‘I’m worried about my wife’s relationship with her so-called best friend’

'She’s very defensive around the whole situation so I’ve never interfered – but surely this can’t go on' - R.Fresson/A Human Agency
'She’s very defensive around the whole situation so I’ve never interfered – but surely this can’t go on' - R.Fresson/A Human Agency

Dear A&E,

I’m worried about my wife’s relationship with her so-called best friend. They have known each other since secondary school, but this woman undermines my wife at every opportunity.

I can see how much it’s affecting her – she dreads picking up the phone to her but also lives in fear of “letting her down”, which she always seems to do no matter how hard she tries.

She’s very defensive around the whole situation so I’ve never interfered, but it’s upsetting me now and it’s also making me angry. Surely this can’t go on?

– Uneasy

Dear Uneasy,

This is a familiar tale. So many of us share this trauma. And, yes, it is traumatic. We all make mistakes when we are young (and when we are old) about who is right for us. We forge intense friendships that feel like our whole world, and sometimes the friendship is nurturing and nourishing, and other times a power imbalance strikes at some point – and, so often, it is wonky power that fuels toxicity.

We find, however, that we cannot let go because we have shaped our lives with these people. It can feel nice when someone depends on us, even if they are crushing us. We find ourselves waiting for the crumbs at this friendship table; grateful for the meagre flickings… too ashamed to admit that there is a problem. Because old friends are supposed to be safe, right? These people know everything about us, they understand us.

So, in answer to your question, Uneasy, yes it can go on for ever. Even though it might be painful for your wife, it is a familiar pain. It’s a dynamic that – unless something changes – won’t just sort itself out. It has bedded in.

A friend of ours who was in an intense toxic relationship with a school friend shared some of her own experience with us. It chimed so true that we put it in our book, I’m Absolutely Fine! “She got annoyed when I snogged a boy who was sort of attractive: ‘But why would he kiss you?’” she said.

When they shared a flat in their 20s, the toxic friend would put all of the rubbish into our friend’s bedroom – a reminder of where she saw her in the pecking order. Not to mention weird.

Eventually our friend started work, met new people, fell in love and finally extricated herself from her corrosive pal. “I felt like I was breathing fresh air for the first time in years,” she tells us. Many reading this will, at some point in their lives, experience that delicious liberation from a destructive dynamic.

But the pain, the agony we have to go through. Oof. We tend to believe that grief is reserved for death; heartbreak for romantic relationships; stress for work. In fact, all of those things come together with friendship.

We absolutely understand your worry for your wife – but we would definitely advise you not to say anything authoritative and judgmental along the lines of, “This can’t go on!” There’s no point telling her what to do. Many of those who feel exposed around relationships carry a heavy load of shame that is a fast track to distress and defensiveness.

What you could say is something like this; “Tell me if I’m speaking out of turn but I feel uneasy about X. It seems to me that you are putting an awful lot into trying to keep the peace and avoiding conflict. I worry that this friendship is taking more from you than it’s giving you.”

Perhaps the key is to make sure your wife feels utterly secure in your support for her so that she knows you have her back as she slowly unpicks a connection that has been the wallpaper to her teenhood and beyond.

If she seems receptive, you could try a version of: “I understand and appreciate how hard this is, X is an institution in your life. I understand that it might feel too hard to let it go or to have such a difficult conversation with X. I would be so grateful if you could share some of how you are feeling with me? I won’t judge you, but if you are feeling guilty, worried, cornered, panicked, let me in. I will always listen and I might even be able to help.”

If your wife is anything like the rest of us, she will be finding it hard to catch her breath, she will be feeling intense shame; she will be too frightened and battered to attempt a conversation with her friend. But we have found that perhaps the most useful thing to know, at times like these, is that shame can’t survive the light; it can’t survive being spoken.

If you are able to help her find the words, then maybe the release will follow. We have been in the field, we are battle-scarred and wary. You have probably been there too. Remind her that you are walking side by side with her, that she isn’t alone, and then she might feel safe enough to create the distance she needs.

Read last week's column: ‘My ex-boyfriend and I broke up a year ago but we are still having sex’