Zoethe (zoethe) wrote,

Friendship Guidelines

Ferrett recently made a couple posts about friendship and attraction. And some of the comments led to questions about whether having high standards for the relationships in which one engages isn't a form of privilege, or somehow elitist. I've been thinking about this for a while, and finally have an answer:

Yes. Yes, it is.

But that's okay. Because it's the kind of privilege that comes from within, and it has little or nothing to do with material wealth or social standing. It has to do with making active choices about the kind of person you want to be and the kind of life you want to lead. Because even if you don't have two dimes to rub together, you can still choose the kind of people who you wish to befriend.

Some people do a good job of this quite instinctively. Others, including but not limited to the person who asked me to write about this topic, find themselves regularly entangled with people who create turmoil and drama, and/or are financial drains on the people around them. Whether the relationship is romantic or just friendship, these people are continually worn down by guilt and pressure or gobsmacked by upheaval they couldn't foresee (and yet other friends tell them was obviously on the horizon). They lament that they don't want this continual sturm und drang, and yet it continues to rule their lives. And they don't know how to avoid it. So I'm going to try and create some guidelines for getting better relationships into one's life.

I've been thinking about/working on this entry for a several weeks, because some people are not going to like what I'm going to say. It involves value judgments, and exclusivity, and all those things that a tolerant, liberal-minded person is not supposed to do. But the plain fact is that we do make those kinds of judgments, even if we don't want to talk about them. And if we don't, then our lives are subject to chaos that we can't begin to comprehend. So let me make a qualifying statement up front:

Everyone has the right to live as they like. I respect their right to live as they choose. But that doesn't mean I have to tolerate it in my life. I also have a right to choose.

Any set of guidelines I write are undoubtedly incomplete, and for some people may seem either impossible or naive. That's the trouble with trying to elucidate that which is instinctual. All I can say is that this is what seems to work for me, and if your first reaction is to dismiss them with disdain or anger, that maybe you should consider whether they are, in fact, cutting close to the bone. It could be you're rejecting it because it makes you uncomfortable, not because it's wrong.

1. Assess your own level of drama and pain-in-the-ass behavior. Change starts from within, right? I know any number of people who are certain that the world should revolve around them and that they are never at fault. If you find yourself regularly ranting about your friends, take time to notice the reactions of those to whom you regularly rant. Are they actually outraged for you, or are they making abstract noises that you can interpret as agreement? Because sometimes we ourselves are the source of the problem. But most people won't tell you this, because most people hate confrontation. A remarkable number of people who find themselves continually entangled in drama are the impetus behind much of that drama. Always start within when making change. Maybe, in your heart of hearts, you thrive on drama. Maybe when there isn't enough drama in your life, you get bored. Part of the reason some people are always attracted to the "bad ones" is that they feel more alive and unique when surrounded by upheaval. Look at yourself honestly, or ask a trusted friend. Then decide what you want to do about it. If you really want a more peaceful life, you're going to have to learn to adjust to the idea that "peaceful" and "boring" aren't synonymous, and recognize in yourself when restlessness is leading you to make trouble. You're going to have to identify those impulses that--though you want to tell yourself you're following for the good of yourself or someone else--are actually ways of making trouble. And that means recognizing when your attraction to certain people is really attraction to their drama potential.

2. If your idea of fun is heavy drinking, drug use, or engaging in law defiant behavior, the friends you will find in that lifestyle are likely to treat you with the same regard as they have for social convention. Certainly this is not universal, but as a general rule your lifestyle choices dictate the people to whom you will be socially exposed. It's a different crowd of people who hang out at the Dew Drop Inn than the one that attends the symphony, to use examples at the two extremes. while most people fall somewhere between these two extremes, and people's habits and hobbies can include a lot of different activities, there is a tendency to gravitate toward certain activities. Again, there's nothing wrong with a person's lifestyle choices.

Now, lots of people who enjoy partying are hardworking, honest folk who pay their rent, hold down jobs, and limit their party activities to responsible hours. But there is also a certain faction of this group who are wastrels, ready to suck the life and cash out of anyone who will allow it. And generally such people are charming and attractive, at least to start--if they weren't, who'd bother with them. So if you are engaged in this lifestyle, and want to remain engaged in this lifestyle, you'd better be extra cautious about who you allow into your inner circle. And prepared to be mired with people who get past your guard. Otherwise, consider changing the amount of time you spend with such crowds.

(And it's not just substance abuse. You can find the same issues among those engaged in alternative lifestyles across the board.)

