By Esther Mann, LCSW
My close friend Adina is terrific in so many ways. We’ve been “go-to friends” for at least five years now. A “go-to friend” is that person you call when you need an opinion about anything. Or the person you call when you are invited somewhere and want to go with a buddy rather than go alone. Also that person you call when you are feeling lonely and bored and know that she’ll always be available and able to fill the void. I think by now, when people think of me, they think of Adina and me as a pair.
I’m thrilled to have this important relationship in my life and wouldn’t give it up for anything. But there is a problem with Adina. I wouldn’t want to sabotage what we have, but it’s getting hard for me to deal with. I find myself getting annoyed but I don’t know if it’s my place to challenge her or let it go.
Adina can’t handle hearing the truth when it isn’t something positive. For instance, last year I started noticing some peculiar behavior from her two-year-old son. I’ve had numerous issues with my children, dealt with all sorts of testing, intervention, therapists–you name it. It seems so many parents these days find themselves with such challenges, and maybe we feel a little bit of shame at times, but we do what’s best for our children and get lots of good advice and encouragement from others who have been through similar experiences.
When I brought up the subject of her son, she “poo-pooed” me, told me I was ridiculous, and quickly changed the subject. A month or two later, I tried to gently bring it up again, and once more she didn’t let the conversation happen. I felt knocked off my feet–that I had a job to do and she wasn’t letting me do it. I felt frustrated and also saddened at the thought that possibly her son would not receive the help that it seemed clear to me that he needed.
Several months ago, I heard that her husband was out of a job. When I learned of this horrible news, my first reaction was sadness and worry for Adina, her husband, and family. My second reaction was, “How was it possible that I’m hearing this from a stranger and not from Adina?” I wasn’t sure what to do with this news that I had received. Finally I decided to see if I could somehow carefully open up a conversation that would make it easy to transition into a discussion about her husband’s unemployment. I began by asking how “Ben” was doing. She chatted on about how busy he is with this and that and not once mentioned that he was out of work. I was flabbergasted. I try to be a sensitive person and so I let it go and didn’t betray the fact that I knew he was unemployed. But when I got home and thought about the encounter, I started feeling upset that she would shut me out of such an important part of her life. Besides the fact that maybe in some way my husband or I could help with networking for Ben, I couldn’t believe that one of my closest friends–if not my closest friend–would treat me this way.
I’m starting to reevaluate our friendship and wondering if I’m fooling myself by believing that we are such great friends. And maybe I need to think a little harder before sharing with her some intimate details of my life. Maybe I’m the silly one. But honestly, I can’t imagine feeling close to another person if I’m unable to feel safe enough with them to share my deepest, darkest feelings and events. Isn’t that what a real friendship is all about? If Adina can’t connect with me in that way, I have to wonder how deep her feelings are for me and whether she views the friendship the same way that I do.
So I’m wondering what to do about Adina at this point. Do I confront her about her denials and explain how it makes me feel left out and not as close to her as I would like to feel? Or do I just go along with her–pretending that everything is normal, when I know that it isn’t? I also wonder whether this relationship is kind of a joke and not the close friendship I hoped it would be. I find myself reevaluating so much at this point.
Whether regarding friendships, marriages, sibling connections, or any other type of relationship, each partner brings his or her own essence into the dynamic. And we are all different. In most cases, no two people give to one another in an identical way. Whether it speaks to our own emotional sense of self, or, as you mentioned earlier, feelings of shame or feelings of safety, or even just our own ability to emote in a totally honest way, each of us can take a relationship just so far–and no further. Some individuals are capable of wisely choosing individuals with whom they can be vulnerable. When that happens, it’s magical! The trust and love that is experienced on both sides and the resulting connection of two such souls is explosive in its beauty. But many people live their entire lives never encountering such a relationship. And so it is.
More often than not, two people come together, each contributing what they can up until a point. Hopefully we do not choose randomly, but rather are drawn to one over the other because we sense a kindred spirit. But that doesn’t mean that it’s a perfect match. The question we tend to ask ourselves on some level is whether there is enough common ground to make the relationship work. It sounds as though you picked Adina to be your friend for some good reasons. As you so aptly put it, she is your “go-to friend.” She is reliable, there for you always; and having a friend to count on constantly is a special gift. You trust her opinion, she picks you up when you are feeling bored or lonely, and you have the safety of knowing she is someone you can always lean on. These are remarkable qualities that should not be taken for granted. I think you need to not only continue this friendship, but cherish it. Many women would love to have such a “go-to friend” in life.
Clearly, Adina is unable to admit–even to you–when something in her life is off-course. The first thing you need to know is that it most likely has nothing to do with you. It’s not about her believing that you are not to be trusted or that you are not worthy enough to know her deepest secrets. Rather, Adina sounds like one of those individuals who find it too painful to share what they may perceive as a failure. Though rationally we can probably all agree that whatever might be going on with her son or her husband’s lack of employment is certainly not Adina’s fault, something in her past has led her to believe that there is something inherently embarrassing about her situations and she is unable to discuss them with you. The shame Adina feels is so powerful that it holds her back from perhaps even acquiring some useful advice.
Adina is not alone with her feelings of shame and her subsequent need to pull away from acknowledging these life events that she perceives to be embarrassing. Much of the shame that many of us feel stems from our childhoods, and the shame seems to follow us around through adulthood. It doesn’t help that there is so much judgment all around us. We all hear messages of not doing enough or being enough. Whatever areas of our life we think about, it’s easy to feel disappointment in ourselves that we could have and should have done a better job. It’s hard to avoid these thoughts and perhaps we all need to do what we can on a personal level to start changing the message.
I don’t think it’s your place to push Adina to share with you what she is not comfortable sharing. Try to view her with compassion and understand that it’s just too hard for her to discuss certain things with you. Maybe she’s afraid you’ll judge her poorly, though I’m sure that’s not the reality. In her head, though, it’s a real concern. Be patient, understanding, and accepting. Maybe at some point, Adina will feel better equipped to let down her guard a bit more and share her innermost fears with you. But for now, meet her where she is and don’t make it personal. She’s probably doing the best she can.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. Together with Jennifer Mann, she also runs the “Navidaters.” She can be reached at email@example.com or 516-314-2295.