My close friend is a therapist but all she does is complain. Should I exit this relationship?

<span>‘Often the shortcomings we perceive in others … are as much about what’s going with us as what the other person is doing.’ Painting: On the Thames, A Heron by Jacques Joseph Tissot.</span><span>Photograph: incamerastock/Alamy</span>
‘Often the shortcomings we perceive in others … are as much about what’s going with us as what the other person is doing.’ Painting: On the Thames, A Heron by Jacques Joseph Tissot.Photograph: incamerastock/Alamy

I have a close friend of 15 years. When I met her, she was fun-loving and positive but in the last few years she has gradually got more negative. We live in different countries and speak regularly, and every time I talk to her all she does is complain about her life and paint herself as the victim. She is a fellow therapist and I have encouraged her to get support to work through the patterns she is in, but she never does. It gets to the point where I get fed up with the moaning and frustrated that she isn’t taking responsibility for her life. When this happens, I usually point out that nothing will change until she does. She responds by lashing out at me angrily, becoming defensive and giving me the silent treatment.

This has recently happened again and I am tired of it. It has occurred at a time that I am going through some difficulties. I have told her that I do not deserve to be treated like this and asked for an apology. I am very hurt that she hasn’t apologised and her latest message put it all back on me. I also recognise that I need to accept she doesn’t want help, but I find it very difficult to have a person like this in my life now. Part of me wants to use this latest rupture as an exit strategy. Should I?

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Eleanor says: It sounds as though your friend might also be going through some rough stuff. Of course, sometimes pivots into negativity are just the souring of a soul, the emergence of cantankerousness with age. But (as you know from your professional training) other times people become negative, self-victimising or misanthropic because things really aren’t OK.

You mentioned her dogged passivity, her determination not to do the things that would help. Sometimes that too is a sign that something is quite wrong. Just as depression eats up the very same energy and willpower we’d need to make the helpful changes, big experiences of powerlessness or disappointment sometimes leave us with no agency except the agency to say “no”. No, I’m not going to go; no, I’m not going to try; no, I won’t bother to hope. At least that’s a form of control. It’s an adolescent, horizon-shrinking kind of control but sometimes that’ll do – especially if the alternative kinds of adult agency have felt too disappointing for too long.

None of that’s to say it’s pleasant to be around someone stuck in that kind of rut. It’s especially un-fun to be around when you’re going through your own difficulties. You can wind up cast as Supportive Friend in someone else’s story, your own problems the B-plot at most.

But given you’re both going through a lot, that relationships help in troubled times and that 15-year friendships are hard to come by, I wonder whether there might be “halfway” strategies for putting distance in this relationship without jettisoning it altogether.

Often the shortcomings we perceive in others – and the extent to which they drive us nuts – are as much about what’s going with us as what the other person is doing. It’s like how you can tolerate a particular sound when you’re having a good day but if you’re frustrated, in a hurry, or it’s been going on too long, that very same noise becomes totally unbearable. It sounds like her negativity might be like the irritating noise. It was bearable for a while but against the right backdrop it becomes forehead-vein-burstingly hard to deal with.

Are there ways to protect yourself from that negativity without totally losing the relationship? What about a rule (maybe one said with a laugh) that you don’t want to talk about any negative stuff, especially while you’re going through your own troubles? It doesn’t need to be a dressing down or involve making a case. It could just be something like “I’m so bummed out from dealing with X, can we talk about something cheerful now?” Or what about a remote book club with others – a way to give you something to talk about that isn’t just each other’s lives.

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Of course, if the lashings-out or anger continue even though you told her you don’t deserve them, that’s a different matter. There’s nothing so intrinsically valuable about friendship that you should keep one around just at your expense. But this negative version of your friend may not be the only one available. It’s not up to you to produce the more cheerful version. Only she can do that. But you might want to be that person’s friend if she ever reappears.

This letter has been edited for length.

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