Welcome to the Sidebar’s advice column, where friends, Romans, and countrymen alike sit down for a chat with our very own Muffle. Her advice might be bad, but hey, at least someone’s listening. Today we’re talking about what to do when a friend starts treating you like crap.
I have a friend who is going through a hard time. Marriage troubles, family health issues and the political climate have put her on edge. Lately, she and I have been fighting almost any time we aren’t talking about something innocuous. I feel like she is using me as an emotional punching bag. We have been friends for a long time, so I don’t want to write her off. I also want to be there for her during this hard time in her life, but I don’t want her to treat me badly, either. How can I be there for her but maybe get her to back off?
Gritting My Teeth
First off, I feel for you, GMT. It can feel like a massive betrayal when someone you’ve known and loved for years as Dr. Jekyll suddenly seems like a huge, jerkish Mr. Hyde. Especially when, from your perspective, you’ve done nothing wrong, and you’re stuck dealing with this transformation you didn’t cause and certainly didn’t ask for.
That being said, it sounds like your friend is dealing with some tough shit. While friendships change and sometimes fade away all the time, it doesn’t sound like that’s what’s happening here: external stress has made your friend irritable, and she’s taking it out on you. Your urge to be there for her is commendable, and likely the best way to preserve your friendship, but that doesn’t mean you have resign yourself to selflessly taking her abuse.
My first advice would be to approach her in a neutral setting. Do not attempt to have this conversation during a fight, when you’re both pissed off and you’re screaming “that’s not fair!” inside your head. Instead, try writing her a quick note or grabbing a cup of coffee with her, and ask if she’s okay. If you feel as though she would be receptive to it, tell her you’re worried about her, and ask her how she’s feeling about the problems you listed above. If she wants to talk about them, listen carefully, and don’t immediately jump in and try to fix the problems for her — it sounds as though your friend is lashing out because she wants support and doesn’t know how to ask for it, and providing a laundry list of possible solutions can sound like you’re blaming her for not fixing these issues herself. Instead, commiserate with her, and agree that these things totally suck. Then, ask if there’s anything you can do to help. If she says yes, that’s your opening, though make sure you’re providing the help she actually wants, not what you think you should do for her. If she says no, well, talking about it probably helped: you did your job as her friend, and she knows that you’re there if she needs you.
If your friend tries to start a fight, or lashes out when you try to help, try to stay calm. Her behavior isn’t right, and you shouldn’t be on the receiving end of her frustration, but delving into it will just end up with both of you angry, frustrated and disappointed in each other. Tell her, firmly, that you don’t think arguing over the issue is a productive way to spend your time together, and change the subject. If she refuses to let it go, tell her that you sympathize with her feelings, but that you’re not going to engage in a fight with her. Tell her that you’re there if she wants to talk about something else, but otherwise, end the conversation, whether that means walking away from the table or just failing to respond to further messages.
Disengaging like this is really hard, but it’s also incredibly important if you don’t want your friend to get used to taking everything out on you. It’s not fair for you to be her dumping ground, and it’s not productive for her to funnel all her feelings onto you rather than into resolving the issues that are making her so upset.
It may take some time for her to get through this part of her life. If you’re sure that her companionship is something you want to maintain, it may take a lot of patience on your part. Keep periodically checking in and making sure she knows you’re there for her, but don’t let her take advantage of your willingness to help, either. If this goes on for too long, or if it seems like it’s a recurring pattern in your relationship, you should reevaluate whether this friendship is actually a healthy contribution to your life, or if you’re in a situation that requires you to give more than you’re allowed to take. You deserve to be treated like you matter, and it’s not a failure to walk away from a relationship that doesn’t fulfill you. Life’s too short.
Snark and tipples,
(P.S.: if you’re really gritting your teeth, get a mouth guard; the resulting headaches probably aren’t doing your patience any favors.)
Got a question for Muffle? Send it to firstname.lastname@example.org.