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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Barren Advice: Twenty-Two

This is the 22nd installment of Barren Advice. You can ask questions that are fertility or non-fertility related.

Barren Advice is posted each Tuesday-ish. If you have your own question for Barren Advice, click here to learn how to submit. Please weigh in with your own thoughts in the comment section and indicate which question you're addressing if there are multiple questions in the post.

Dear Mel:

How do you deal with a friend who needs more emotional support than you can give?
I have a close friend, who I adore. She's always needed quite a lot of emotional support, and I am more than happy to be there for her.

However, in the wake of my miscarriage, she doesn't seem to recognize the fact that I don't necessarily have that excess emotional energy to spare. In fact, last week, when I was doing a little better, she commented on that fact, and how great I was doing, and how fantastic that was because we'd need all our emotional energy for our next pregnancy. Needless to say, we are not doing so great.

I know she's trying to be supportive in her own way, but it's just really not working with our grieving process.
I've pointed her at posts about loss and reactions to it; she knows about loss (though not miscarriage) from her own experience. I've told her that I don't have the emotional energy to support and reassure her right now -- and she insisted that she wasn't asking for support or reassurance. Yet every time we talk, it's the same thing over and over again.

I don't want to cut her out of my life, or upset her, as she is someone that I adore when I have the energy to deal with other people *at all*, but I can't keep doing this, and my attempts to get her to understand that have just forced her further into her own cave. How can I be good to myself, while still being a good friend?


This is a problem with the limits of language more than the limits of your own patience or good-nature. You've described her as a "friend" which makes sense if the only three options are non-friend, acquaintance, or friend. But friend by its very definition requires a give-and-take with both parties having a "personal regard" for one another (thanks, Random House Dictionary). So your friend is not really a friend. She is a completely different, unnamed category. Therefore, I release you from applying the rules of friendship to your relationship.

Not convinced?

It is expected in all relationships that people will take turns having their needs met. There are times when you simply can't be there for other people. I always liken being in crisis emotionally to a body being in crisis physically. When the body experiences hypothermia, it goes into safety mode which means that it redirects blood away from your limbs and to the vital organs. Emotionally, I think the same thing happens where we tunnel down into ourselves as a protective measure, redirect our energy away from limb-like elements such as friends, work, and hobbies and move our resources to the vital level--simply functioning and grieving and making it through the day.

I think it's healthy to do this and natural to do this and it sounds like you are in a state of centering your energy right now. Just like the body that doesn't get the message and keeps the blood pumping through those outer limbs, you stand a chance of suffering internal damage (or, in your case, emotional damage) that will require attention down the road. Taking this time for yourself may be the thing that saves you. Of course, you cannot stay in this state perpetually or your limbs will be lost (and by limbs in the emotional sense, I mean friends and work), but few people want to stay in this place indefinitely. I think our natural tendency is to move towards adapting through grieving. The timetable is unique to each person.

When I say that this state of emotional hypothermia saves you, I am also highlighting the difference between your state and your friend's state. It sounds like she is operating in pseudo-emotional hypothermia. Meaning, the problem is that there isn't necessarily a true problem but instead the problem is the fact that there is a created problem and a sense of comfort of being in a state of continuous emotional hypothermia. I liken this to a person who keeps walking on frozen lakes despite the fact they fall in from time to time. Yes, there is obviously a problem, but that problem is also somewhat of their own making which is a bigger problem than the problem itself.

It sounds like your friend likes being in a permanent state of emotional hypothermia not because she likes feeling those emotions, but because she likes whatever attention she receives from others due to her emotional fragility. Since you didn't name her crisis in the post, I am going to assume that her "emotional hypothermia" is more akin to skinned knees in terms of direness. In turn, she needs to rush you through your healing process in order to have your attention and help returned to her problems, her needs, and her thoughts.

So what you really have on your hands is one person with hypothermia (you) and one person with some scraped knees (her) and the person with the superficial injuries telling the person in crisis to hurry up with those warming blankets because it is all about the state of her knee caps vs. your internal organs.

See, not really a friend.

But a person you love nonetheless. And who probably gives you love back when you're not in a state of need (because when you're focusing on her, she feels your love and can give it back to you). Who is great for a trip to the movies or a dinner party; who is your favourite person when it's time to go shoe shopping. Which is why she needs a new title instead of "friend" because you do have a relationship, even if it isn't a true friendship with give-and-take and support built into the definition.

Let's call her a "mend"--a movie-friend--which will be easy to remember because she is also someone who doesn't like it when you have a need to mend.

