You have a conversation with a close friend who, when you broach a certain subject, suddenly becomes upset, angry, tells you hotly that you’ve weaponized his confidences against him and are putting the relationship in serious jeopardy. In tracing these feelings back with the person it’s clear that you’ve put your finger on a painful wound and the attack is basically a cry of pain. At the end of the call you both agree it was great the peaceful way the worst was avoided, and certain insights were gained, and that a path back to trust and friendship was found.
Unease lingers after the call. The explosive thing you mentioned that caused your friend to go wild is a bad and recurring part of the dynamic with that friend. A toxic bomb waiting to explode again next time.
It is something hard to avoid sometimes, as the person complains about their anxiety regularly, even while avoiding mention of the omnipresent stimulus of the anxiety itself. The ever-present 300 pound gorilla in the room is always in the room. Nothing can ever change unless this troubling this subject is dealt with, but mention of the actual gorilla is forbidden on pain of ending the friendship.
Tolerating the intolerable cries out to be addressed. If not with a friend or family member’s help then, for god’s sake, with a good therapist or someone willing to patiently listen. Nothing can change unless the trouble is addressed, it only makes things worse to merely push the feelings down and proclaim that the monster is “being handled”.
You have the choice, as a friend, to avoid this subject completely — the easiest, if not most satisfying way to do it — or to find a way to talk about it productively (not easy, but possible, I believe). There is one specific event that encapsulates this whole dilemma in your relationship, but your friend, while acknowledging it probably happened just as you say, tells you they don’t really remember it very well and don’t really want to relive it.
We have different levels of intimacy with different people in our lives. Some friends are fun companions we’re very fond of, but we don’t seek them out to confide in and get advice from when we’re in great pain or trouble. We value others in our lives for different reasons, though the people we’re truly intimate with are in their own necessarily small category. We tend to listen to these people carefully and remember the most important things they entrust to us.
I also must say — not everybody is capable of intimacy, since it requires openness, trust, honesty, confidence that your vulnerability will not be betrayed. Not everyone is capable of all that, sad to say. If you continue to seek deeper connection with somebody who is not able to operate in that mode, trouble is bound to follow.
Today’s moral dilemma:
The forgotten past is prelude to the deniable future. That horrible incident I brought up that so upset me, that thing you don’t really remember in detail and don’t really want to discuss… why do I keep bringing it up?
I bring it up because it upset me profoundly, because it stands in perfectly for what continues to upset me, for what I see as the underlying dilemma: your belief that painful things must never be revealed or talked about and that raising them is an act of war. This is particularly true for potentially shameful things.
You believe that these things are too painful and threatening to face and you require others to respect your right to remain mute about them — which all sounds fair enough. The trouble is, you want friends and family to listen supportively to your troubles without giving an opinion that might involve anything challenging, difficult, painful, embarrassing or shame-inducing.
I believe that if we are as close as siblings and can’t talk about what is really bothering you, the chitchat dancing around the obvious is pretty much a waste of both of our time. If you don’t trust me, you don’t trust me. I didn’t make the world. Look carefully at this upset you gave me that time, I’ve written it out on a page. See if you can identify with why I was so shaken up. See if it gives you a clue to what you could do going forward to better consider my feelings, to have less fear, anger and anxiety in your life.
I had a long-time friend, now dead, who made the unreasonable demand of just being listened to without comment until it became unbearable. He had nobody else to confide in, since he lived in a world where literally everyone he ever met disappointed and betrayed him, and he needed to tell his best friend the ongoing tales of this horrible personal torture chamber he lived in. Every story was exactly the same. Somebody he really admired turned out to be crazy, brutal, vindictive, a total putz. The three act play was identical every time. Admiration, suspicions of imperfection, vicious betrayal by the formerly admired person.
You can only hear the same awful story so many times before it is unbearable to withhold the opinion that your friend’s unreasonable expectation of human perfection needs to be addressed before anything can change for the better in his life.
This infuriates your friend who angrily tells you he just needs you to shut up and “be there for him”, listen to his latest painful tale without the fucking commentary, just let him tell the long, complicated story. Eventually this becomes impossible, you are obliged to reveal your human imperfection and move on to act three — betrayal by repudiation.
Today’s moral dilemma:
That painful incident you told me you pretty much forgot, though you don’t dispute my version of it, you also say that you truly don’t really remember it in any detail. These erased details of what upset one person are the essence of what causes the most trouble between people, the erasure of how I hurt you plants the seeds for the next episode, which is guaranteed to be worse that the previous one since it is the same hurtful thing I did before and managed to forget about.
Here, then, are the details, laid out clearly and concisely. Take a look. Do you understand now why I was so upset, why it upsets me that you’ve managed to put it out of mind? Do you understand that you would have been equally upset if I had placed you in that position? Are you capable of self-knowledge? If not, what are we doing here?
The dilemma is how to balance a desire to help, and be heard, and treated fairly, with the certain knowledge that you are dealing with someone who, no matter how objectively you set an uncomfortable thing out, is likely to be enraged by your intrusion into their painfully protected privacy.
The dilemma: do I maintain an essentially false relationship with little trust, for the sake of having any relationship at all, or do I respectfully risk everything to try to have a better, healthier one?