Every week, Dear Prudence answers additional questions from readers, just for Slate Plus members. For this edition, J. Bryan Lowder, Slate associate editor and co-host of the Outward LGBTQ podcast, will be filling in as Prudie. Submit questions here. (It’s anonymous!)
I have a weird friend conundrum I want to handle with a light hand. My friend, “Susan,” will frequently tell me about an argument she and her boyfriend got into or about something she is upset with him for.
To me, they often seem like really pointless arguments—always initiated by her. For example, she will nitpick his phrasing or grammar, such as saying “girls” instead of “women. He will say, “Oh, you’re so right, I should have phrased it differently.” She will insist on an apology until it turns into a huge argument (he will say he doesn’t want to apologize because he didn’t do anything wrong—frankly, I agree that he didn’t). Then they won’t talk for a few days.
She tells me stories like this pretty regularly and is looking for me to validate her and tell her she’s doing the right thing. But in all honesty, I don’t think she is. I think nitpicking his language in the first place is rude and kind of controlling, and I think continuing to needle him about it until you’re in a huge fight is blowing things wildly out of proportion. I want to lightly tell her I think it’s unreasonable the next time she asks, but I really don’t know how to. Honestly, if she’s regularly this pissed off with him about simple things, I think she should consider breaking things off. Should I say something, or just keep giving noncommittal answers and hoping she’ll draw her own conclusions?
—You Are the Problem in Petaluma
Dear Problem in Petaluma,
First, if I may channel the spirit of Long Island Medium’s Theresa Caputo, I want to validate your feeling that this pattern of endless, petty fight-picking probably does not bode well for your friend’s relationship. If it was Susan’s boyfriend who’d written in, I would probably advise beginning to think about an exit strategy—living with that kind of needless high drama, if your portrait is accurate, is rarely worth it. But it’s you who wrote in, and you who I’m actually worried about here. It does not sound to me like you much enjoy spending time with this friend! In fact, you sound besieged, exhausted, and a little bit scared—why all the concern about addressing this with a “light” touch? What would happen if you were “heavy,” or at least direct, with Susan about how much you dislike this constant firehose of negativity? I’m not an architect, but I don’t tend to think healthy, fulfilling friendships can stand on a foundation of eggshells splashed with resentment. Sounds pretty messy.
Look, even if you really wanted to, it’s a no-go to try and manage another person’s romantic life. It’s not your place and it’s not going to work, no matter how delicate your hand. What you can do, though, is take a step back from your relationship with Susan and decide what you want to do about that. Maybe she possesses other redeeming qualities that you don’t mention here, and you enjoy the friendship apart from her tales of grammatical sadism. In that case, I think you are going to have to get at least a little heavy and let her know that you’re no longer comfortable hearing about these squabbles; that’s a fair boundary and she, an Otherwise Good Friend, should be able to respect it. If that last sentence made your eye start to twitch, it could be time to pull back—Susan may indeed be “the problem,” but you are not responsible for being the solution.
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