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Whenever Lily was down on her luck, her coworker Jill was the best friend she could have asked for. When a bad date broke Lily's heart, Jill consoled her with hugs and advice. When Lily had a falling out with their boss, Jill was a model of support. "She was right there, taking my side, commiserating, bad-mouthing my boss, and trying to make me feel better," says Lily, 36, from Boulder, Colorado.
When Lily met a wonderful man and began a terrific relationship, Jill began criticizing her friend. A similar thing happened when Lily resolved her conflict with her boss and her career picked up. "She began making cutting comments about any aspect of my life where she could find fault," says Lily.
Lily had encountered the foul-weather friend.
We've all heard of fair-weather friends, those vapid souls who adore us when we are thin, rich, and healthy, but suddenly disappear the minute that illness, divorce, or job loss threatens to wreck their buzz. Less discussed -- but no less prevalent -- are foul-weather friends. These are the friends who are extremely supportive when you've lost your job or split up with your man, but become cold and distant when you start to get your life back together. "Good friends will offer you support during hard times, but a foul-weather friend is drawn to your pain," says Judith Sills, PhD, a psychologist and author of If the Horse Is Dead, Get Off! Creating Change When You're Stuck in Your Comfort Zone (Viking, 2004).
We've all had foul-weather friend moments. If you've been trying for years to get pregnant, then it's understandable that you might feel less-than-ecstatic when your best friend announces that she's going to have a second child. If you and your husband are having marital problems, then a single friend's complaints about the miserable dating scene might come as a small relief. "That's part of the human cocktail. We all have it to a degree," says Sills.
But the foul-weather friend is the person who only wants you around when you can complain about your husband or fret over your daughter's problems at school. "She's the one who will say 'How is your husband? He's not flirting with other women they way he did at that party last Christimas, is he?' She really doesn't even need to wait for you to be down. She can bring the rain with her," says Sills.
Douglas Katz, PhD, a New York City psychologist, says that insecurity is what drives the foul-weather friend to wish the worst for you. Sometimes this low self-worth stems from childhood. For example, children with parents who are physically or emotionally incapacitated sometimes learn to associate receiving love with tending to a weaker party.
"As long as the child is present and attentive to the needs of the parent, she receives love and protection. However, each developmental step the child makes is perceived as a threat to the parent's connection with the child," says Katz, who says that such parents may unwittingly sabotage the child's progress by withdrawing affection. "The child grows up with an unconscious belief that love is forthcoming only when one subjugates one's needs to those of a weak, suffering other."
It can make for a toxic combination. In order to maintain her self-worth, she tries to keep herself in the power position and make you the weak one. At the same time, this behavior is often completely unconscious. "She has an image of herself as a good friend. She says she wants to offer you help, but it has the tinge of a put-down," says Sills.
So how do you deal with this? Katz says that the first step is to try to calm her feelings of insecurity by treating her with compassion and respect. "Take care to show her that you care for her regardless of her looks, possessions, social contacts, etc. This person's worst fear is that she is, at her core, worthless and unlovable, so highlight her good points," says Katz.
You should also check your own behavior. Are you giving her the impression that she's not needed when you're doing well? Do you only call her when you're feeling blue? Do you only schedule dinner with her when you and your man are fighting? "I have one friend who only calls me when she is depressed about her boyfriend," says Diane, 46, from Long Island, New York. "In June, I was on a business trip to Canada and ended up talking to her on my cell phone for more than two hours, going over and over his abuse of her. I spent hundreds of dollars on my phone bill that month giving her therapy, only to be ignored by her when things got better."
Indeed, even the most secure, self-possessed woman can find her thoughts turning sour when good fortune makes a friend arrogant or self-centered. Sills says that new brides are frequently guilty of this. "We are most mentally ill when we are engaged. It's worse than being pregnant. It's the only time we buy the idea that we are the princess and our friends are all supposed to be circling us and ecstatic for us. And if they're not, there is trouble."
Katz says that foul-weather friends can be very helpful in the short-term. "They are often able to provide amazing support to a friend who is going through a difficult time, even when the person's other friends find it too depressing to spend time with her."
However, if you are treating your friend with compassion and respect, and she still seems to only thrive when your life is a mess, then it may be time to call it quits. "If your friend reacts with anger no matter what you say or do, you may want to cut your losses and terminate the friendship. She may simply not be ready for a mutually caring relationship," says Katz.
For Lily, the decision to end the friendship was ultimately made by Jill, who decided Lily was trying to sabotage her at work. In the end, that was fine with Lily: "At least this way she doesn't have to see how happy I am in my relationship and my new career."