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Dr. Irene S. Levine Headshot

Relating to a Friend in Crisis

Posted: Updated:

2010-08-23-stress.jpg

QUESTION

Dear Irene,

My friend and I are very close and she's recently been under a lot of stress. A family member is dying and she is caring for this person. For about two months, she's been unable to listen to anything I say. If I don't agree with her completely, she angrily says I am not listening. No matter what I say, she says I'm wrong.

I've been trying to be the best supportive friend I can be while her relative is dying. I, too, have cared for a dying relative; I know what it's like. However, even my most caring letters are returned correcting whatever I've said.

It's not that she's normally an oasis of serenity - she isn't. I usually am the person she can tell anything to, so I have heard all her complaints. Normally, this is okay as it is tempered with humor and two-way conversation. Now, even when I listen actively, reflecting back what she's saying, she angrily corrects me. I realize her behavior is not about me and she's under stress. However, I'm unwilling to be treated this way.

Because my friend's in another country and our communications are by email, I want to write a supportive note that sets a boundary. No matter what I say, she'll probably react with anger, but at least I can write something that is respectful of myself and of her.

She seems to have lost faith in me and does not presume any goodwill on my part. If that were true, why would she want me in her life? How can I communicate with her in a way so I'm not kicking her when she's down?

Signed,
Wendy

ANSWER

Dear Wendy,

No two people experience death in the same way, and even though you've cared for a dying relative, you can't completely understand---especially from afar---how your friend is feeling and what's she's dealing with. Cut your friend some slack; now isn't the time to set boundaries.

Your friend seems quick to anger and sensitive to any perceived criticism. You know her peccadilloes and seem to have accepted them. Yet, as you've witnessed, a person's worst tendencies can be exaggerated under stress.

Continue to offer your friend support by way of brief, regular emails but refrain from offering any unsolicited advice at this time or telling her that you know what she's going through. This is likely to be a temporary blip in your relationship that will resolve itself. If it doesn't, you can work it out later when she's back on her feet.

Best,
Irene

Have a question about female friendships? Send it to The Friendship Doctor.

Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Her recent book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, was published by Overlook Press. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog and at PsychologyToday.com.

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