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In recognition of how important friendships are to us, Ladies' Home Journal's popular "Can This Marriage Be Saved?" now extends into the world of friendship with "Can This Friendship Be Saved?"
Carla, 25, newspaper reporter, Leonia, New Jersey: "Linda and I have been best friends since grade school. She has a quirky sense of humor, and we can talk about everything. When we went off to different colleges, we vowed to stay in touch and visit on weekends. I loved my classes, but she hated hers; I met a great guy, but she was dating a loser. All she did was complain. I started to feel bad whenever I mentioned something positive. And Linda would interrupt and go on about her misery. Eventually I stopped trying to tell her about anything, good or bad.
"I let things go on this way for several years, since we didn't see each other that often and I had other friends. But Linda's constant complaining has only gotten worse. These days she whines all the time about her boss at the firm where she's a legal secretary. When we met recently for lunch, I was hoping she'd be her old funny self and say something that would make me laugh. But that never happened. I admit that I've been wimpy about speaking up about the problem, but I'm now at the point where I wonder whether our friendship is worth saving. The fact is, she treats our other friends well. My husband and I went to a wedding shower a few weeks ago where she cracked jokes and had real conversations with people. I guess I'm the only one she vents to. Is there anything I can do to change this? I want the old Linda back."
The counselor's response: "Because Carla has allowed the situation to go on for so long, confronting Linda might not help. Linda hasn't been given any clues over the years that her behavior irritates Carla, so she'd be taken by surprise and would surely be hurt and upset. Here's something I tell my clients: What you accept, you teach. In other words, Carla has taught Linda that her constant complaining is acceptable. Also, Linda's behavior is sort of a compliment to Carla; she trusts Carla as her confidante. That doesn't mean, however, that Carla has to put up with never having a chance to talk about her own issues and problems.
"How can she make this a true friendship once again, with give and take on both sides? The next time Linda launches into a gripefest, Carla might suggest they brainstorm ways to solve Linda's problems instead of listening to her recite the same litany over and over. That may turn what has been an exasperating situation into a productive one.
"If Linda continues to complain, Carla should try telling her about a problem of her own. If Linda interrupts, Carla can say: 'This issue with my mother-in-law is as important to me as your issue with your boss. I'd love to get it off my chest and see if you have any ideas about how I can solve this.' That will give Linda a sense of being needed by Carla, which might jolt her out of her self-absorption; it will also help Linda see that Carla's life is not as charmed as she has imagined. And hearing Carla say she wants help from Linda will go a long way toward encouraging Linda to treat Carla as a true friend with needs of her own."
The story told here is true, though the names and other details have been changed to conceal identities. The counselor, Gilda Carle, PhD, is an associate professor of psychology at Mercy College in Dobbs Ferry, New York.