Should I break up with my best friend? We fight all the time

I'm trying to be kind but she pushes the limits!

By Cary Tennis
Published October 27, 2008 10:00AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

Two years ago I met a friend on a social Web site. We had a lot in common, and she was organizing walking groups, which gave me an opportunity to meet new people. We started hanging out fairly regularly, hiking, going to the beach, meeting for drinks, going out to see bands, going to each other's places for dinner. In short, we became friends. Unfortunately, I think she felt closer to me than I did to her, and there is a good reason for that.

She has a very strong personality, very opinionated, sometimes even harshly judgmental. She is also, unfortunately, an interrupter, and doesn't mind derailing conversations. Frequently when I would spend time with her, I would start feeling overwhelmed, and would come home feeling like I was glad that I had survived without losing my cool, and also glad that some time would pass before I saw her again.

You might wonder why I would continue hanging out with her at all. The answer, I think, is that I felt sorry for her. She had had a rather rough patch with men and her job and her general path in life, and was feeling a bit unmoored. She doesn't have a close relationship with her family, and she didn't seem to have any other close friends (and exactly none from previous phases of her life -- childhood, college -- nothing but the last couple of years). She would often become tearful at some point in our meetings. I really felt like I might be in a position to help her in some way. I just thought that she was a good person who, for reasons of insecurity, really wanted to be known for her intelligence and opinions, so I tried to see beyond her dominating patterns. There were times when I even said out loud to other people, "I know she can be difficult, but I'm committed to our friendship."

Then she asked me to go on a trip with her. I was hesitant in my heart. I knew it would be difficult for me to maintain my composure with her for an extended period of time. I decided to take a chance, and went anyway. As predicted, within two days, I snapped at her. She had made an irritated comment about me having to see my statues (the implication, of course, being that she was the cool tourist, and I was the lame tourist). She denied any sideways intention. Then I snapped at her again at the end of a concert. It was crowded, and she was dancing with all her might. She had a rather heavy bag, and it kept hitting me every time she moved her hips, so probably a couple thousand times during this show. I tried different tactics. Holding my arm out to protect myself. Standing a different way. I even told her at some point that she was hitting me with her bag. She didn't seem to get it. After it was over I told her that she might want to move her bag to the front of her body, because it swings around and hits people. She said, "I hear what you're saying, but I don't think I'm going to change it, because then it will be in my way." At that point I just walked out of the crowd, and when I got to the edge of the crowd with her trailing behind me, I snapped again, this time telling her all the things she had done in the last days of the trip that had made me feel small. She said she didn't mean it, but again, seemed to think that I was attributing meaning to these things that she hadn't intended.

I felt bad about my behavior, so I decided that no matter what she did for the rest of the trip, I was just going to let her do it. Complaining about the city nonstop? I just agreed with her. Wanting to drink coffee at the same cafe every day? What does it really matter? Wanting to eat dinner at the same restaurant every night? Well, it saves us the decision-making. Annoyed that we can't find things? I went in search of directions. Making disparaging comments about bands that other people like, people we just met? Wasn't me. Wanting to take pictures of obese people at the pool to make fun of them on flickr? Use my camera. At some point she even hit an old lady with a suitcase on a bus, because she was angrily trying to move it, and it came free suddenly. She didn't even apologize. I just let her run all of her patterns, watched as if it was a film, interfered as little as possible, and played bottom to her top when required.

Fast-forward a couple of months. I hadn't seen her in a while, because I was really busy, but we had been in touch via the Internet. I thought I should just try to let the whole thing go, and start fresh, but then she made a disparaging comment about a certain singer/songwriter that I happened to like, and it was quite enough to raise the angry specter of this ruined holiday. I snapped. Again. Didn't talk to her for a week. When I cooled off, I just said that it seemed that there were going to be disagreements in our relationship, but that perhaps we should meet and talk about it. She sent back a long e-mail, the tone of which was relief coupled with understanding (that sometimes I just get like that). No insight into why I might feel that way. I didn't answer. I didn't answer the phone when she called. Finally I received another e-mail saying that she had three times been the target of our disagreements, and that was three times too many. She had enough stress, and she couldn't handle this, too. Again, showing no insight. Claiming that she's just being herself and that seems to have suddenly become a problem. What could I do but agree that this was no way to resolve things? I really feel she has a blind spot here. For me this is a relief, but she is so hurt and angry, that she now refuses to return money she owes me from the trip, literally adding injury to insult.

The temptation, of course, is to say that she's just a fucked-up person, and she screwed me over. My question is this: Where is my blind spot? What is my lesson here? Have I actually been devious and arrogant in trying to be compassionate? I'm sure she feels blindsided. I literally never let on to any distaste for her personality until this trip. What would real compassion have looked like?

Tale of woe

Dear Tale of Woe,

What you have here, it seems to me, is a twisted and painful but essentially wonderful friendship, the kind that should be in a novel. You two should just pal around and snipe at each other and write everything down and put it in a book. I have no idea how this conflict might be "cured" or "fixed" and anyway I am more in the mood right now for delicious gossip and eternally delightful nonsense and do not wish to sit zazen thinking how to more fully appreciate the wholeness of the spirit of your companion; I much prefer imagining you two carping at each other across Europe. I picture her dancing at the front of the crowd, obliviously banging everyone with her bag and it amuses me. I only wish there were more place names and travel notes to augment the delight of two charming but mismatched travelers arguing about the proper temperature of the hotel room and whether to dine at the same place every evening -- by which a traveler quickly develops that delightful but short-lived feeling of being "at home" -- or to dine at a new place every evening to maximize the quantity of nominally novel experiences and intensify that sense of constant movement and newness that is another of the charms of travel (and which is the traveler's prerogative alone, as when you return home you will be consigned to the same repetitious round of eateries).

So if you can handle the little emotional pains of your disagreements why not just try to be as good a friend as you can be and do not try to find in this any ki serenity, as that is not what this friendship is about. To be murderously irritated by your closest friends is to be blessedly human; I would not expect your friend to come up with any sudden insights as to her temperamental shortcomings or lack of empathy or self-centeredness or lack of ability to improvise a facade of evenhandedness or any of the myriad other limitations of the human soul.

Nah. Just hang out and write it all down and get an agent.

Oh -- and put in some place names.

Really. I may just be in a strange mood. I may be too abstracted right now; I may be regarding you too much with the faculty of aesthetic or fictive appreciation (which by the way I do not think is such a terrible thing to do, being in the realm of text anyway and might as well be honest about it); because my problem-solving abilities are temporarily exhausted I may be trying to weasel my way out of answering your question head-on. But to me it just sounds like you are two people who are genuinely friends but have genuine conflicts. You are both sensitive and headstrong. Two sensitive and headstrong people will inevitably have conflict.

But we love conflict. We love social conflict especially when neither party can do much enduring damage because the stakes are low: You are not tied by blood or marriage or economic necessity; your suffering is voluntary and therefore to an extent theatrical. You are lucky that you can indulge in these tempests; they are the stuff of social life and of art.

Also this: One of the best qualities of friendship is longevity. While we think of a sexual affair as intense, focused and short-lived, when we think of a good friendship we think of one that has endured. So if you are not going to have a romance with your friend, why not try to make it a long-lived friendship, by committing, even with all the conflicts, to being friends for life? Why not give it a try? You are obviously drawn to each other strongly, and have much in common, even as you battle it out.

The Best of Cary Tennis

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Cary Tennis

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