Not all advice need be professional. Sometimes your problems merit a bit of unvarnished honesty from a dude equipped with nothing more than a computer and a conscience. Luckily for you, I’m that guy. Welcome back to Tough Love. (If you’d like to seek my advice, email me at [email protected])
Today we’re tackling the issue of a problematic friendship that seems more antagonistic than loving a lot of the time. How do you impose limits on a longtime relationship that suddenly doesn’t feel so great anymore?
Note: I’m a columnist, not a therapist or certified healthcare professional. My advice should be interpreted with that in mind. If you have a problem with anything I say, file a complaint here. Now, let us begin.
I’m hoping you can help me with a predicament that I’ve been in. I’ve had a very close group of friends that I met in college, 20 years ago now. We’ve all split between the east and west coasts over time, but have remained very close. Two of these friends now live very close to my wife and me with their families in a relatively small town. The issue that I find myself in is that one of these friends has always managed to anger and frustrate me over the years. He is a very self-absorbed person with quite a lot to say, to the point where I often wonder if he is provoking me. I’ve found that over time, our opinions and ways of dealing with different situations have changed dramatically, in opposite ways. Yet I am often painted as the 19-year-old-kid he met in college and not allowed to have a differing opinion without being mocked.
Quite frankly, I do not enjoy my time with him, and haven’t for many years. This tendency of his has been adapted by his wife as well, and as a result, my wife shares the same frustrations as I do. We find that they can be very competitive with both us and our children, and seem to enjoy the teasing and heckling aspect of our friendship without possessing the ability to be happy for us. Which in turn makes it hard for us to be happy for them. Needless to say, much resentment has been built. This is something that our mutual friends feel as well, yet we are all at a loss for how to manage.
Both my wife and I agree that we could benefit from our space from them. However, they live in the same town as us, we share the same circle of friends, and our children and very close. We also very much love our neighborhood and school district.
Is it possible to insert the necessary space without severing a two decade old friendship? Thank you for any advice you could give. I would very much like to save this friendship and not abandon it. But I do not know how to accomplish this.
An annoyed friend
Dear Annoyed Friend,
Friendships are always subject to the personalities and quirks of the people involved in them, which is to say that relationships often change. From what I gather, you’ve been close with this person for a long time, which means you have a shared history, which can be a difficult thing to untangle from your present day lives. There is an idea of who you are to your friend (and an idea of who he is to you) that’s deeply ingrained, and as much as that contains negative ideas, it means there’s probably an affectionate and reverent side, as well.
But if someone can’t be happy for you and your wife (as you’ve put it), that also means there’s something deeply entrenched in your relationship dynamic that isn’t healthy. To me, it sounds like your friend and his wife might be insecure. Why do they need to compete with you, if you’re all adults living your respective lives and presumably just doing your best? Jealous people tend to be competitive. Maybe you and your buddy were competitive growing up, but if you’ve kind of grown out of that dynamic and he hasn’t, that indicates some jealousy on his end.
You can try being sympathetic and asking if there’s something wrong, if you think it might yield a productive conversation. But it sounds like you’ve known this guy for a long time and understand the limits of your relationship. So with that in mind, why not just limit the hell out of this relationship? Impose an emotional blockade, not only for him, but for you. Life is too short to have shitty friends. Why go through with the expectation of thinking they might be cool and not too annoying or antagonistic, only to be let down time and again?
Practically speaking, you don’t need to text or call this person unless you have a pressing reason to do so. Maybe mute some of your group chats with them if that’s bothering you. And, because you have mutual friends, understanding what situations you can tolerate to be in this person’s company will be key. Are they fine in groups but lousy one-on-one? It’s fine if your kids are close, but there’s no need to be best friends with your kid’s best friends. Think about when you were a kid: Were your parents close with all of your friend’s parents? Probably not.
I understand you’re in close proximity, but that doesn’t mean you need to be with them all the time, or even a fraction of your time. It’s a decision that’s entirely up to you, and you don’t need to consider anyone else in this dynamic. That’s ultimately what’s very important for you to know—you can set the terms of this friendship, and you can do it in subtle ways. There’s no need to pull them aside and say, “This is how it is now;” given all the history between you guys and all the mutual friends you presumably have, it seems like severing the relationship altogether might be a bit dramatic. But you should decide what you need to do to implement some healthy distance, and then stick to the plan.
Sometimes friends naturally, subconsciously drift apart; you’re just doing it consciously in this case.