in the natural evolution of a relationship, be it a marriage, a friendship, a business relationship or neighbor or even something personally inconsequential as, say, a vendor there are inevitable conflicts.
those conflicts can be simple: confusion or a hurt feeling over a misunderstanding. the solutions are easier and they can be usually fixed in what i heard today with some galpals, “20 seconds of discomfort.”
or they can be complex: an inability to endorse or turn a blind eye to a repetitive toxic behavior. which require more than 20 seconds. in those complex situations we must choose health and choosing health usually means choosing ourselves and usually choosing ourselves means lifelong changes, if we pay attention.
i had a years-long relationship with a friend that was mutually enriching until it wasn’t anymore. during the journey of our lives some unhealthy behaviors on her part became prominent, upsetting the scales and they grew increasingly toxic for me as time went on. i would say to her, “what is going to happen to us when we are healthy? will we still be friends? what if one of us gets there first or wants it more than the other?” she answered, “i have always been afraid that you will leave me.” and i said to her, “me too.”
the scales of our friendship had tipped in an unrecoverable way. she verbally obsessed over her problems for several months to the extent that my marriage, family and personal life were affected; her problems wove their way into my dreams leaving me drained in the morning. she siphoned my time with other friends and witnessed their company with narrow eyes. she needed help in a way i wasn’t a) able to provide, and b) interested in effecting. at that point, the damage had been done and we’d been around the block so many times about her stuff that my sneakers had lost their tread. with aging parents on one side and my 3 Things on the other, i had my own concerns but we had no time to talk about those.
i was tired of her repeated complaints, her token assurances of getting help, her lack of true progress and the fact that i felt she simply wanted to bitchandmoan. but that’s not fair of me because she truly felt trapped and i think she was. she even asked me, “aren’t you tired of hearing about this all the time?!” and i said, “yes, i am.”
but i allowed further late night phone calls. i allowed her intrusive and impulsive behavior. i permitted her irrational claims that i was a better parent than she was and that her kids liked being with me more and i all-but endorsed her crying sessions as she would drive with the kids in the car. when i found out she was driving, i would tell her i was hanging up.
i had become my mom in a way: logging hours on the phone, listening to the continual sadness that a distressed friend was incapable of seeing her way through. i love my mom, but that was a pastime i was happy to avoid.
i talked about it to a mutual friend who was closer to me in health. she gave me anecdotal advice that was also in the form of a friendly warning of our relationship’s risk after i complained again about the other one: “my mom has a group of female friends and they’ve been together for decades. when things like this arise in their circle, they refer to an old native american women’s custom,” she said.
“the custom operates within a circle of multigenerational women and young girls. much like a ‘red tent‘ during biblical times, but it was different in that it had nothing to do with their menstrual cycles,” she added.
“phew!” i phewed, fearful that we were about to embark on opening a red tent in our neighborhood.
she went on to continue, “this circle was a lot like our playgroups: daily banter, shared child-rearing and the like was the norm, but it was tribal. certainly, complaining or discussing the woes of the women was allowed, encouraged even. but when the time came for someone in the circle to who was feeling woeful enough to bring her problems to the elderwomen’s council, the rule was that this woman would agree to perform the terms outlined in the elders’ solution for her. consider this: the council took these problems seriously because they usually were; i mean, to get to that level it had to be heavy duty because you were agreeing to their terms or you risked ostracism — that was the deal: if you ask their advice and you didn’t follow it or you continued to upset the circle’s harmony with your bitchingandmoaning after the council offered its solution, you were out of the circle. sorta our version of put up or shut up.” this friend is a gem to me: witty, wicked smaht and charming.
“what would happen if the woman did follow the advice but the problems continued?” i asked, utterly enraptured in this custom. i dug it and yet i knew that this teaching was a shot across my bow.
“if that happened, then the female council of elders would convene with the council of male elders and all shit would hit the fan — everyone who was involved would have to comply or be ousted. these tribes faced serious threats and if you didn’t follow all procedures, you put everyone at risk, so obedience in all consults was golden.”
“the point is that the council of these elder women would discuss the issues. these were wise women,” she explained, “and they would take days to think of solutions. all solutions were discussed together and shared with the whole circle so that the requestor could get support and also so the other women could hold her to the solution,” she continued.
“so if the person with the grievance didn’t follow the advice, she was out? forever?” i asked, bracing a little for a well-intentioned hiss.
“yes but only if she continued to complain, because if she stopped complaining that meant the advice was followed and the problem was solved. if you went to them, you were at DefCon 2. if you defied the instructions you agreed to follow, you were out. the circle chose themselves. they ousted you and chose the health of the custom, the integrity of the traditions and the protection of the innocent women over the continued bullshit that was tipping the scales of the tribe. not choosing the solution was like a slap in the face to the elders.”
it seemed like it was the native american version of “Intervention”; a television show about substance abuse addicts and the harm their addictions cause their loved ones.
so i asked her if her mom’s group of friends followed those same policies and she said, “yup. there are people who want attention and there are people who want help; they might look the same, but the loud ones are usually the punted ones because when you’re really working, you don’t talk.”
hearing that reminded me of the time i was in labor for Thing 1; my OB walked by my room several times and would shake his head in laughter and say in his cameroon accent, “mommy, you not ready, lady. that bebe is not ready. you talking too much. too much laughing, lady. you not working yet. gonna be a long night, mommy…”
so i got the message. i risked losing a healthy friend by keeping a sick one. i synthesized the message for my own purposes, i acted on it and i separated from my troubled friend. it was hard, we were like sisters. but our relationship was terribly unhealthy and codependent: we gave each other jobs that perpetuated the cycle. she wouldn’t get help because i would listen and i would listen because it made me feel smart and helpful.
my own therapist told me i was an obstacle to her recovery. ouch. i was also in my own way.
so i chose myself. i knew i had to. i simply couldn’t continue on her roller coaster any longer. we were both tapped out. we said our peace, love, happiness and kumbaya and moved on. she’s better and so am i.
we had other mutual friends and yeah, it was awkward. but the thing is, and here’s what i had a real hard time getting people to understand: i didn’t reject my friend. i chose me. people want to cheer for the underdog so in some situations, the one who’s still talking seems like the underdog.