Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Archive for December 16th, 2011

Selfish Friendships

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on December 16, 2011

   Marla and Tisa, both in their thirties, have been friends for ten years. They used to work together and be closer friends but over the years they see each other occasionally. Marla dominates the relationship in that most of the conversations center around Marla and her struggles with her family members. Tisa hardly gets an opportunity to talk about herself. This serves Tisa well in that Marla is an interesting story-teller and sometimes Tisa is engaged with Marla’s struggles. Other times, however, Tisa feels resentful that Marla is not more interested in Tisa’s life. In the worst of times, Tisa feels like she is used by Marla as a sounding board, with little recognition that Tisa all has struggles in her life. As Tisa explains to me “Marla has become a C-class friend, whereas she used to be on the A-list.” Tisa says this with great sadness that speaks to Tisa’s disappointment in herself that she does not seem capable of finding friendships which are more mutual. Tisa complains bitterly that most of her friends, when she thinks about it, use her to ventilate their problems, and show minimal, if any interest, in listening to Tisa. Tisa concludes that this pattern must reflect her own fear of opening up, such that she conveniently finds friends who are not good listeners. On the other hand, Tisa wonders, that if her own good listening skills have become a liability such that people are so at ease talking with her that she never gets the opportunity to voice her struggles. Either way, Tisa is unhappy with her friendships-not all of them, but most of them-and she wants my help to understand this problem better.

   Examining friendships are a way of understanding each person’s internal dynamics. Marla seems to use Tisa as a narcissistic object; a person who she can use as a mirror to reflect back her conflicts. This suggests that Marla lacks the ability to appreciate Tisa as a separate and independent human being. Likewise, Tisa is afraid to look inward, so she is attracted to Marla because Marla provides her an opportunity to hide from herself. As Tisa grows a deeper sense of herself, she tires of Marla’s rants about her family, not because she is not interested in Marla, but because these rants dominate their interactions. Their friendship starts to downgrade, but Marla does not understand why. Marla has not changed. Tisa understands this change in tolerance of Marla, but she sees no point in explaining this to her, as Marla is not motivated to change, or so Tisa believes. So the friendship deteriorates and both are left feeling a loss in their lives. It is tough, even though, in this friendship, no one moved, no one got a terminal illness, and no one had a life-changing event. The change was more subtle. Tisa grew up.

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