Our agony aunt tackles your issues
Q I would like to distance myself from an old friend without causing hurt, upset or offence. We met at university and have had lots of good times over the past 20 years, so I don’t want to sever contact, but I always feel drained after seeing her. She and her partner often invite themselves for the weekend, and
I’ve come to dread these visits. I feel she leaves with her ego bolstered at the expense of mine. It’s as if she has set up some weird point-scoring competition – about anything from face cream brands to shoes, to work – all under the guise of having a laugh. I have hinted that I’d like to limit their visits to just one night, but it hasn’t worked. I have sorted out most areas of my previously messy life with the aid of therapy, self-help books and advice columns, so I know I have outgrown this friendship as it is, but don’t know how to change it. A It would be lovely if we could get what we want without causing hurt, upset and offence, but that is not always possible. We are not good at telling others how we feel about them if it isn’t 100% positive.
We are a nation of ‘hinters’, and
I’m not sure it always works!
She may or may not be competitive. But that’s how you are experiencing her and the way this affects you is threatening your friendship. Some of us really hate giving other people feedback about how they affect us, but remember – and point this out to her, too – how you are affected by her is about you. It is your reaction and will be rooted in your past experiences. Sibling rivalry? Or a competitive dad? Or a school system that numbered pupils in the class from one downwards?
Such experiences can exaggerate feelings we have in the present because they are triggered by the past. Most of the time we aren’t in the habit of tracing a feeling we have back to when we first had it, but it can be useful in making more sense of a reaction we are having now.
But you still have to talk to her about how you feel, otherwise you are going to stay stuck. The great rule for giving feedback in any situation is to describe and define yourself and not the other person. We can get defensive if someone tells us what we are like, but if someone tells us how they feel in reaction to us, then they are defining themselves, which makes it somewhat easier to hear.
So, this is how I imagine your next conversation might go.
Her: ‘Hurrah! We can come and stay with you next weekend.’
You: ‘Before you do, we need to have a conversation. I value our long friendship, and whether you mean to be or not (and I don’t expect you do), I experience you as being competitive with me. I love the fun we can have, but because I have this reaction I can find a whole weekend very draining. For example, last time when you said… I felt… and this is a common thing I get when I’m with you. Because I don’t want to jeopardise our friendship, I haven’t talked about it and it’s got bigger and bigger for me and I’m afraid it’s reached the point where I am not as excited about you coming to stay as I was. I feel that we need to re-think how and when we see each other.’
Dare you do this? You may jeopardise your friendship for ever; she may write you off as a bad person and never speak to you again – there are no guarantees – but if I was in your position, I might take that risk.