Reader dilemma: My friend's short temper is causing problems between us

"They seem to think that shouting and then imagining that it has all blown over after five minutes is a morally superior way of behaving"

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Dear Virginia,

I’ve got an old school friend and we’re now in our thirties. She has a very short temper. She says that she just sounds off but it blows over and that I’m stupid to sulk and let it prey on my mind. But I don’t seem to be able to help it. I don’t like suddenly being called “hopeless” if something goes wrong, or getting a barrage of anger and accusations if I want to make a slight change of plans. She accuses me of being oversensitive when I complain and says that I should get over these “meaningless” remarks. Should I try to loosen up?

Yours sincerely, Marcia

Virginia says...

Isn’t it maddening how people with short tempers who let off steam all over the place so often feel that they can lord it over people who, on receipt of their hurtful comments, brood over them for a long time?

They seem to think that shouting and behaving “continental-style” (as no doubt they would describe it) and then imagining that it has all blown over after five minutes is a morally superior way of behaving, as opposed to considering what you say before  you say it, checking in advance whether it might hurt the other person, and then, after checking it again and polishing it up, allowing it to be released from one’s mouth. They call their behaviour “spontaneous”; we call it “cruel”. Our reactions that they call “uptight”, we call “normal”.

It is not nice to be called “hopeless” or being told to “shut up” even by one’s nearest and dearest. And then, to compound it, when one reacts in a perfectly natural way – hurt, puzzled and upset for long periods – being told that somehow one is some kind of bunged up old prig, wizened with resentment and secret malevolent harbourings.

The truth is that while your friend may describe herself as spontaneous, red-blooded and honest, her remarks hurt. That is what they are meant to do. That’s why you, Marcia, inhibit yourself instead of always saying exactly what you think. If I were to let myself go every time I felt myself get angry with anyone, I’d soon be in prison for mass murder. 

Now, we all know that it takes two to be hurt by words. One to yell them out and the other to take them to heart, but I find it very hard to protect myself from enraged comments unless I shield myself completely from anything that the other person says – which means that there is always a distance between us. I bet you are always treading on eggshells when your friend is around, and that is not the way to walk when you are with an old friend.

My own feeling would be to withdraw. Because you are nice and you don’t want to hurt her, I wouldn’t try to give her a taste of her own medicine and call her a selfish, insensitive pig with a hide like an elephant. You ask whether you should “loosen up”. Surely that is not something you want to do is it, even if you could? You don’t want to be like her, hurtful, unthoughtful and emotionally incontinent, do you?

No. I would either just withdraw from seeing her altogether or tell her that although she has her way of behaving you also have your way of reacting, and these remarks are too hurtful to bear. Your two ways of behaving are completely incompatible. Sorry, but there it is. Tough. Unless she curbs her tongue, you will find it too painful to meet her in future. 

Readers say...

She’s angry with herself

Should you loosen up? No, Marcia, you should ditch this woman. We all develop friendships that we outgrow. Taken away from the context of school, college, work, babysitting – we see the “friends” in a different light, and this is not always flattering. It is natural to reexamine the “friendship” and, if it isn’t a mutually nurturing, supportive relationship, to end it.

It sounds like your “friend” has problems that she needs to deal with. She’s angry with herself, and that translates into attacks on you. It doesn’t matter if you are “oversensitive” or “hopeless”. She should value your friendship, be protective of your feelings, and seek your support in dealing with her issues. Tell her this, and if she refuses to change or to acknowledge that she is hurting you, then say goodbye. Be a friend to yourself, treat yourself with self-respect. And find a new friend.

Shelagh Fox

by email

Set some boundaries

It sounds like both of you have something to learn. If you sulk rather than address the issue calmly and directly then there may be at least a grain of truth in her accusation.

However, calling you “stupid” or “hopeless”, if persistent, is abusive and I suggest that, rather than reacting, you learn to protect yourself by patiently setting boundaries. Her behaviour is not acceptable, even in a friendship. You might start with, “I find it hurtful; if you don’t like what I do or say then would you please use kinder language”.

At the same time, if your friend is that critical she is probably at least as critical of herself. She will not be happy. You might be tempted to help her by saying, “if you’re that critical of me, I wonder if you are as hard on yourself”. If her self-criticism is severe then counselling may help her.

Michael

by email

This friendship is over

It can be very difficult to get a perspective on a long-term friendship, so try thinking about it differently. If a new boyfriend began to treat you in this way, you’d soon show him the door, wouldn’t you? Time to call time on this relationship, too.

It is never easy standing up to a bully; your friend may react with fury, whining, or both. Don’t be afraid and don’t give in. The issues here are hers, not yours.

Rita Gallard

Norwich

Next week's dilemma

My girlfriend broke up with me after six months because she can’t forget her ex, who she was with for five years. She said it wasn’t fair to me to continue. Even so, she’s not back with him so I don’t think that’s really the problem. I’ve been going out and trying to meet someone else but the truth is that I’m desperate to get her back. Should we stay in contact? Even though I’m away from home for three months now, we’ve been texting and calling – and she has instigated it half the time. How can I make her want me if I don’t see her for so long?

Yours sincerely,

Peter

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

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