When my best friend got fired from her third job, I didn’t really understand. The first time, I did. There was a lot of sobbing and united rancour against “that bitch”, whose very public outrage was an obvious overreaction. What was the point of interning with a beverage company if you couldn’t take home a few (hundred) free cans? The second time my friend was asked to leave a job, her boss was clearly acting out because of the demon baby she was carrying at the time. And the third bitch, she just refused to understand that computers make you yawn a lot and how do you quantify “more involvement” anyway?
“I’m really glad they fired me,” she laughed. “I hated that job anyway.” I understood. Both of us, staunch supporters of the ‘Whatever Works’ school of friendship, have always reserved judgement if the situation passed through the as-long-as-it-makes-her-happy security check. It didn’t feel wrong to cordon off reality and offer a list of workplaces that might be of interest. If anything, I was a little impressed by her monk-like shunning of career-advancement. I was a good friend.
It is the accepted litmus test of the BFF, isn’t it, how supportive they can be of you? How loudly they cheer as you (understandably) rip apart an ex’s self-esteem after a break-up; how long they allow you to vent and be the victim; how they understand why you need that cigarette you swore to give up; why you’re happy to lazily remain in a fetid relationship; why your volatile bursts of anger, though difficult to love, are a necessary, even endearing, part of your individuality.
Good friends keep the bad stuff away. Until you wake up one day, loved and supported and hot-chicken-souped, right into a profound depression, and the person rubbing your back and fielding calls from your worried mother suddenly appears almost sinister. This paragon of compassion and empathy has inadvertently fed your delusions, strengthened your weaknesses and arrested your growth.
When reports of Tiger Woods’ countless sexual infidelities emerged and swiftly washed away his sporting glory, the golfer took sole responsibility for the train wreck. “It was all me,” he told Golf Channel in an interview. “No one knew what was going on when it was going on. I’m sure if more people would have known in my inner circle, they would have stopped it or tried to put a stop to it.” He was lying (yet again), or protecting his childhood friend Byron Bell, who was also the president of his golf-course design company.
Bell had been privy to Woods’ indiscretions all along, and decided to step in and help by booking flight tickets, hotel rooms, overseeing logistical details and keeping his friend’s escapades well-concealed. Although he cannot realistically be blamed for Woods’ spectacular fall from grace, by not sounding the alarm and instead enabling the deception, Bell plainly abetted the mess.
As friends spend more time together, they tend to mirror each other’s responses
How is it that good intent turns so toxic then?
One: science. While they’re still squabbling over the benefits of milk, the scientific community mostly agrees that friends are great for you. They increase your lifespan (more so than family), they reduce the risk of physical and mental deterioration and even increase your productivity at work. The problem? Being too similar. James Coan, a psychology professor at the University of Virginia’s College of Arts & Sciences, conducted a study where participants were told mild shocks would be given to themselves, a close friend or a stranger.
Results showed that we react the same way when a threat is posed to a friend or ourselves — and feel almost nothing for strangers. “It’s essentially a breakdown of self and other; our self comes to include the people we become close to,” says Coan. As friends spend more time together, they tend to mirror each other’s responses, which are then volleyed back and forth, until you find yourselves drowning in a noxious pool of sameness.
Two: fear. Your friend’s honesty about a bad decision might hurt you and put their motives, or worse, their shortcomings, under scrutiny. For instance, when critic Edmund Wilson described his friend and novelist, Vladimir Nabokov’s translation of Eugene Onegin as “impenetrable”, his artistic opinion was publicly shunned. Nabokov’s acerbic rebuttal resulted in one of the longest literary feuds of all time — he called Wilson a “commonsensical, artless, average reader with a natural vocabulary of, say six hundred basic words”. The recoil power of honesty, in most cases, makes it terribly unappealing.
Three: blurry vision. Most times, friends rely on each other’s version of the universe, which scatters their own objectivity. For instance, damaging mental and emotional insulation apart, your unflinching love and support for your friend can make them fat. Even worse? It can make you fat, too. A study by The New England Journal Of Medicine suggests that obesity can be contagious. ‘Accepting’ a buddy’s lethargy and piling on of pounds, because telling them is awkward, doesn’t move them to lose weight. Gradually, it also influences your perception of an acceptable body type and before you know it, it seems all right to start your day with fried chicken.
Four: Thelma And Louise. The defining movie for female friendships — two perfectly healthy women happily drive off a cliff to be free from the shackles of their present, no questions asked. If one of them had said, “You know what? Let’s sleep over it,” it’s unlikely the other would’ve hit the accelerator. But loyalty is romantic. And friendship, like most relationships, is strengthened by romance. Even when it makes little sense.
Dealing with a bad BFF
So how do you ward off the pernicious loving of an enabler? You tell them the truth and ask for a timeout (this should be as good a time as any for them to understand), even if it hurts the co-dependability that anchors your relationship. You’re going to find this feels quite like a messy break-up, but power through. Creating distance will bring your own rusty feelers into use, leading to more prudent decision-making and negating the shared shouldering of consequences.
Remember to be open to different opinions. If you’re quick to spurn any advice that doesn’t agree with you, it’s likely to stop coming your way. Even universal advice-giver Oprah Winfrey saved her disapproval of best friend Gayle King’s marriage for an O magazine interview, “I just didn’t think [the marriage] was going to work out. I never told you because it wasn’t my place to say that.” King’s response? “I wouldn’t have believed you anyway.”
It might’ve helped if she did, because according to psychologist Simine Vazire of the University of California, Davis, friends really do know better, and can assess “whether we are funny, dominant, or charming better than we can, and are even superior at guessing our IQs”. It also helps not to dismiss the observations of people who don’t know you as well; the detached assessment of strangers can sometimes carry the epiphany you were waiting for.
Prune your friendship(s) regularly by playing your part — disapproval, arguments and prickly honesty are equal, if not more important, markers of a healthy relationship. When done right, a great friendship is a many splendid thing — food for the mind and soul, and lever for a laughable dream. JRR Tolkien admittedly owed “unpayable debt” to friend and fellow fantasy-fiction heavyweight CS Lewis: “He was, for long, my only audience. Only from him did I ever get the idea that my ‘stuff’ could be more than a private hobby.”
Meanwhile, my best friend has since found a job she doesn’t hate, a work profile no one can really define, a pay cheque that comes once in three months, and a male boss. I won’t understand the next bitch story.