I recently learned that my good friend Chaya and her husband are having some major financial difficulties. Their home is in foreclosure, and, generally speaking, they are in very bad shape financially. Even though I consider us to be pretty good friends, I don’t know the details regarding how the floor has fallen from underneath them and when things got so very bad. Maybe it’s been going on for a while and I just didn’t know. But now I’ve known for the past month or so.
I’ve been avoiding Chaya since I found out these details about her life. Not that I’m the type, G-d forbid, who can only hang out with successful people. That was never me, though I know some people who are like that. I realize that the reason I’ve been avoiding her is because I don’t know what to say—what I’m allowed to talk about and what I shouldn’t talk about.
I know I can’t keep avoiding her. Besides the fact that I’m sure she needs her friends around her now more than ever, I miss her and want to continue our friendship as before. But I’m thinking that it can’t be the way it was before because so much has changed. We used to go shopping together, and even went on vacations together. At this point, I don’t even know if she can afford to go to lunch with me anymore.
I don’t know what the new rules are. That’s why I’m writing in to you. Do I stay away from anything that has anything to do with money? Can I talk about anything new that I’ve purchased? Am I allowed to discuss my upcoming trip to Israel this summer? I like to think of myself as a sensitive person and I don’t want to be insensitive to Chaya, but I also don’t want to be so overly cautious that I feel like I have nothing to talk to her about at this point.
I’m afraid of saying or doing the wrong things. So what are the rules?
Rarely are there absolute rules that apply to friendships. And that’s for obvious reasons. There are so many variables to consider; what might be appropriate within one friendship wouldn’t work in another. It’s very sensitive of you to recognize the fact that things have changed dramatically within Chaya’s life and that the ripple effects can be huge. But exactly how and where it will impact your relationship will require a great deal of introspection on your part as you get in touch with the type of friendship you and Chaya have enjoyed.
First and foremost, how much of your friendship was about “doing,” and how much of your friendship was about “being?” A “doing” friendship consists of enjoying activities together, like the things you discussed — shopping, traveling, eating out. Those are all fun, nice activities that could bond two individuals. But a friendship of “being” is about having real heart-to-heart conversations, being able to connect in a meaningful way about who you are, what drives you, what pains you, what inspires you, etc.
Do you and Chaya have that sort of relationship, wherein you’ve opened up your hearts to one another in a supportive, non-judgmental, beautiful way? If that is the basis of your friendship, then, by all means, you should be reaching out to Chaya now more than ever. She probably needs a shoulder to lean on and a friend to encourage her that she’ll get through these challenging times. If what the two of you have is authentic, you should be reaching out to her now, consistently and lovingly. Allow her to take the lead. If she wants to discuss what’s going on, listen sympathetically. But maybe she just wants to be around friends as a means of distraction, so that she doesn’t have to focus all of her attention on her fears for the future. But show up, be there for her, and provide the triage that any wounded person would require at this time, without questions, judgment, or false Pollyannaish proclamations.
If your relationship was mostly based on spending money together, you have a problem. Can you still enjoy her company under different circumstances? Can you enjoy a walk on the boardwalk as opposed to a lunch out? I certainly hope so, though I’m not here to judge the nature of your relationship.
Meanwhile, you are definitely on to something as you concern yourself with safe topics to discuss. Obviously, if she is struggling to pay her electric bill, she would hardly need to hear about the new fur coat you just ordered. On the other hand, you don’t want to be so overbearingly sensitive that you shy away from any mundane conversation that might involve money. For instance, don’t be afraid to mention the fact that you ran out of milk and need to stop off for a carton. I’m sure you get my drift.
So although your instincts thus far have alienated you from Chaya, I encourage you to get back into the game. You’re right — she needs her friends now more than ever. Friends who can be loving, supportive, and distracting. And if she wants to talk about her struggles, listen. If she wants to shield herself from conversations that might feel shameful for her, allow her that opportunity as well. Just letting her know that you’re thinking of her and you’re there for her may be one of the most valuable gifts you can give her.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Hewlett. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.