So now you have non-friends, acquaintances, mends, and friends. And just as you apply different rules to how you treat and what you give your acquaintances vs. friends, you need to come up with a set of guidelines that feel comfortable to you in regards to your mends. Perhaps you need to allow your body to fully enter that emotional hypothermic state and doing so means holding all acquaintances and mends at arm distance for a bit. Without guilt because doing so is about protecting you and honouring your process.

And the fact is, mends have a chance to become friends just as acquaintances do. It is contingent on many factors, but also the energy they invest in the relationship. Not all mends have the desire or ability to raise themselves up to that next level--but that is not the focus right now. You can't help other people navigate friendships when you are grieving just as your body cannot take care of your limbs when you're in crisis. Allow yourself to reframe this relationship for what it is in this moment with a promise to deal with turning the mend into a friend when blood is free to flow again.

No really, the beauty of a blog advice column is that you get to weigh in with your two cents too. Let the questioner know if you support the advice, add to the response, or dispute it completely.

Leave a comment in the reaction box below--only keep in mind that conflicting advice is embraced and rudeness is not. Want to ask your own question? Click here to see what you need to send in order to be included in a future Tuesday's installment of Barren Advice

15 comments: said...

I totally agree with the hypothermia aspect that you wrote about, Mel! There are certain people who are perpetually seeking warmth without much regard for the other person. And there is another set that is so ready to be that shoulder-to-cry-on. Sooner or later, one of them wears out the other.

Anyways, reducing phone and face-to-face interactions temporarily with the other person can tide over this problem, in my view. After all, she really does not want to break off her friendship.

Anonymous said...

Anon calls this person a "close friend," and seems to indicate that she does not want to break off this friendship. There definitely needs to be some good boundary-setting here, but it is unclear to me if anon wants to keep trying with this friend or not. I have learned with my husband that I have to be very explicit and very direct about what I want from him and what I don't want from him when I am upset. I have had to explicitly say "I want you to do and say this and I want you not to do and say that." And it still needs repeating at times.

All of that said, I definitely think that you (anon) are in an emergency state and that your first priority should be self-care. We don't ask a critically wounded person to care for someone with a cold. If this other person is detrimental to your well being, do what you need to do to take care of yourself. You deserve to be cared for.

Jessica White said...

I had a friend like that and I just got to the point that I couldn't be friends with was just too draining. I haven't talked to her in 3 years now.
Good luck! It's certainly not an easy thing to do.


C said...

I like the idea of having "mends." I am finding that I have a few of those, whom I previously thought of as friends. It's really hard when there are those that can't see past there own neediness to realize there are others hurting too. I have found with one of my "mends" that I just let her vent and talk and all that, but try to avoid talking about my issues. When the situation starts heading in the direction of talking about me in any way, I change the subject. I hold those conversations off to either blog about or talk to my hubby about. It sucks, really, to have to do that. I agree, it gets draining realizing that you can't have a "good day" without fear ppl will think you're "over it" and moving on, when in reality, it's just a bad day-not a horrible day.

I guess I don't really have a lot of advice or opinion...I just want to put out there that I 'get it.'


Deathstar said...

I think the Mel's advice was well thought out, compassionate and sincere and spot on. Perhaps the "mend" also serves another purpose to Anon. Sometimes in caring for our friends we take on the "wise and caring role" and we wear it like a superhero wears a cape. It feels great to be needed but the downside is that some people rarely extend the same level of care when we need it. But even Batman got the shit kicked out of him from time to time and Alfred would tend to his wounds.

Anon, I think you need a little break from this person. You already know that though, right? Narcissists think they're helping you by trying to distract you from your own grief with their problems. They never "get it". Not returning her calls will probably elicit teary, heartfelt emails that you're being cruel or selfish, so what do you think of visiting with her only in the company of at least one other person for the next little while. Group movie dates, group coffee dates, group shopping trips, that sort of thing. Maybe give her a list of things she can do that would truly be helpful. For example, emailing you at least one thing she's grateful for every day.

Please accept my heartfelt sympathy for your loss and I wish you a soft place to heal your heart.

Kristin said...

What a spot on response to that question! Way to go Mel.

luna said...

I just love your analogies!

nh said...

I agree with Mel - if she can't help you at the minute, try to restrict contact. Go with the people who can help. It's tough but in the long run, it'll be better for you.

Anonymous said...

Wow, this is advice that I really needed to hear. I have a friend that I've had to avoid completely since my miscarriage because she only talks about herself. I think the idea of "mends" is great. Emotional hypothermia is what I've been doing, but feeling guilty about. Thanks Mel, for helping me see that it's what I need to do right now, and that is perfectly okay.

Paula Keller said...

That hypothermia analogy was perfect Mel!

