Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for July 4th, 2011

Confronting Friends

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on July 4, 2011

    Sherre and Ellen, both in their fifties, are new friends to each other. They were colleagues for years, but over the last six months, Sherre decided to pursue Ellen as a friend. Ellen was flattered and readily agreed to dinners, lunches, and movie outings. Sherre is single, almost twenty years, divorced three times before that. Ellen is on her second husband, not without marital drama. During a recent dinner, Ellen reports to me, Sherre stopped Ellen in mid-sentence and said “you know, you have to stop complaining about people in your life. I am telling you this as your friend.” Ellen continues with her response. “I thought that is what friends do. I don’t feel I am complaining about people in my life, but rather I am telling you how they bother me. I care about these people I am talking about. I am hoping that by talking to you, I can decompress a bit.” Ellen continues to look at me, saying “I was thinking that she could change the subject if she got bored or uncomfortable. Why did she have to confront me?” I respond, “it seems like she confronted you because you made her uncomfortable, so she felt that she had to throw it back at ya.” As I say that, I am thinking that I am speculating over Sherre’s dynamics, but I also need to think about Ellen’s side of the street. “I don’t know,” Ellen says with a tortured tone. “I don’t feel that negative about the people in my life, but I do have frustrations and I think that if she is my friend she will listen to them patiently or she will gently change the subject. I have a problem with her telling me not to vent.” Ellen says, not asking me a question, but clearly wondering what I am thinking. “Maybe you and Sherre are good colleagues, but you are incompatible friends. It sounds like she was disappointed with your behavior and she told you that. It also sounds like you don’t see how your conversation went off track, so you do not have any particular regret.” I say, thinking that Ellen is in a tough friendship bind. In her reflection on her behavior, she does not see how she violated any “friendship rules” as she says. On the other hand, Sherre confronted Ellen with her “problematic” behavior.

      The subjectivity here grabs me. Ellen feels like she was unfairly confronted by Sherre. I imagine Sherre feels like she was doing Ellen a favor by being such a good friend since she was courageous to  hold up a mirror for Ellen. My job is to help Ellen look at herself, at the same time, help her think about her friendship with Sherre. “Friendships are hard, because both parties must be selfish and altruistic at the same time. Clearly Sherre should not tolerate feeling uncomfortable around you for an extended period of time. That is not a healthy friendship. On the other hand, Sherre should indulge you in listening to whatever is bothering you. At the same time, you should take Sherre’s feedback of you seriously, while also thinking about whether Sherre is a meaningful friend for you.” I say, helping her outline the issues. “Gee, I still feel really conflicted,” Ellen says, again, sounding tortured.  “Maybe that is a good thing,” I say. “Maybe you need to float conflicting ideas in your head for a while, and then see what happens. Yet, I am also mindful that it is hard to feel conflicting feelings, so I can see why you sound so tense.” Ellen looks at me, as though she said “gee, thanks”. “I will be interested to hear how you continue to think about your relationship with Sherre, ” I say, with a tone implying we are near the end of our session. “Me, too” Ellen says, with a touch of sarcasm.

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