Virginia Ironside’s Dilemmas: My friend can't visit without criticising me

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Dear Virginia,

What can I do about my friend? She's a lovely, sensitive soul, but she takes it too far. She can't come round without checking I've watered the plants and is always criticising me for feeding my cat dried food.

She panics if she sees me drinking instant coffee or junk food, and recently she told me I shouldn't keep my goldfish on its own in a bowl because it would get "lonely". But it's none of her business. Don't tell me to have it out with her because she'd burst into tears.

Yours sincerely, Molly

I suspect that your friend is trying to tell you something. She probably doesn't know what it is herself that she's trying to say. But a sensitive friend – which you, clearly, are not, although I am sure you are bursting with other wonderful qualities – would have picked up on this some time ago.

What your friend is trying to say is that it is she who needs the attention from you. But because, like so many repressed people, she cannot face asking for herself, she displaces her request by asking for it for others.

It is not the goldfish who is lonely. It is your friend. It is not you who are being badly nourished. It is your friend. It is not the cats who are being fed the wrong food. It is your friend – you are not giving her what she needs. It is not the plants that need watering – it is your friendship.

Now, it may well be that friendship-watering isn't your thing. You have a much more laissez-faire approach to friendship than she does. You probably feel a friendship should be taken for granted – always there, but not in constant need of attention. And, to be quite honest, most of us, while we like to maintain our friendships by seeing that the basics are carried out – hospital visiting, an ear in times of trouble, presents on birthdays and so on – would find it rather irritating and time-consuming to carry out the detailed maintenance that your friend so clearly needs.

If you see the friendship as like a house, you're the one who's quite prepared to slap on a bit of paint and not repair the roof till the rain comes in, while your friend wants to pick out the plaster on the ceiling roses with a pin before redecorating, and give the place a daily hoover before going out in the morning.

She is asking too much. You are providing too little. If you really want to continue the friendship (and you may find that actually her demands are too great to bother, and if so I wouldn't blame you) then ask her if she's OK – whether she feels depressed or anxious.

Suggest she see a doctor. Ring her up more often, even for a brief chat, rather than waiting for her to contact you. Show for her the concern that she shows for you, your animals and your plants.

And in the meantime, though this is not what you want to hear, I have to say that goldfish are shoal creatures. They need a big tank full of plants, places to hide away – and friends.

If you can't reach the almost impossibly high standard of friendship your friend requires, at least do your pet a favour. Buy another fish.

Readers say...

Upgrade the fish tank

I have a friend who visits about twice a year and on such occasions has criticised the quality of my toilet seat, disliked the look of my gorgeous Bang and Olufsen speakers, tutted at the quality of my wines and, when invited to a barbecue with his two daughters, stated that this type of food was always cheap, although he did say that the burgers were good. I used to get very annoyed and considered him extremely rude, but I now find it very amusing and actually encourage his comments.

I suggest you do the same. These type of people usually hate programmes such as Big Brother, The Jeremy Kyle Show or any of the soaps. Next time she visits, make sure you are lounging on the sofa watching one of the aforementioned, drinking cheap coffee and eating a deep-fried Mars bar. Put a few pots on the mantelpiece with dead twigs in them. As regards to the cat and goldfish, dried food is perfectly OK for the cat, but I would suggest you upgrade the goldfish bowl to a biOrb and buy him a little companion.

You see, the goldfish probably is lonely and I suspect your friend is too, as not may people would continue to entertain this type of person in their homes. Remember they cannot help it and will, no doubt, value your friendship more than you do theirs.

Name supplied

By email

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Accept her as she is

I have a sister who does this and it almost drives me crazy! I still love her very much and make little effort to change her, apart from a certain amount of gentle teasing – "You're like a puppy dog. You always have to leave your mark" – which she accepts with a smile, but nothing changes. We all need our friends. If you love your friend – and you clearly do – I suggest a similar line.

Name and address supplied

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Do things your own way

I'm sorry, Molly, but lovely, sensitive souls do not constantly criticise; they respect other people's choices. There are two types of sensitive people – those who are sensitive to other people's feelings, and those who are sensitive about their own. If you are afraid of your friend bursting into tears (she may have found that this is quite a good way of avoiding having to take responsibility for her comments!) then just kindly and politely tell her, when she criticises you, that you like doing things your own way, and that, just because she likes doing things differently, it doesn't make either of you wrong.

I would avoid getting into a conversation where you are justifying everything you do, but it is possible that she could be expressing her own fears through her criticism of you.

Perhaps you could tell her that you appreciate her concern and reassure her that you are not harming yourself, your cat or your goldfish through the choices you make, and that she should try not to worry.

And, if she remains unconvinced, she must take on board that, however much she cares for you, she cannot live your life for you. She may even gain confidence from your self-belief and your more relaxed way of living.

Chris

Brighton, by email

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Change the subject

Molly says that her friend is a "lovely, sensitive soul" but she sounds like neither of those things to me! Constant carping while preventing any criticism of herself by grizzling sounds totally manipulative and ego-centred.

If you want to keep her friendship, though I cannot imagine why, try some behaviour modification – do not engage with her criticism at all; just ignore it.

Change the subject, resolutely, and go on doing as you think best. Eventually she might get the message, although I would not bet on it.

Name supplied

By email

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