Reader dilemma: 'My friend confided a secret, and then stopped speaking to me'

"They see their emotional breakdown as a weakness rather than simply a sign of perfectly normal humanity. They’re ashamed of themselves."

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Dear Virginia,

I have a friend who I’ve known for a long time. She has never allowed me to get really close, but we go back a long way and I see her about once every three months or so. But about six months ago, she discovered her husband was having an affair and she rang me in floods of tears. I rushed round and consoled her, and she seemed very grateful for my support. But since then I’ve been almost shut out. I don’t get replies to emails, and can’t make a date to meet. I know I was a help to her – but what has happened to our friendship? Why is she behaving like this?

Yours sincerely, Nancy

Virginia says

Other people! Aren’t they weird? I suppose some people think we’re weird, too, but occasionally I’m baffled by people’s extraordinary behaviour.

You’d think, wouldn’t you, that, having confided in you so closely, your friendship would be deepened and been given an extra dimension rather than broken. But the syndrome you describe is so common that sometimes, if a friend breaks down and confides in me in an uncharacteristic way, I feel like saying, before she can get going: “Stop there! Are you sure you really want me to hear this? Go and confide in someone else! Our friendship may be at risk!”

But obviously one can’t – and you couldn’t – do that. One goes ahead, sympathises and consoles, and hopes that this particular person isn’t One of Those.

It seems that what happens is that these once-in-a-lifetime confiders feel immensely threatened by having shown you the fragile side of themselves, the side they’ve so successfully concealed for years. They feel they’re like a Ming vase, palming themselves off perfectly successfully as valuable works of art, until they suddenly they reveal to you a terrible, but ingeniously disguised, crack that will render the vase valueless.

They see their emotional breakdown as a weakness rather than simply a sign of perfectly normal humanity. They’re ashamed of themselves. Rather than thinking, “I was understandably upset and my friend was very kind to me”, they think more along the lines of, “I committed a murder and revealed it to my friend and now not only will she think I’m an evil person, but she’s got a terrible hold over me. I can’t afford to see her again.”

Now, you could have it out with your friend and explain that you feel that the rift between you has something to do with this uncharacteristically emotional moment. You could say that you have meltdowns all the time, that it’s normal and nothing to be ashamed of. But I suspect that you’ll never get back on the old footing. It may be that she was always told as a child that her weeping or getting upset was absolutely disgraceful. It may be that her entire image of self-worth depends on her ability to cope like a soldier at all times, 24 hours a day.

But I fear that her feelings of being threatened by revealing herself to you are something too fundamental ever to be rationalised away, unless she is particularly good on self-knowledge. If you ask among your friends, you’ll not only find that they’ve had similar experiences, but perhaps that some of them have experienced exactly the same situation with the same friend.

In the meantime, all you can say to yourself is that you’ve done nothing wrong. You were there when you were needed and you were helpful and consoling. You, at least, were a real friend.

Readers say...

It’s not her fault

No good deed goes unpunished. A lifetime’s experience tells me that the more you have succeeded in helping a slightly distant friend to turn a major problem around, the less they are likely to want to know you afterwards.

It’s hard, but don’t blame her. She just doesn’t know how to handle the changed relationship. Whatever you do, don’t try to make her talk to you. She probably feels uncomfortable enough already. Leave her to come to terms with what’s happened, silently hope it works for her, and if she contacts you again, let it feel like the next day after the last time you were in touch before the crisis, and welcome her as that same old friend. If she doesn’t, just accept that she’s gone, close that door (gently) and move on.

Ellie Rose

Newcastle upon Tyne

Adjust your expectations

It sounds like your friend has trouble with vulnerability. She is keeping your friendship on her terms. The support she asked for in her moment of crisis did not signal a change in her personality or her pattern of relating – she just allowed you to see her as uncharacteristically vulnerable. She has shown you over the years what a friendship with her entails. I would suggest adjusting your expectations and deciding whether a friendship without mutuality is one you really would like to keep.

Natalie

by email

Let her know you’re there

Your friend’s sudden outpouring of emotions may have left her feeling vulnerable and embarrassed. Maybe she never lets anyone get emotionally close except her husband, and now she’s dealing with the fallout of his affair. She may be focusing solely on him at the moment, and may feel unable to put the time or energy into friendships.

It may be worth dropping her an email one last time, to say that you’re there if she wants to talk, or indeed if she wants a distraction and would like to do something mindless together (shopping, jogging, watching a rubbish film). The fear of raking over her feelings about the affair may be making her pull away, but if she knows you’re happy to ignore the elephant in the room and give her some escapism, she might be more inclined to get in touch. If she doesn’t contact you, at least you know you’ve done all you can.

Polly Evans

by email

Next week's dilemma

I’m a very social person and as I get older and have more time – my children have left home for university – I want to see my friends more and more. I love parties and I need a social life to keep me going. My husband, on the other hand, who used to be gregarious, has gone into his shell. He spends his time gardening, reading and writing a history of his family. He dreads social life. But I know that, when we’re invited out, people often only ask me because of my husband, because he can, when he makes an effort, be charming and entertaining. What can I do?

Yours sincerely,

Belinda

What would you advise Belinda to do? To answer this dilemma, or to share your own problem, write to dilemmas@independent.co.uk

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