I have been unhappy about a friendship of over 55 years. Why do I still put up with her? | Leading questions

The thing to do is make a deliberate choice, writes advice columnist Eleanor Gordon-Smith. Decide to keep them as a friend – or don’t

I’m a mentally and physically fit widow in my late 70s. I have been unhappy about my relationship of over 55 years with a “friend” who was once my sister-in-law. Why do I still put up with a person who throws a sarcastic remark at moments when you need a friendly hug? Who never fails, given the opportunity, to rub salt into a wound?

I have two children and four grandchildren who live nearby and we are all very close. It seems unkind to drop her now as she was not so similarly blessed. We all have burdens to carry throughout our lives, I know. But her negative, unfeeling attitudes never fail to irritate or bring me down.

Eleanor says: One of the defining features of a friendship is that we don’t keep a rolling moral score of each other. Love is patient, love is kind, “it keeps no record of wrongs”. This is a very nice thing, usually – it means we can reveal our unpolished selves. We can be frank and loved and forgiven and idiosyncratic all at the same time. But sometimes it means that, after years of friendship, we look up at the person we call a friend and realise that in the time we weren’t keeping inventory of the ethical infractions, they were still busy racking them up.

It’s a very peculiar feeling to see someone with those newly evaluative eyes. We might have always known they had the traits that now seem so vividly irritating – that they were prone to sarcasm, in your friend’s case, or that they weren’t especially comforting – but we hadn’t got all the way to the question you’re now asking: wait, why do I put up with that?

A pal of mine once described his version of your decades-long frenemy: “If it weren’t for the fact that I am her friend, I’d never choose to be.”

At that juncture, the thing to do is make a deliberate choice: keep them as a friend, or don’t. Either option can make you happy – the key is to make it an act of resolution, a conscious decision.

Once you’ve taken a clear-eyed look at the things they tend to do and say and decided you’ll put up with those patterns for this or that reason, you can meditate on those reasons when they disappoint you in exactly the way you knew they would. Knowing why you’ve chosen to put up with something makes it easier to endure the actual task – it’s the social analogue of how people are much more likely to stick to tough habits like going to the gym if they keep mentally reminding themselves of why they’re doing it.

Of course, you don’t have to maintain your friendship. If you wanted to quietly fade this woman out, you could. People drift; it doesn’t need to be a big confrontation. But you sound kind enough to find that a rude prospect, and you may be right that your company does her good, even if she doesn’t show it.

So if you decide you’re not going to cut her out, the challenge is to get yourself into a position where her reliable patterns of behaviour don’t end up reliably hurting you. I heard this phrase recently and liked it very much: you have to have an emotional raincoat.

One way to take the sting out of an insult is to practice seeing it as nothing more than a piece of evidence about the person who said it. They say something undermining or sarcastic, for instance, and although their literal words are about you, they’re unwittingly telling you about themselves. They’re expressing a wish that you come down a notch in the conversation, or hoping you will see them as a source of some power or knowledge that you lack. Even when she doesn’t recognise the cue for a hug, all she’s giving you is evidence that she doesn’t have that capacity for warmth. “Evidentialising” people’s behaviour like this can make it easier to keep yourself arm’s length from the hurt.

If that doesn’t work, tell her straight that it stings when she reacts like this. Friendship might not keep a record of wrongs, but if she cares about keeping this one, she will care about the record of hurt.


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Eleanor Gordon-Smith

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