I would have a hard time with that also. It sounds like an extremely draining relationship, and I don't know if I'd have the patience to deal with that. I might have to keep her at a distance.

Anonymous said...

Hello. My husband and I have unexplained infertility and I lurk on this blog every once in a while. I have never commented before but I felt a real need after reading this post. I had a friend. Once I thought she was a good friend. She had no problems getting pregnant but was kind of my fertility buddy. We know e/o from church and she would call me on days that she knew I had doctors appt's and we would do lunch etc. Her husband even sent me a client one time. I made the assumption that she was a good friend.
To make a long story short. She became pregnant with twins last year. I noticed that she had not been returning my calls for several months and was short with me when I saw her but I didn't know she was pregnant much less with twins. She knew that twins is something I have always wanted. I didn't think much about not hearing from her so no biggie. Until my husband comes home from a church event and asked if I knew she was preggers. I was shocked. I immediately called her congratulated her and I even sent a congratulations card in the mail. No response. I thought, ok now I know, we will go back to being friends. No way. When she saw me she would look the other way, walk right past me.
At one point I sent her an email saying that I was sorry, blah, blah, blah. Called me back saying she was going out of town. I should have known not to bother her but when she went on bedrest and the church was delivering meals I mistakenly called her house to see what they liked (didn't realize it was her house and she would pick up). She just basically got off the phone as quick as possible and said I stressed her out. The truth is that I had just found out I was pregnant and I thought if I told her she would be excited and maybe we could be friends again. But immediately after getting off the phone with her the nurse called and said the pregnancy would not be viable. Double whammy. I can not explain the hurt that I have been through b/c of this situation. Sleepless nights,depression, feelings of just being plain weird not to mention the overall feeling of being kicked in the gut. Ultimately there are blessings in this situation. I have found new friends and stopped acting so darn weird. I am sure I am to blame for losing this friend but I can not disagree more with what everyone wrote. Reducing interactions, avoiding people,etc. Not a mature way to handle this at all. Please, if you have a problem with the person, be mature and tell them. Maybe this situation would not be as bad had it not revolved around fertility but breaking this friendship was just plain awful.
P.S. She did send me a Christmas card with the baby announcement.
Thank you for your time.

Baby Smiling In Back Seat said...

Oh Mel, you are wiser than you may realize. MENDacity. You have added a new word to my lexicon!

The anonymous commenter (not the advice-seeker) gives a lot of food for thought, but it seems like the situations might be different, if the friend broke away from Anon not because Anon was a mend but because Anon felt awkward about being pg with twins when Anon was still dealing with infertility. I have a friend who was my TTC buddy and started trying at the same time I did; her older daughter is now in 1st grade. She and I exchange holiday cards but nothing else in the past couple of years. I heard about her second pregnancy and subsequent birth from a mutual friend. I don't know whether we've just drifted apart because of distance or whether she has pulled away because she feels awkward about my continued childlessness and doesn't want to flaunt her family (or complain to me about the minutiae of child-rearing, which is what she normally does with all of her friends). Either way is honestly fine with me, but I'd almost rather it were the latter -- it says something good about her (more than I'd expect) if she's really being that considerate. It's not a friendship (mendship?) that I would have spent much energy pursuing anyway.

But Anon commenter is right that in a real friendship, straightforward would be the best way to go. I have had several friends flat-out address the difficulty that their having children and my not may cause for me emotionally. It's not always an easy conversation to have, but the relationship ends up stronger for it.

Anonymous said...

Hello again. Ultimately there are probably numerous reasons she is not my friend anymore. It's truly embarrassing also b/c other people at my church know why but I have decided to move on and try and handle it with as much grace as possible from now on. This was God's will and I trust that he knows the best things for both of us.
My only piece of advice is that please don't snub the person you don't want to friends with. In my opinion this is a selfish thing to do. Just let them know that you need space. Yes it will hurt but it is much better than not letting them know anything.

Jamie said...

Thanks for the advice, Mel. I also needed to hear this.

Anonymous said...

(This is from the advice-seeker)

First off, thank you Mel, and all of you, for your kind words. This has really really helped me.

to Anonymous, I'm so sorry you went through that with your friend. I absolutely agree that that was not the way to go about it. For whatever it may be worth, I have been straightforward with this friend; it was only in her ignoring my statements and requests that I had so much trouble. And in this situation, she is the one who has had children, while I still do not.

Fortunately (or perhaps it makes it more complicated?) she does live quite a distance away. So keeping interactions further between is easily done. As I said in my question, I by no means wish to cut her off altogether, but I do think that Mel is right, and I do have to limit my contact with her. For me.

Thank you.