Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

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.

2 Responses to “Selfish Friendships”

  1. Shelly said

    What would happen if Tisa told Marla what she wanted out of the friendship? On the one hand, she wants a deeper friendship from Marla, and that entails being able to talk about herself, her family, and her concerns. On the other hand, she is afraid of looking inward, so she is attracted to her friendship with Marla because with Marla, she can hide from herself. So which is it? Does she really want the friendship with Marla, or not? Or does she come to you to understand herself better?

    • Tisa has grown during the ten years of her friendship with Marla, such that she is now more comfortable talking about herself. It is Tisa’s impression that Marla dominates the conversation so there is no room for Tisa. While this worked well in the past for Tisa, Tisa no longer feels satisfied in the relationship. Tisa will tell Marla her issue, but the likelihood is that Marla will not be comfortable if the relationship becomes more mutual. It seems that Marla has come to depend on Tisa as someone in her life to whom she can “download” her problems. The point of this fictional story is that sometimes personal growth requires a change in the social landscape of the person growing. This can be very difficult both in terms of the loss of the relationship (in this case with Marla) and because it is hard to share these changes with others. On the surface, it appears that nothing has changed. Again, Tisa’s internal change is deep and not obvious to most of those around her. Thanks.

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