address book
Photo: Jeff Harris
The drama queen. The attention addict. The relentless pessimist. The exploiter. When poison pals infect your life, sometimes you just need to say goodbye—and good riddance.
My closest friends live all over the place—in North Carolina and New York, in Mississippi and California, in Las Vegas and London and Atlanta, in Oregon and Alabama and Andalucía, Spain. Sometimes we see each other a lot, and sometimes, for stretches, not at all, which is fine. I'd rather see the true friend once a year than suffer a faux friend every day of the week just for the sake of having someone around. The deepest friendships have nothing to do with proximity; they aren't based on how long we've known each other but on how well we love each other.

We never have to wonder where we stand, these friends and I. We never fear for our mutual emotional safety in each other's company. I can tell these friends anything and know they'd never belittle me, or think less of me, or write me off, or gossip, or use my past or current spasms of childishness/pettiness/insecurity/anger/fear against me. I'm talking about genuine affection and goodwill. I'm talking about two-way faith. I'm talking about protecting and sincerely celebrating each other. I'm talking about Do No Harm. I'm talking about intentions. With these people, I've never worried what slights or betrayals await me, and I've never felt used or exploited. At my most vulnerable, I've probably relied on them for clarity and comfort a little too much, but the balance has always been restored.

Other friends, though, just aren't good for us, no matter how hard we try to make things work.

A few years ago, I was bordering on being as broke as I've ever been. I was a full-time graduate student working several jobs while freelancing every minute of the day and trying to start, and finish, a novel, all amid the stress of rapidly compounding debt. A friend invited me out for coffee, during which time she talked at length about her hugely successful business. I was—and I mean this—happy for her, proud of her, until she kept talking about her hugely successful business and ended our coffee date by suggesting we indulge in pricey mani-pedis. (I like a good mani-pedi, but no thanks.) The next time I saw her, she insisted we eat at a restaurant I couldn't afford, then ordered a really nice bottle of wine and asked to split the check. The last time I saw her, she invited me to her apartment to show me her two new pairs of Manolo Blahniks (roughly $350 per shoe). "I treated myself," she said, "for not having any debt."

How to identify a truly poison pal
Small infractions like these add up and wear you down, the way rivers forge canyons. If we're ridding our lives of stuff that threatens our well-being, a bad friend belongs right there on the junk pile along with stress, overspending, American Idol, and trans fats. She takes up far more psychic space than she deserves or we can handle, and yet we keep her around for the same reasons we hang on to those size 6 jeans: We think things will turn around and/or we can't confront reality. Maybe this friend will change, we tell ourselves yet again. Yeah, and maybe we'll magically shrink five jeans sizes overnight.

I'm starting to think a frenemy can be exposed with a few easy questions: Do you look forward to seeing this person, or do you consider it a chore? Is she truly happy to see you, or do you suspect she wants something from you or needs to lord something over you? Will you walk away from this meeting feeling good—or feeling manipulated, demeaned, poisoned, or played?

The damage can play out in a million different ways. A friendship terrorist knows you're trying to eat more nutritiously yet says, "You won't be able to handle it; you're hungry too much." You tell her about a project that excites you and can actually see her mind scrambling for a negative response, the way game-show contestants dive for dollar bills in a wind machine. You get an editing job after being unemployed for months and she says, "Sheesh, I'd rather drink acid than work in publishing right now." You say this job takes you to Boston, a city you love, and she shrieks, "Boston? I hate Boston! How can you stand the cold?"

You need that kind of friend like you need a Members Only jacket. While you're at it, reconsider the drama addict who can't let a day go by without drawing you into her pseudo life-or-death dilemma and the high-maintenance friend who ratchets up everybody's stress level by overcomplicating everything.

I've had a few such friendship terrorists in my life, and I'm absolutely certain I've been one at times, too, but part of growing up means knowing when to stop playing pretend. Remaining attached to some people is like slaving over a withered garden without realizing all the plants are dead. And letting the negative relationships suck up time and energy only deprives us of the opportunity to nurture and appreciate those friendships that actually do work.

"The interchange between us captured my mind: conversations and joking, doing favors for each other, reading together good books, being foolish and being serious together, disagreeing without hatred almost as though I was debating with myself," wrote St. Augustine of Hippo, that ancient arbiter of relationships, in Confessions, 1,600 years ago. "These and so many other like signs coming from the hearts of friends are shown through their eyes and mouths and speech and a thousand little gestures. All of these expressions of friendship brought our hearts together like bundled kindling, making one out of many."

The truth never fails to show itself in those "thousand little gestures." True friends bear each other's burdens and accept each other's weaknesses, because without reciprocity, there's nothing. Friendship is about collaboration, not domination. Because we should be stewards of each other's rooms, I am happy to help you keep yours clean, but life is too fleeting to let you continue trashing mine.

More O : The ultimate good-friend-bad-friend quiz


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