Dear Answer Queen:
I’ve been good friends with a woman I’ll call Dollface (because why not?) for a couple of decades. When we met, in our early mid-thirties, I was a single, broke, wannabe novelist in New York, living in a scummy flat and working part-time as a bartender to support my writing; she was a single, broke, aspiring actress/waitress. We spent many nights on her couch with a cheap bottle between us, bonding over our difficult but also passionate, art-driven lives. Then I got lucky: In short order, I met a loving guy, published a novel, and left New York for a smaller, more affordable city with beautiful country and lakes all around. My now-husband and I have a great life here, with like-minded friends, enough money as long as we work hard (which we do), and a dog we both love.
She talks constantly—mostly about how unhappy, poor, and lonely she is.
For the first few years, Dollface visited us winter and summer, one week each. Lately I’ve kept it to just summer. But the visits are hard. She’s high maintenance about food, doesn’t love dogs, and never has any money, which means we pay for everything. More than that, she talks constantly—mostly about how unhappy, poor, and lonely she is. I lose days of work time when she comes, and I don’t enjoy her visits anymore. I never see her in New York—we rarely go back, and when we do, there are other people we need to see. But I also would feel guilty not having her come when she can’t afford a real vacation and I have a house to host her. Plus, I think she really needs my friendship. Help.
Wanting Out but Feeling Guilty
The psychologist Bruno Bettelheim once told someone* that guilt is a useless emotion, but I disagree; I think that as long as it doesn’t lead to resentment, guilt can sometimes be what makes us do the right thing when we’d rather be, say, eating Jacques Torres chocolates and reading a Patti Smith memoir in a jacuzzi. Your desire to be there for Dollface even in a small way—to not abandon her just because your life took a turn for the better, while hers stalled or tanked—is a noble one, and I admire you for it, especially because you’ve clearly outgrown this friendship and are getting very little back from it.
This sounds less like a friendship and more like, idk, genital warts or midlife stomach spread.
While real friendship is about sometimes giving more, there should be things you receive, too. She gets to escape to your cozy house to relax and unload her sorrows, you get inside gossip from your old world and fun memories of those hungry, art-filled days—and an uplifting reminder of how far you’ve come. But if she’s so self-absorbed she can’t even provide that—and she’s high maintenance besides—that sounds less like a friendship and more like, idk, genital warts or midlife stomach spread.
The Goal is Not Martyrdom
So how to reconcile your generosity with not having to suffer through a tedious week every summer where you give and give, and she takes and takes? Because our goal here isn’t martyrdom, which, besides being annoying, can lead to acrimony and passive-aggressiveness. Our goal is finding your way to that yoga mat-sized space between doing what you want and still being charitable, between taking care of yourself and not abandoning others in need. And while it’s not uncommon for friendships to have a shelf life and run their natural course (unlike with marriage or parenthood or birth families, a friendship has no legal bond, not to mention no supportive Therapy Industrial Complex—marriage therapy, sex therapy, family therapy), being dumped by a friend can feel as bad as being dumped by a lover, full of pain and heartbreak and self doubt.
What I’m trying to say here, Wanting: Don’t tell Dollface she can’t come. It would be ungenerous, and it might push her over the edge. And then what? Instead, decide how much you can give the poor girl without a) fully dreading her visit, b) seething with resentment by the end, and c) going broke. A week is a lot. A long weekend, though, might be bearable, right? Especially if you add another friend or two to the mix for some of it, so DF can’t bend your ear the whole time.
Setting the Limits and Ending Friendships
Figure out your boundaries—remember, open-hearted but also self-protective—and convey them firmly and (mostly) honestly. You’d love her to come, but you have lots of work and also other visitors asking, so you’re holding everyone to three days, max. If any of that bugs her—your house is a long way to travel for three days, or she had hoped to have you all to herself—apologize and tell her you completely understand if she needs to back out.
It’s not uncommon for friendships to have a shelf life and run their natural course.
If she doesn’t bail, then okay: think of it as your annual act of charity for an old friend, something someone as happy and lucky as you should find space for. But if she does change her mind, it’s her making the decision—so your guilt is lessened, her pain is lessened, the friendship is no longer so unbalanced, and things can drift more gently and mutually toward their complete and final destination, whatever that may be.
One last thing, because I wouldn’t be me if I didn’t say it: There are beautiful, brilliant books out there about friendship, books that will show you how common this situation is and how other women tackle it, while making you swoon in gorgeous writing. Two to start with: She Matters: A Life in Friendships by Susanna Sonnenberg, and The Friend Who Got Away, an anthology by Elissa Schappell. Fire up the jacuzzi, Tribe.
* The someone is my mother-in-law, who knew him decades ago. I can’t prove this, as I wasn’t there, but I have no reason to disbelieve her.
A version of this article was originally published in March 2018.