My friend insists on paying for expensive lunches and then asks me to do favors for her. What's going on?

By Cary Tennis
Published August 13, 2004 7:45PM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I have this "friend" who wants to believe she is a high roller, a big spender. She invites me to dinner or lunch at nice restaurants, places I wouldn't dare go because they are so expensive. I tell her that I can't afford these places, and she will offer to pay. Then she leaves half the dinner on the plate and orders bottle after bottle of expensive wine. I feel guilty having a second glass of wine. Sometimes I offer to pay (only because I feel guilty for spending her money) and she absolutely insists on paying. I think $250 for lunch is crazy; she does this routinely. Sometimes I try to suggest more affordable places but she dislikes them. On the rare occasion we have something reasonable (cheap) for lunch like pizza, she insists on paying then too. One day I decided to reciprocate and called her to invite her to lunch. She declined the invitation. She said she didn't have any money. Now I feel like she thinks I'm taking advantage of her. I told her I would pay and she still declined.

This woman is a good friend of mine and I enjoy her company. I even enjoy the expensive meals and the lovely restaurants. But something doesn't feel right about this. When we go out I always order something I don't like because it's the cheapest thing on the menu. I love to eat fish but in these restaurants, the fish costs $40 and up. I made the mistake once of ordering fish not knowing the price and she seemed irritated when the bill came. So now I order the chicken breast. I'm beginning to hate chicken. I think there must be some rule of etiquette to not order expensive items if someone else is paying, but this is getting ridiculous. I was at Starbuck's once and she came in. I always order a large cappuccino whenever I'm there. I love coffee and I often splurge over there. She comes in and offers to buy me coffee. I tried to tell her no, but she gave the clerk money for both our drinks. When she got her change back, she looked at it rather oddly. "Wow, what did you order?" Then she saw the large coffee I ordered and acted as if I ordered the big one just to take her money. She ordered a small.

Cary, I know I don't have much money now, but no one has to take pity and pay for me all the time then act snippy after they pay. She also asks me for a lot of small favors. They are numerous and I honestly don't mind doing them. I wonder if her extravagant dinners are her way of repaying me for the favors? She really owes me nothing. I'm beginning to wonder if at some point in the future she is going to ask me for a humongous favor (down payment for house or car, cosign a loan) and I will feel indebted to her for all the treats along the way.

What do I do? Start refusing the dinners and lunches?


Dear Indebted,

I sense the reason you feel uncomfortable about this situation is that it's about power. Good friendship is about equality and sharing. Bad friendship is about power. You might have to tell this friend that you simply do not feel comfortable with her paying the bills at these fancy restaurants. You might have to tell her that if you're going to be friends, you have to find some other things to do. If she is a genuine friend, and not simply someone seeking power over you, she will show it by agreeing to adjust her habits a little to accommodate you.

She may not be interested in the kind of friendship that involves another person's wishes. She may not know that such friendship is even possible. She may think the only way she can have a friend is if she pays for expensive dinners. She may think that a friend is like a pet, or a handbag, that you carry around and show off to others. It's possible that she thinks she is treating you well, because she buys you food, and she will not understand your objection to the inequality of contribution. It isn't absolutely necessary that she understand. What is important is that you find things to do that you can participate in equally, so that you have a sense that you are contributing. If she is willing to do those things, then a more comfortable friendship will evolve, because you will be happier.

She may be less benign, however. She may have no genuine respect for you as a person, and so will not show any interest in adjusting the pattern of your relationship to reflect your preferences. Then it will be clear that you're simply an object in her universe.

If she is willing to try some new activities, suggest some projects in which you work together to accomplish something. If you can garden together, or build something, or volunteer together to stuff envelopes for a political cause, or volunteer together in a hospital, those would be ways to level the playing field. If you can do some of those things, then an occasional expensive meal might not be such a big thing.

I remember something Michael Franti of the band Spearhead said to me a long time ago. He said that we are a "debt and repayment" society, not a "shame and enlightenment" society. It stuck with me because I, like you, have been often flummoxed when faced with who pays the bill and why.

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Cary Tennis

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