Self-focused friend grows needier

A friend's marital troubles have led to her becoming even needier than normal. There are healthy ways to help, Carolyn Hax notes.



May 11, 2023 - 1:34 PM

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Dear Carolyn: I’ve been friends with “Susan” for 10-plus years. She’s always seemed a little self-focused, but overall, the relationship has been satisfying. Now she’s going through a marital crisis and for more than a year now has been leaning on me for moral support. Having gone through divorce myself years ago, I can truly empathize with needing to lean on friends. I lost a couple of friends when I went through this, and, looking back, I can understand why.

I’m feeling increasingly impatient with Susan’s neediness, though, and I respond to her only out of guilt. I’d really like to see her once a week at most. But I don’t know whether I should just bite the bullet and keep spending more time with her, because I understand how much she needs her friends — or if not, how to gently back off so that I don’t wound her further in her fragile time. Any suggestions?

— Impatient

Impatient: You make strong arguments either way: An already “self-focused” friend loses what little capacity she had for reciprocal friendship? Okay, less Susan. A friend is suffering now as you once did yourself at the cost of several friendships? More Susan, then, of course.

It’s really your prerogative; neither is wrong.

What does seem wrong to me, or at least self-defeating, is that your entire instrument panel for this friendship seems to have only one dial: right for more, left for less. Why not add functions to make it adaptable to different phases of life?

You’re bothered enough about this friendship to ask me about it, which suggests you’re invested enough to put in the extra effort.

So: Instead of knuckling through an obligatory one Susan a week, hash and rehash, think of ways you can spend time together that aren’t based on one-on-one conversation.

Maybe Susan needs something to talk about besides her marital problems. Maybe she needs that more desperately than you do.

Maybe, then, you can steer your friendship into a weekly or monthly … distraction generator. Hobby, class, project, cause, movie-in-an-actual-theater night, live music (“WHAT?”), book group, fitness goal. Pledge allegiance to a local events calendar. Anything, as long as it’s something. Something besides her intimate drudgery.

Even if you need trial and error to identify activities you both find absorbing, that in itself can fill the forebrain enough to push some overworked topics out.

Maybe, too, instead of needing more of you lately, what Susan really needs is more yous, plural — more people. In that case, whatever you can do to boost her circulation would be next-level mercy.

For you, too, and maybe even for others.

Certainly it can pay off for her. It’s so preoccupying for people when their innermost relationships are in trouble; most of us become monotonous. Dragging her to see different sights, breathe different air and form different thoughts can send a lightened and more lucid Susan back to deal with her problems at home. Or at least shift her tears to many more shoulders than yours.

She might be a harder sell to potential new acquaintances — but Susan was a “satisfying” friend, and probably will be again after this. Maybe more so, if she learns from your support.