About 10 years ago, my husband and I moved into a new area. We came here for the nature all around us and, because property was cheap, we could afford a house with land. We were not looking for a social life as we have enough friends, many of whom are scattered all over the world; inevitably, however, we connected with people here. These are lovely people as neighbours, but not really friends of the kind we can share our deeper selves with. This is fine with most of the people we have come to know, but there are some who have come to consider us very close friends because they have a wonderful time with us and conversations of a different kind than with others they know.
Mostly we manage this and although we often say no to invitations, we are happy enough to see them occasionally. We naively imagined they were like us, happy to have the odd meal together, but not often and not particularly out of any desperate need. As time has gone on, however, our time with them has become increasingly burdensome – especially with one couple, who have both become ill and rather needy.
My husband and I are in our 60s and active professionally and socially. We have a lot on, with our own lives and families and social life. This couple have become frail and, in their increased vulnerability, a deep anger towards each other has surfaced. When we see them, which we have managed to reduce to once a fortnight, they say it is the one thing in their life that they enjoy. But my husband and I no longer enjoy this time together: it is a chore to entertain them and listen to their ever more bitter moans. And when we gently suggest possibilities, they do not listen.
What to do? We certainly do not want to hurt them at a time of great need. They have come to look on us as their best friends, though we do not remotely see them in that way.
I feel rather a wimp not being able to define clearly our boundaries because I care about their frailty.
Do we just put up with this, reducing our time with them but biting the bullet every now and then and spending an evening with them? Do we quietly withdraw? Or do we confront them, though how to do that without hurting them?
We have tried to explain that our lives are very different from theirs and so we are far busier, but we don’t seem to get through to them. The reality from my perspective is that they need psychological help, but see themselves as superior to that kind of thing. Their primary protection is to distract themselves, and it feels as if we have become that for them. Any ideas of how to handle this would be gratefully received.
I contacted Amanda Hawkins, chair of the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (bacp.co.uk), and showed her your letter.
Her first thoughts were that you seemed very clear about why you moved, but you seem to have ended up with something you didn’t plan to. And she wonders how that had happened. There seems a certain passivity to your letter. Despite saying what you want the boundaries to be, really quite clearly, that is not what has happened.
Hawkins says that you seem to have assumed a role “without a dialogue taking place. Rather, you seem to have grown into this role [of taking care of your friends].”
Moreover, you have one definition of the friendship and they have another and that’s the sticking point, isn’t it? Hawkins wonders what the “hook” is, or, in other words, what is stopping you from simply saying: “We can’t do it.” Is it, she wonders, “out of a sense of duty, not wanting to be seen as bad people, or some sort of emotional attachment?”
She also suggests that you think about what would make the relationship bearable for you. Is it that the couple stop bickering? Is it that you see them less? “What was useful before it [the friendship] became contaminated?” she asks.
It is no bad thing that you care about their frailty, because, frankly, to not worry about people who are sick and vulnerable would be far more concerning. I think you need to work out what you would like to change and what is possible.
Once you have thought about what you want, Hawkins recommends a strategy. “If you don’t want to walk away, [you could try] a really honest conversation starting with: ‘We really appreciate your friendship, we really value you, but how can we do this so that it works for both of us?'”
This article was first published in The Guardian Family section on 13th June 2014.