There is a particularly memorable moment in the American sitcom “Friends” when Ross, who is simultaneously dealing with a divorce, suspension from job and loss of apartment — all at the same time. To cope, he hooks up with Janice, who is supposed to be one of the most annoying characters of the show. Given the duo have a knack for whining, they hit it off and decide to see each other for more dates. But Ross’ venting had reached such monumental levels that even Janice had to tell him: “I cannot take another moment of your whining” helping him gain perspective on how pesky his continual complaining had become and how it was distancing him from his friends.
Now, that may sound insensitive. After all, what are friends for if they cannot hold space for us when we are going through a rough patch? No one should have to carry the burden of going through emotionally taxing periods all alone. In fact, loneliness isn’t prescribed when one is in a vulnerable place. People, who have a loving and supporting community, find it far easier to emerge from difficult circumstances in life. There is no denying that loneliness increases the weight of the crisis manifolds.
Thus, checking in on a friend who is grieving the loss of a close relative or a pet, ensuring that they have had their meals and are maintaining hygiene — which people going through the grief cycle find difficult to keep up with — is what healthy support looks like. Sometimes, care and support simply mean helping the person navigate the bare minimum and chipping in places where major dysfunctionality might have crept into their life.
When can friendships turn toxic?
The quality of our friendships to a large degree decides the quality of our social life. So, it is important to review the kind of relationship we share with our friends from time to time. Are we meeting our friends' needs? Do we truly know who they are and what they may be going through? In “Big Little Lies” — a show on female friendships — Madeline (played by Reese Witherspoon) had no clue that Celeste (Nicole Kidman) was in an abusive marriage till the end of the season. This isn’t just confined to the world of fiction. How do we miss such important details about friends’ lives even though we are always meeting and on the phone talking endlessly about something or the other?
The reason could be that we call up our friends when we have to vent about events in which we feel wronged or want to connect when we feel lonely. This is particularly true for office friendships. A group of people bonding because they don’t like the boss. They head to the canteen and gossip about the workplace. Even though you might feel temporarily good, the truth is such chatter makes the work environment more toxic.
Further, venting or chronic complaining about the circumstances in one’s life to a friend is not a healthy way of gaining perspective. Most friends would empathise with your side of the story because that’s what is fundamental to friendship — loyalty. A fragile friendship would break if the other party even remotely hinted that there is scope for much introspection in finding one’s own role in the tricky situation one finds oneself in. However, strong and mature friends would always welcome any such call for an inward assessment.
How to save your friendship and protect your mental health?
To keep our friendships from gathering the rust of venting, it is important we flag such behaviour the moment it starts taking a psychological toll on us. If your friend is constantly asking for your counsel but doesn’t put any of your advice to practice — it is a sure sign that they may be simply using you as a soundboard to validate their side of the story.
Look for signs of irritation becoming apparent when you ask them to look at a different strand of the narrative they are creating. Try letting them know in polite terms that you empathise with their situation but constantly discussing her domestic discord is making you unnecessarily anxious. Resist the temptation to come up with solutions. Validate their sentiments and reality, without being unnecessarily judgemental of any other party in the story. And don’t ever try to fight their battle for them.
Most importantly, examine your need to try and rescue other people. Maybe your constant need to be the agony aunt to your friends has pushed you and your friend in this role of one being the whiner, and the other listener. Sometimes, the crisis in the friend’s life is so central to the friendship that the relationship is threatened by the prospect of the crisis being over. Further, notice how often your friend inquires about your well-being and how often you feel confident to be vulnerable in front of them. If it is not an equal opportunity relationship, it is possible that both of you are enmeshed in a toxic relationship — one playing the victim and the other the rescuer, the quiet listener and it is doing neither of you any good.
Listening to a person in crisis is a skill. It is different from gossiping or discussing the absurdities of life, politics and philosophy with your besties. So, if you sense that your friend is finding it difficult to cope with the current crisis in his/her life — you may suggest intervention by specialists. Seeing a therapist could be the beginning. You can book the appointment or drive him or her to the therapist. Know where your role as a support giver ends or else you may drain yourself out.
Keeping the vitality in friendships alive
Have hobby friends. Activities are a good substitute for gossip, venting, shopping or eating junk food together.
Check in on your friends if you know they are going through a difficult time. Drop-in with lunch or dinner. But know where your role as a support giver ends.
Confront and contest the side of your friend’s narrative most lovingly and respectfully. Ask them “whys” instead of “hows” and “whats”.
Lovingly suggest to them they need to have a specialist to listen to them if they want to truly heal and that you lack the necessary training to unravel the complexities of their life.
Avoid the temptation of being a problem solver or a rescuer. Believe in the full humanity and capabilities of your friend to help themselves out of their crisis using their wit.
Prioritise friendships. Bring your best selves to the table. Schedule your meetings with friends. They are no backup for times when you are feeling lonely or your boyfriend might have cancelled on you.