In 2018, I spent a lot of time thinking and writing about relationships, and psychology. I wanted to think more deeply about when and where relationships work, and when and where they fail. I wanted for my own sake to figure out how it is that other people have power over me — if they do, and my emotional response to what happens in my relationships. I wanted time to reconsider who I hold close to me. I’m not sure why this emerged this past year specifically — perhaps a natural outcome of a certain age, of my living situation, where I realised that living with other people (something I hadn’t previously done much of) is often difficult, and the emergence of a very important new relationship. Why do some relationships just click, and others don’t?
Thinking through these questions, I realised more and more that there are those out there who are incredibly important to me and enrich my life. And hopefully I can do that for them, too. But then there are others, who are not so important or valuable. It sounds harsh to say someone isn’t ‘valuable’ but the reality is that not everyone wishes us well. I have certainly been that person at times — it happens to all of us in different contexts. One thing I am guilty of, though, is wanting the approval of others too strongly. Perhaps one too many gold stars as a kid meant that I’m forever looking out for opportunities to collect gold stars. Even from people who would never, ever, hand one out.
This is starting to change now. It’s not a matter of disliking people. It’s just a simple realisation that not everyone is going to inspire a relationship that is worth the same level of effort and care — and the hard reality is that we have limited time. The relationships that we do cultivate need to feel like the right ones.
So in that vein, I sat down today to think through the no-go list for my 2019. The list of people who are, plain and simple, not worth my time or respect. The difficulty is often in the discovery — realising that certain friendships will only ever exist on a certain level. And while this list is by no means exhaustive, it does include many of the insidious types who can masquerade as worthy-of-your-efforts.
Note: doesn’t include more obvious types, like abusers, bullies and sociopaths, etc. Here are the everyday nasties that make for tough relationships…
The Jealous Types
There are warnings old as the Bible about those who covet others’ things, and so while it’s not news that the jealous ones are to be avoided, the reality is that it’s sometimes hard to spot them. The jealous types who are insidiously so, tend to be the ones that subtly undermine your confidence. Whether it’s putting down your ideas, laughing at things you care about, or flat out ignoring something positive that has happened in your life. The jealous types are out there to quietly seethe, and sometimes this comes out in weird ways.
Do they belittle your achievements? Do they constantly compare themselves to you? Ask yourself: do I feel like this person is actually happy for me when good things happen? Are they only ‘available’ selectively (perhaps in moments that are worse for you, but better for them)? What is it that feeds your relationship?
Otherwise known as “The Critics”. For every big idea you have, this is the person who is ready to tell you how it’s not original enough, or it’s impossible, or it really isn’t that good of an idea anyway, or you’re too old, too poor, too silly, too whatever, to achieve it. Constructive criticism is a whole other bag, and it’s not out of bounds for a friend to be honest and express constructive thoughts if they are genuinely concerned about you or your wellbeing.
However, you can spot the Naysayer/Critic, because you feel the anxiety of their judgment before you even have the chance to share what you’re thinking. Sometimes this is just your internal anxiety talking, and if they react well, you might feel less worried the next time around. But if they’ve given you reason to doubt in the past, and you are always on edge about what you intend to share, and time and again things feel the same, there might be something more serious at work.
Also known as the “Unavailable Friend”. Those who do their best not to act or speak, when it really is up to them, are the Responsibility Shirkers. They mysteriously fall silent when they should speak, or count themselves out when they should appear. It’s a little like lying by omission. Someone who doesn’t stand up for you, who doesn’t seem to be on your team, and who, when you ask for help from them, will look for ways to suggest they shouldn’t be involved/it shouldn’t be up to them anyway. The person who always bows out of what’s important. This kind of Unavailable Friend will likely also ask for your help, your time, and your support. They just don’t reciprocate.
It’s important to differentiate between when you’re trespassing a boundary versus encountering a universal opting out of support. A clear line is helpful, but a complete cop out of all emotional interest can indicate that a person isn’t familiar with the exchange involved in close relationships. If they struggle to hold down any close connections (romantic or otherwise), that can be a sign, too.
The Emotionally Draining and Drama Cultivators
Some people are just hard work, and they like it that way. And if you like drama too, then congrats! No problems here. But for many of us, there will be people who are extremely emotionally taxing, most of the time. You can tell because afterwards you feel drained. If the person demands constant reassurance, constant support, and perhaps relies on gossip and drama to fuel things, then you might have an Emotional Drainer or Drama Cultivator on your hands.
These people are not necessarily types to cut away, but it is important to recognise your own boundaries and limitations with their high demands, lest you get pulled too deep into matters that leave you feeling empty.
The Stonewallers and Ghosters
People with whom it’s almost impossible to talk through issues, who shut down conversation before it really can begin… It’s just too hard to really get through to each other, if you proceed from a point of closing down all opportunities for connection and communication. There’s really no good way this can go long term; you feel resentful and angry at being ignored or shut down, and they never engage. Where can you really go from there?
For many of us, the reaction to feeling cut off may be to demand attention, or perhaps to ignore back. Ghosters tend to bring out bizarre behaviour in many, as being ignored is really hard to deal with, and quite an unsatisfying way to leave things. If they reappear routinely when things suit them better, it might be worth mentioning how this behaviour affects you, if it does. Again, recognise how much of this you are willing to put up with. Make it clear to them.
Some of us do retreat into our own world when we’re under pressure or stressed or depressed, but it can be hard to differentiate between this and a desire not to engage in general when the going gets tough. Either way, this can still upset a relationship, and it’s important to make it known how you feel.
The Narcissists and Status-Obsessives
I really do not care about someone’s Instagram. Sorry. I really don’t care if hanging out with so and so is an important status point . I don’t care about the brand of your car or your handbag or your whatever. I don’t care for you to compete and contrast your x with my y. For this reason, I find the Status-Obsessives and the Narcissists particularly problematic.
How to Tell if Your Friend Is a Narcissist
A guide for evaluating and handling relationships when narcissism interferes
I’ve written before on how to spot a narcissist in your life, and encourage you to take a look at this in more detail if you aren’t quite sure what you’re dealing with. And if you’re certain that’s what’s going on, think carefully about the person’s role in your life — these types are very hard to deal with, and can cause a lot of damage if not carefully considered.
A few important conclusions…
I want to finish by saying that some people can have hints of these traits, but still be good friends much of the time. Recognising these qualities is not just about understanding what goes wrong if and when it does, but also helps us to articulate to the person — to help both you and them grow or change into the relationship. I firmly believe that if there are things that feel wrong in a relationship, it can still be very much worth addressing and trying to move the relationship in a better direction. But you have to know your limitations and boundaries for this to be the case. Observation and self-reflection are key.
So thank you, to all these people who appear and disappear from life. They have all taught me a lot about relationships, what’s possible and how great and how destructive they can be. Knowledge is power, and with more lessons learned, I am better able to communicate the good and the bad that goes on in my relationships going forward. I hope some of this gives you food for thought, to do likewise.