is a really common question. The traditional way to break up with a friend is to slowly back away until the thing just dies. Most of the friends who’ve fallen away in my life weren’t “dumped.” It’s just that life carried on and took us in different directions. I would say back off or tell the truth. The backing off may or may not work because, of course, if this friend really does see you as one of her best friends, she’s going to pursue you and, at some point, you’re going to have to use your words. This is terrible and painful, and frankly, I’ve never done this, unless there was also a conflict. You simply have to say to somebody, “I think you’re wonderful, I wish you well, and I just don’t find that I’m clicking with you.” If you can muster that up, you can put a quick end to this friendship.
Steve: What you’re talking about, Cheryl, is the reason why I love this book, “We Learn Nothing” by Tim Kreider. There’s an amazing essay in it called, “The Anti-Kreider Club,” which is about his experience being suddenly dropped by a friend he really loved and admired. He writes, “Because there’s no formal etiquette for ending a friendship, most people do it in the laziest, most passive and painless way possible – by unilaterally dropping any effort to sustain it and letting the other person figure it out for themselves.” That’s your best option here. Your best option is to slowly drift off and leave that person in a state of bewilderment. Because what’s the other option? You’re not worried because you can’t justify your feelings; you’re worried because you can justify your feelings, and the justification is that you’re just not that into her. You’re tolerating a person out of guilt rather than genuine affection for them. You should spend time around people you esteem and admire, not people you feel sorry for or obliged to. Think of it karmically: how would you like to be treated in this circumstance?
I'm 35 years old and blessed to have a number of really strong friendships that have withstood distance, job changes and marriages. We write, call, visit each other at our homes and plan mini-getaways to fun places. In the weird way that these things happen, these women I love have all had their first babies around the same time.
It's been almost a year now, and after the first flurry of new baby visits and texts, I've noticed a pattern: the phone calls and texts from my friends with babies have slowed to almost nothing. Talk of future trips and getaways down the road have become vague and sound less likely to happen. Realistically, I accepted that, as the only childless friend in the group, there would be more pressure on me to be the one to shoulder the emotional labor of keeping our friendships alive. But I don't want to shoulder our friendship in a way that chips away at it because of my resentment towards them for being out of touch.
Do they not need my friendship anymore because there are these new little, lovely hearts to love? Am I just delaying the inevitable slipping away? If I do bring up our friendship and what I need to keep it a thriving, will it be perceived as, "She just doesn't get it”? Can a childless woman really be friends with women who have children? Does she have the right to even ask for one?
Steve: Yes, you do. Just recognize that your friends are tired, stressed out and probably preoccupied in the parenting culture we exist in. We self-define the moment we have a kid. What you’re picking up on is a very real closing of the ranks – psychically, emotionally and socially. And sometimes, friends who aren't in the middle of that vortex feel shut out and like you don’t have as much in common with them. But I promise you, they need your presence. They need your friendship. They need somebody to remind them that they were a good friend with strong, sustaining relationships before Hurricane Baby arrived. I love that you're trying to be so considerate, but don’t allow that consideration to become self-punishment. It’s not you; it’s what they’re going through.
Cheryl: One of the biggest shocks for me when I became a mother was realizing that I could never again leave the house unless I had made arrangements. I was essentially tethered to two other human beings. So they either needed to come with me, or I had to pay somebody to watch them, or I had to make sure that my husband could. In those early years, when friends would get in touch with me, I would be forced to say, “Would you like to come to the zoo with me?” And boy, did I love having another adult along with me! Some of my dear friends didn’t want to go to the zoo with me, and others said, “Listen, I know at this moment in your life, you are less flexible than me. So what can you do?” And I would say, “Let’s put the baby in a stroller, and we’ll go for a walk at 2 o’clock sharp.” Or, “Let’s go to the zoo Tuesday morning.” That flexibility works both ways. Shut Out, you sound like you are thinking so compassionately about the moment that your friends are in right now, and what you need to know is that your friends love you and that love is unchanged. Our hearts expand with every new person we love. The baby occupies a whole different heart space than you do. Just meet your friends where they are – and yes, that’s kind of one-sided. But trust that there may be a time in your life where you need your friends to meet you where you are.
My BFF of over 12 years has a Trump/Pence sign as her Facebook profile picture. She's smart and educated. She has two single, professional daughters and a handicapped son. She’s the daughter of a sadistic bully and the wife of a rich Republican husband.
My Facebook profile picture is an image with this quote: “If you see bigotry, oppose it. If you see violence, condemn it. If you see a bully, stand up to him.”
If Donald Trump wins the election, I will hold her responsible. How? How do we survive this?
Cheryl: Politically Divided, I do not know, and I am so with you. This is actually a life-long dilemma for me that has been magnified many times in this election season. And so, I guess my advice would be to ask the same questions I’ve been searching my own soul about: Why is it that you value this friendship? Is it because your friend of over 12 years enlightens you in ways that are outside the political realm? Is she valuable to you in measure that’s equal or greater to the ways that she makes you feel furious and sad and bummed out about the state of affairs in the political arena? And then trust that. Maybe do the old thing that I’m always pulling out of my hat: make a couple lists – reasons to keep this relationship and not let the politics harm it and reasons to say, “You know what? This matters so much to me and points to such an essential difference between us. I don’t want to be friends anymore.” And only you can know. Make that list and see what matters most.
Steve: I want to say, very clearly, that it is possible for you to have this quote, “If you see bigotry, oppose it. If you see violence, condemn it. If you see a bully, stand up to him,” and to believe that, and to still maintain this friendship. Your friend is not Donald Trump, and when she looks at Donald Trump, she sees something that you do not see. And you could say that she’s wrong, but she’d say the same thing about you. She probably sees some version of somebody who’s successful like her husband and believes that a successful businessman would be good for the country. Or maybe she sees an echo of her father, who was cruel and sadistic and a bully, but also a powerful figure in her life – the first love of her life. And that is so deep inside of who she is. You’re not going to root it out, and frankly, that’s not your job. Your job is to be her friend, because for 12 years, you've shared your life with her, and you know that she’s somebody who has struggled in life, has raised three kids – one of them handicapped – and that she’s smart and educated and loyal to you. I don’t want to sound like a Pollyanna. I’m furious and heartbroken almost every second of this political season. But when you have a friendship, you have to drill down into what’s really human and essential about it and into what’s really beautiful and virtuous about this friend of yours. Because when this election is over, there are still going to be millions of Americans who didn’t vote for your candidate, and if we cannot bring ourselves to recognize that those are human beings – Americans who struggle with the same things and carry around the same anxieties and worries about taking care of our family and x, y and z – then there’s no hope. Then we’ve really descended to the kind of demagoguery and bullying that Trump has been all about, and then we’re sunk. You can’t do it. It has to be deeper and more forgiving and more merciful, and that starts with your relationship with your friend.