Dear Fuck-Up: Must I Keep Watching My Friend Self-Sabotage?

RelationshipsThe Experts
Dear Fuck-Up: Must I Keep Watching My Friend Self-Sabotage?

Dear Fuck-Up,

I feel like I’m at a crossroads with my best friend. We’ve known each other for more than 20 years (We’re in our late 30s). She’s extremely fun, outgoing, and loyal. She’s always been a bit more wild than me and to put it delicately, more of a mess. But that’s to be understood because she has trauma stemming back to her childhood, including many things I suspect she’s never told me.

For the past two years, her self-sabotage has become very obvious and more destructive. For example, uprooting her life for a month-long relationship that already had multiple break-ups to make-ups, complaining about how emotionally abusive certain men are but then going back to them again and again, abandoning her dog in a field because it was “annoying” then fishing for sympathy, acting victimized by drama of her own making. She needs professional help and to some extent is self-aware, but so far won’t seek it consistently. In general, I haven’t known how to handle this appropriately. I don’t lecture or make her feel bad, but I don’t tell her she’s “right” or a “victim”. Mostly I just listen.

Since this behavior has amplified, I’ve found myself distancing from her. However we recently made plans to get together to celebrate a friend anniversary (pandemic safe). But after agreeing to plans, she “hung out” with an ex, he was emotionally abusive and I guess stole her cat, chaos ensued, etc.

Frankly, I currently don’t feel safe being with her. I can see her telling him our plans to create drama because she’s done that type of thing before. Who knows what that guy would do? Who’s to say he won’t track her down and shoot us? Sadly, those things happen all the time and in my opinion, this is how it starts.

I don’t want to drop my friend or even cut her out of plans because I love her. I can’t begin to tell you how much we’ve been through together. She would NEVER turn her back on me. She NEVER makes me feel bad about my mistakes, and I’ve made plenty. I don’t want to abandon her. I’m afraid if I do so, things will only get worse. I know that she doesn’t want to act this way, it’s just a cycle of trauma. I know it’s hard to seek help. But I don’t know how to support her and now the thought of being around her makes me feel unsafe.


A Friend

Dear Friend,

Is loyalty a virtue? In modern American culture we are somewhat split on that question. On the one hand, it seems like something we could all agree is good, and yet we are living in an era where it has become not only acceptable but encouraged to cut “toxic people” out of our lives for the slightest infraction. Loyalty, in this sense, is understood to be a coercive force that unfairly binds you to people who no longer serve your best interests. That can certainly be the case. Loyalty isn’t necessarily a good thing—just look at cops who show more fidelity to each other than the public, or families who protect abusers, or the entire concept of patriotism. Blind loyalty can be perverted, or directed toward bad ends.

But I still tend to think that loyalty to our friends is something we should strive toward, though not for its own sake. Loyalty needs something else, something we might call “the exercise of good judgment.” Judgment is another thing we’re all a bit confused about these days. Nobody wants to be judged, and yet I make a living because people like you ask me to weigh in on their behavior. Clearly judgment is necessary sometimes, especially in our closest relationships. You say you mainly just listen to your friend, whom you love, but I think if you really love her it’s time to start talking.

You don’t need to abandon your friend but you do need to set some boundaries about what you can keep watching her do to herself. This isn’t a punishment, nor is it meant to make her feel bad. It may sting a little when your closest friend tells you you are too old to be pulling this shit anymore—trust me, I know—but there is no worse feeling than thinking that you could pull down your entire life and nobody would care enough to stop you.

It sounds a little bit like this relationship is based on a kind of absolute permission that goes both ways: She never makes you feel bad about your mistakes and you never say anything when she starts to self-destruct. Love isn’t entirely permissive, though. People who care about you will tell you when you are making decisions or repeating patterns that are clearly bad for you and they will tell you that precisely because they do love you.


A Fuck-Up

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