Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Fictional Friends

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on January 8, 2012

Nate and Kip, both in their sixties, see each other once in a while at garden club meetings. They like each other, but they hardly get together outside of their monthly discussion about their garden. For years, they were two single men: Nate was divorced, Kip has never been married, never lived with anyone. Eight years into their ten-year friendship, Nate fell in love and married Tracy, age sixty, with two grown children. Tracy knew that Kip was important to Nate, so she started including Kip in their family holidays, dinners and birthdays. Kip enjoyed being part of Nate’s new family. Kip, according to Tracy’s report,  created a narrative in which he and Nate were “really close” and now Tracy and her adult children were added to this “closeness.” This equilibrium lasted for about four years until Tracy started feeling distress over how Kip was impacting her family.

Tracy comes to see me to discuss her dilemma. “Kip and Nate were never really close, but Kip likes to say he was close to Nate, so that it does not seem weird that he is now almost a member of our family. The truth, as I see it, is that Kip wants us to adopt him as our third child, and this creates a dynamic in which he feels like an added responsibility and not a friend.” Tracy relates to me, suggesting some compassion for Kip, but mostly upset and personal responsibility for creating this messy situation.  Tracy continues, “so I confronted Kip about how I wanted a more mutual friendship. I tried to explain that there needs to be more to and fro, but right now, it feels like we talk about him and his life, and he shows minimal interest in our issues. Then, I said that we both need to plan fun activities and that going out together should be a source of excitement and not dread and fear. I know I might have sounded harsh when I said that, but I wanted him to understand that his anxieties about trying new experiences was getting in our way of looking forward to getting together. Kip got mad at me and he said he did not understand what I was talking about. He said he does enjoy spending time with us and that he never complains when we get together. The truth is though, he does complain about things, but he won’t acknowledge that. ”

“It sounds like you are really frustrated,” I say to Tracy. “It also sounds like you feel that Kip is behaving in an unconscious way in that you feel that he so desperately wants to be part of your family that he has created a fiction about his past relationship with Nate. It also sounds like you now feel responsible for Kip’s well-being and you do not want that responsibility.” I say to  Tracy, reflecting back what I am hearing from her, understanding that Nate and Kip might have a very different version of this narrative. “That’s right,” Tracy says with the enthusiasm of feeling understood, “I don’t want another child, and I certainly can’t cope with someone who is not willing to honestly look at how their behavior might be impacting me. Kip makes me feel so invisible because he seems to really want me to take an interest in him in the same way that I am interested in my children, without any sense that he is my contemporary, and our relationship needs to be more even for it to continue without me feeling so resentful.”

“What does Nate think?” I ask, wondering how this triangle plays out from that angle. “Nate is not a good friend to Kip. He seems to be mildly interested in Kip’s behavior, but mostly Nate is a loner, and except for me and my children, his social thinking is fairly limited.” “So you are caught in the middle,” I say, understanding better why Tracy is so disturbed by Kip’s behaviors. “Yes, Kip is looking to me as a mother, and I guess I played along with that role for a several years, but now I am tired of it. Then, when I expressed myself, he turns to Nate, as if Nate was some sort of deep friend that wants to hear his dilemma. Further, Kip is now trying to put Nate in the middle because Nate is stuck between me and Kip and Nate does not want that either.” Tracy further deepens the complexity of this three-way relationship and how it is slowly unraveling, giving pain to all involved.

“I think it is positive the way you tried to explain to Kip your dilemmas within the relationship. I know that made him defensive, but it seemed like you might have started an honest dialogue about your relationship and if nothing else, that could give you clarity to continue-either to deepen or to withdraw from the connection. ” I say, trying to emphasize that Kip’s defensive reaction did not mean that Tracy made a bad move by trying to honestly talk about her perception of their friendship. “If Kip continues to be defensive, maybe he is not ready to continue his relationship with you right now. Maybe time will help him reflect on his role in the dynamic.” I say, reminding Tracy that initial defensiveness does not necessarily mean that the defensiveness will continue as time progresses. “I just feel awful about it,” Tracy says, with deep pain about the years they all spent together, thinking about how it might end in a sad way. “I understand that,” I say. “The three of you made a little family and that worked for a while, but now it is not working. Kip is creating a fictional history in order for this family tale to make sense to him.” I close, pointing out how fictional histories are common when people try to make sense of a painful experience.


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5 Responses to “Fictional Friends”

  1. Jon said

    The intensity of friendships waxes and wanes; however, friendships are of fundamental importance to people. If it is possible for Kip and Nate to rekindle a relationship with Tracy as a part of that dynamic, it would be good. If that is not possible, perhaps Kip and Nate will be able to have some friendship based upon gardening and other shared passions, and have Nate’s marriage to Tracy as an independent part of Nate’s life. I wish the three of them the best of luck.

    • Thanks, Jon and Shelly. I want to talk more about the issue of triangular relationships. Can three people really maintain a friendship without one feeling left out or unattended to? This will be the subject of future blogs. I also agree, as you say Shelly, that marriages change previous relationships and often, although not always, people who get married lose their single friends. It is often a huge loss on all ends. At the same time, it is hard to be married and to stay attentive to single friends in the same way. This on top of the issue of rivalry, mutual rivalry, that the married person might envy the single’s person’s life and vice versa, makes it difficult to maintain the previous relationship. Futher, people find friends who mirror their key issues, and if a key issue is being single, then changing that dynamic can change the friendship. Thanks to both of you for once again deepening my thinking and thank you Jon for wishing my fictional characters well.

  2. Shelly said

    It sounds like Nate isn’t all that invested in the friendship and that Kip and Tracy are doing all the work. I think Tracy should have an honest discussion with her husband: if he really wants to keep the relationship with Kip alive, he should be the one having “the talk” with Kip, not Tracy. Sometimes friendships peter out after marriage, and this one didn’t have much of a base to begin with as it is.

  3. (As usual, my gut reactions here tho I could be way off… :-)…SOMEONE needs to learn to set some reasonable adult limits and boundaries here as sounds like this trio has gone on way way to long. I have known folks that feel, (for whatever reasons) that they are responsible for meeting everyone’s needs and perhaps Tracy struggles with this among other issues. Both Tracy and Nate initially need to communicate with each other and then with Kip and get some sensible separateness for their marriage away from Kip. My concern would be why has Tracy encouraged this for so long and why has Nate (maybe passively?) gone along with it? It’s good that Tracy finally sees this pattern as a problem that needs a solution.

    • Hi Eleanor,
      Thank you for your comments. As usual, your comments are quite astute. I do think that Tracy has issues with trying to please people to the extent in which she eventually feels resentful. I also agree that the triangle is indicative of issues between Tracy and Nate. Tracy, like Michael in my coma blog, has “woken up” to the problem, but undoing the damage is quite a challenging process.

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