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Bad Advice: Abandon the Hot Mess?

Submit your questions to [email protected] or leave a question in the comments section, and I’ll answer it in Bad Advice!

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Dear Bad Advice,

My friend is a hot mess. We’ve been friends for a long time, and she wasn’t always like this, so I kept hoping it was just a phase, and waiting for her to emerge from the other side. But this has been going on for over a year now. Basically, she just creates drama. She goes out with a bunch of new friends who gossip about each other all the time, so whenever we hang out she just barrages me with endless stories about who’s which girl’s enemy now, and who cheated with who’s boyfriend, and all this other stuff that’s just stupid. And she’s gotten into this pattern where she’ll see a guy for a couple of weeks, and then pull away and go on and on about how clingy and annoying he is for still pursuing her; or, if the opposite happens, she’ll turn it into this huge drama about how she’s going to get him back. I don’t think she even knows any of these guys enough to care as much as she sounds like she does. She doesn’t want to do any of the stuff we used to do together, like go to the movies, and I think it’s because there isn’t enough gossipping and backstabbing in it. I miss her as a friend, though, and she wasn’t always like this — she used to be sweet and fun to be with and non-dramatic. I don’t know where all this came from and I don’t know how to tell her to try and straighten it all out. I just want her to know I think her decisions are destructive and I’m worried about her as a friend.

– Drama Disinfectant

This is going to sound like bad advice, but if you don’t want drama, you don’t want to be with this friend.

Oh, drama. Life throws plenty of drama and hardship at us: unexpected illnesses, kooky relatives, natural disasters, layoffs, car problems. But the kind of drama you describe your friend being embroiled in is a different sort: the kind of drama created by the drama-seeker. Drama-seekers try to make life more “interesting” by introducing unnecessary conflict and disorder, then pulling more and more people into it by spreading the word, encouraging gossip and failed interventions and secret-keeping.

You probably wrote in hoping I’d give advice for your friend that you could pass along. But instead, I’m going to give some advice to you: make sure you take care of yourself while you’re taking care of your friend. People who generate drama in their own lives (usually because they like drama) are going to try to pull you into it, and one of the best ways to do that is to appeal to you as the sensible friend. They’ll couch it in terms like “I know you don’t like drama, so what’s your take on this?”, as if acknowledging that you don’t want to become a character in this story. But by asking you, they’re trying to implicate you in the situation. You’ll become a part of the drama because if your advice backfires in some way, you’ll now be the character who gave your friend the bad advice and made everything worse.

Drama-seekers find all sorts of ways to make life interesting by creating unnecessary conflict, gossip, and discomfort. I’ve seen, and been in, situations where a drama-seeking friend will simply use the sensible friend as a foil: if you stolidly resist acting foolish, your drama-seeking friend will call you boring or awkward or uptight, in an attempt to cast her own behavior in a better light. She’ll try to make you feel like the “weird” one, and no one deserves to be demeaned just so another person can rationalize her own bad decisions.

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Maybe you’re right, and your friend is just going through a phase. You don’t have to abandon her as a friend. But that doesn’t mean you should enable her by humoring her requests for your input on her drama. Requests for advice from a drama-seeker are just disguised attempts to pull you into drama. If you want to help her, the best way to defuse the situation (and get her to hopefully see how silly her drama is) is to say, “I don’t really have any advice. I think you can figure this one out on your own,” and then change the subject. Showing disinterest in the drama she creates makes that drama less attractive to her (because drama-seekers often crave the attention that drama brings). And that could be helpful to her — in a subtle way, it could help her see how foolish and uninteresting her drama is.

If this sounds a little cynical to you, it is — or would be, if this were a fully reciprocated friendship. But it doesn’t sound like, right now, the friendship is reciprocal; it sounds like you’re constantly the giver and she’s constantly the taker. When you wind up in that situation, you need to protect yourself and your own well-being first. You might make sacrifices or go out on a limb for a friend who’s also there for you — but it doesn’t sound like this friend really is there for you right now. You might have the urge to “save” her for old times’ sake; but the best way to help her, really, is to refuse all her attempts to get you involved in drama.

So if you want to spend time together, make it clear to her that you don’t want to go with her to parties or whatever other activities she turns into drama-fests; or if you do go, make sure you go with a few other friends who are solidly anti-drama. Instead, replace those outings with invitations for her to come do something quiet and non-dramatic with you — see if she wants to come over and take a walk with you and your dog, or watch some TV, or grill. Then, focus the conversation on topics outside her personal drama. And, make sure you speak up for yourself and tell her a bit about what’s going on in your life — both because a reciprocal friendship means she should listen to you sometimes, and because it might help her remember that there’s a whole lot of life outside of the drama she creates.

You don’t have to abandon your hot mess friend. But if you keep her drama at arm’s length, there’s a possibility she might abandon you, for other people who are more eager to leap into her chaos. That could be quite an eye-opener. You can still value the place you had in each other’s lives, and you can remain open to her if she wants to return to the friendship, but if the only terms she’s offering for friendship are participation in her life-disrupting drama, you have to be willing to let her walk away.

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Finally, if you feel her slipping away and you still strongly desire to hold on to her friendship, you should tell her openly and honestly about why you’ve been distant and unreceptive to the stories of her drama. Communication is the best cure for drama, because it shines a harsh light on all the cobweb castles drama-seekers build to defend their decisions. Normally I think the majority of friendship and relationship problems can be solved most straightforwardly by open communication.

So why did I put this advice last? Because you have to be prepared that, by giving your honest opinion on your friend’s behavior, you’ll either be vilified by her, or she’ll just use your talk to try to draw you once again into more drama. If you choose to, sit down and say, “Hey, I really value our friendship and I care a lot about you, but I miss the way you used to be — you seem to be really caught up in x, y, and z lately, and it makes me feel like we have less in common. I miss the times when we could hang out without getting into a lot of drama.” But be prepared for a very bad reaction. Be prepared for a lot of rationalizing, and counter-accusations. This is not easy stuff to hear.

But once you air out your feelings, give your friend some time to process them. Don’t expect an immediate turn-around. This would be a good time to take the passive role in the friendship, and let your friend come to you if she wants to repair things and hang out again. Ultimately, she’ll make her own decision about what’s more important to her: you, or the drama.

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Submit your questions to [email protected] or leave a question in the comments section, and I’ll answer it in Bad Advice!

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