3. When you find that a friend or acquaintance of yours is not really a good friend, you have the right to stop being friends--and you don't owe them an explanation. There have been a few people in our life whose actions were on the surface friendly, but in reality hurtful and manipulative. In some cases, ending such a relationship requires an actual confrontation and breakup, but there have been other times when we've just drifted away without any kind of dramatic scene. If a hurtful person is not in the center of your friends group, you are allowed to simply omit them from invitations and decline theirs. Most of the time this will result in a gradual loss of ties, and your life will not involve that person anymore. You don't owe them an explanation of why you don't want to spend time with them; you aren't required to like everybody. Don't feel guilty about that. On a related note:

4. You aren't required to save anybody from their own life choices. Some people get really mired in unhealthy relationships because they feel like they have to "be there" for everyone--even people they don't know that well. But there is no duty to rescue, and in most cases there isn't even a moral obligation. Many people who claim to want help really are the people described in the first section of this entry. Such people are vampires: they will suck away your time, your energy, and sometimes your bank account in a professed effort to change. In reality, though, they just like the attention you're paying to them. If you stop playing their game, they will just find another victim. But they will only change when it suits them, and as long as people are giving them all this sweet, sweet attention, they will remain in crisis.

There's an old saying that if an acquaintance asks to borrow $20, you should give it to him: if he pays you back, you've found a friend; if he disappears with your money, it's a small price to pay to get him out of your life. But some people aren't so easy to categorize. Some people will take the $20 and then ask for more. And if you fall into the trap of helping people who are just going to ask for more, then you can find yourself mired with someone who will not only make outrageous demands of you, but who will tell you that you are a terrible person when you refuse their demands.

It's okay to help friends. It's an active good, in fact. But giving help that causes you to feel resentful, or is based on guilt is a good sign that the person asking may not really be much of a friend. In times of crisis, you may have to give in ways that are inconvenient, but if everything is always a crisis? Rethink this relationship.

Users are hard to escape. They will do everything in their power to keep you at their beck and call. They will tell you that you are an awful, selfish person. They will talk smack about you to other friends. They will give you ultimatums.

They are jerks. Get rid of them. Do not feel guilt, and get past your urge to save them. You can't help them. You are already in the victim pool, and no amount of wrangling will ever free you from that mire. You have to break all ties. If they are still friends with your friends, tell your friends that you aren't asking anyone to choose sides, but that you are no longer involved with that person and you don't want to talk about it. Don't read their journal/facebook/twitter account, because it will be filled with passive/aggressive commentary that will make you want to rebut. And don't engage in your own musings about the experience, no matter how tempting, because it just keeps you involved. These are Hydra relationships, and if you don't cut off the head and burn the neck with fire, they are just going to continue growing.

5. You don't have to like your friends' friends. Parties at the homes of other friends are always these interesting Venn diagrams of "New People," "Friends We See Regularly," and "Acquaintances We Only See at the Home of This Friend." Some of those acquaintances are people with whom we have nothing in common but a passing familiarity, others are people we enjoy visiting with but never manage to actually get together with outside of these gatherings, no matter how much we mean to. A few others are people who we're happy to talk to when we get together at this friend's house but with whom we have nothing in common and no interest in seeing otherwise. This is a very common and normal way of interacting with people. But sometimes a friend might want to bring a "no interest" person into the rest of our lives.

It's okay to say no to this. Just because your friend likes this person doesn't mean that you are required to like them, too.

Now, this can get tricky. If a dear friend is dating this "no interest" person, you do kind of have to deal with that. But if you're holding a party and your friend wants to expand your guest list to include a bunch of her friends that you don't care for, it's fine to say, "Sorry, I don't want to expand the party that much" or something similar. Anyone who reacts to this by trying to guilt you is not being a very good friend.

6. Your house, your rules. If you ask that people take off their shoes, or close the door so the cat doesn't get out, or don't turn up the heat, and your "friends" act like you are being some kind of dictatorial jerk, then they are not giving you the respect you deserve, and they aren't really much or a friend. People who expect you to provide all the beer, snacks, housework, and electricity, and never give anything back? Why do you need them? Friendship is supposed to be about mutual respect and care, and if you're not getting that out of a relationship, it's time to reconsider whether you want to be in that relationship.


7. Love and respect yourself as you would respect and love others. This is the inverse of The Golden Rule, but I see a lot of people who really need to apply it. If you don't have expectations of being treated well, and a willingness to calmly walk away from a situation where you aren't being treated well right from the start, then you are going to end up deeply tangled in poor, miserable relationships that take a huge amount of energy to escape. Learn to watch for signs of disrespectful behavior right from the beginning, and keep such people at arm's length. They can still provide entertainment--who doesn't love a good scoundrel? But don't let them in close enough to hurt you, and your life will be a happier, more peaceful place.

As always, I've certainly missed some good tips. Anyone else have any suggestions to offer?
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