Dilemmas: Should you ditch a friend?

Sonia's organising a ski-ing party. But one of her circle of friends is an attention-seeking single woman with a disruptive son. She is unhappy, so everyone feels sorry for her. She's also extremely moody, though capable of being generous and kind. Some friends feel that if she's invited they won't want to come. Should they give up their holiday plans, or put up with her?

VIRGINIA'S ADVICE

In most groups of people, two people nearly always emerge: a leader and a scapegoat. I should know. I've been on more package holidays than most, and I've also been away with groups of friends. The leader is the one who organises how many cars should go, and who should go first; the leader sorts out the paying of the bill; the leader arranges for the ordering of tickets to events, or delegates the task to another member. The scapegoat is the one on whom the group focus all their resentment but without, usually, revealing it. The scapegoat is the one who asks too many dumb questions at conferences; the scapegoat appears to have no knowledge of how irritating she or he is; the scapegoat nearly always wants attention; the scapegoat argues about the bill and is rude to waiters. Sometimes, and this is the worst scenario of all, the scapegoat and the leader are one and the same person.

It sounds as though Sonia's friend is the scapegoat of the group. And they need to ask themselves how much they need her, for scapegoats rarely destroy groups; they unite them. If they weren't to invite her, would another scapegoat naturally emerge? And yet, if people are asking whether they can bear to come if this mutual friend is present on their holiday, it sounds as though this particular scapegoat is so disruptive that she's starting to break up the group rather than unite it. Does she have to be asked? The answer has to be "No". Sure, she will be hurt, but isn't it better that one person be hurt, than six or so?

They could, of course, try the coward's way and leave things to fate. They could ask her at the last possible minute in the hope that she has other engagements; they could pretend that the holiday is six times more expensive than it really is, and then, if she can come, "realise" that they've made a mistake and charge her the proper price. They could, if there are no other children involved, book the holiday in term time because it's cheaper. Or say it's a "no kids" holiday.

But my feeling is that until they try out a holiday with her, they will never know whether they can cope with her moods or not. However, I also think that they should get together beforehand and resolve to make a united stand against any bad behaviour. And I mean united. No one, but no one, must take her side or sympathise if she's badly behaved, however much she wails and cries. So if she loses her temper, everyone in the group should turn on her and tell her to behave herself. If she sulks, everyone should tell her to grow up. If her son behaves badly, everyone should tick him off.

Although the individuals may quail at this person's temper, as a group they are far more powerful than her. And it is likely that she is far more dependent on them than they realise. They must treat her as the needy child she is and give her proper boundaries. If they say nothing, she will never learn that some of her behaviour is unacceptable. And it may be that she doesn't know it, like a singer who's not aware that she sings out of tune, unless she's told; or it may be that she does know it at some level, and is pushing her luck.

If the holiday is ruined by her and her son, then the jolly band of friends can organise another holiday and justifiably say that everyone felt her presence caused misery to the rest of the group. But only then.

READERS' SUGGESTIONS

Don't invite her on holiday

Why does this woman feel that she has the right to be an emotional leech on those close to her, and why do they allow it? It seems that she is using her friends as an emotional crutch, and that they are colluding with her in not dealing with whatever it is that is making her so unhappy.

Of course, Sonia and her friends should go and enjoy themselves, and the leech should not be invited - she would not enjoy it and neither would anyone else. No doubt she would be hurt, but this may give her an incentive to look at the causes of her misery, which would be to the long-term benefit of all.

SIMON GAZELEY

Bristol

I was a woman like this

I read Sonia's dilemma with the shock of recognition. I am, or rather was, the deeply irritating friend who is posing such a problem. Two years later, after psychotherapy, it's clear to me that my friends were agonising over my unwelcome presence in their circle. I was unhappy, overly dependent and demanding. At the time my friends made it abundantly clear that while they bore me no ill-will, they didn't want me around when I phoned and suggested popping in. I would do this with unrelenting regularity and was usually politely but firmly told that it wasn't convenient. Finally I caught on, and had a breakdown. However, in the long term I owe these friends a huge debt of gratitude. Had they not acted with courageous clarity, I might never have faced my depression. It became necessary for them to remove a huge albatross from around their necks. I shudder to think what would have happened if these friends had facilitated my monstrous behaviour.

Now I feel more confident, and have a new group of friends, who seem to like me. Perhaps this woman's friends are doing her no good by evading the problem.

ANON

Friendship is unconditional

Sonia's dilemma incensed me. She calls the woman "a mutual friend" and yet she doesn't particularly like her.

The woman's insanities are part of the package. Friendships are unconditional. Sonia's independence is a blessing; she should see herself as the strong one and her "friend" as the needy one. This woman will benefit from sympathy and support and Sonia will find her new role very rewarding. I also struggle to be tolerant of others, but I believe Sonia will enjoy the holiday if she remains open-minded and lightens up.

MISS BUTLER

What is this friend worth to Sonia?

I believe that Sonia's friend would be best served by being excluded from the skiing party, and, if Sonia can summon up the nerve, by gently being told why. Sonia will thus, in effect, be encouraging her to take responsibility for her behaviour, and to be aware of the negative effect that this has on other people.

Also, I feel that Sonia would be wise to consider asking herself what she gets out of her friendship with this woman. She is showing great loyalty by continuing to be her friend and by including her in social events, even though her behaviour at them leaves a lot to be desired. Perhaps Sonia should ask herself: at what cost is she giving this support, both to her other friendships and to herself?

FIONA LEY

Culmstock, Devon

No need to spoil a holiday

I think it is time for Sonia to start being assertive. Her "friend" sounds like the proverbial "neighbour from hell". No one has to do anything. Sonia is not obliged to ask her friend to go on holiday.

I imagine people go on holiday to enjoy themselves and break from usual routines. There is no reason for these friends to sacrifice this pleasure, and not go on holiday.

Conversely there is no reason to "put up with" this friend and her "nightmare son". People are often hurt in the course of life, but they do survive. I think the hurts are a message to them that they need to change. Whether they recognise this is their own choice.

Soaking up her friend's hurt will help no one, least of all Sonia herself.

NICHOLAS E GOUGH

Swindon, Wiltshire

Next Week's Dilemma

Dear Virginia,

My husband died two years ago and I still can't get used to the loneliness. I have two children whom I see every fortnight and talk to on the phone, I have a part-time job, and I have forced myself to take up various classes. I also go out quite a lot in the evenings with friends. But what I miss is the day-to-day contact with someone else - anyone. Someone just to chat about the day's happenings, and to watch TV with. Someone always `there'. And also someone to do things for and look after. Someone to look after me, sometimes. Weekends are particularly painful. I don't think I will ever get used to living on my own. It just isn't `me'. I am only in my fifties and the prospect of living this empty life for maybe another 30 years or so frankly fills me with dread. I will be staying with my family for Christmas as usual, which I love doing, but I always come back in tears to this empty flat. I don't have any spare room for a lodger. I feel I am living out a prison sentence. My doctor says I am not depressed as such, just a victim of circumstances, and that only I can work through this problem. Does anyone else feel like me? How do they cope?

Sandra

Anyone who has advice quoted will be sent a bouquet from . Please send letters and dilemmas to Virginia Ironside, `The Independent', 1 Canada Square, Canary Wharf, London E14 5DL, fax 0171-293 2182, or e- mail: dilemmas@ independent. co.uk - giving a postal address for the bouquet

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