Welcome to the third installment in what seems like it’s going to continue to be a regular feature, where Heather Havrilesky, the writer of the legendary Ask Polly advice column-turned-newsletter joins me to competitively answer questions from you, the readers of Today in Tabs. Heather’s new book, Foreverland comes out on February 8th and you can pre-order it right here.
A close friend of mine recently got really mad at me and really lashed out in an extremely hurtful way. I don't think I deserved it, I'm not accustomed to being lashed out at, and I've taken it pretty hard. I'm perfectly OK not talking to her anymore because I don't need that kind of energy and anger in my life, especially from a "friend." The problem is that we are in a friend group. What happens to that now? Do I pretend to be friends so I can still attend friend-group events? I don't even know if I can do that, to be honest. I want to be the bigger person, but I also don't want to be her punching bag.
Over My Bad Friend
Rusty: Thinking back I realized some version of this has happened to literally every friend group I’ve ever been part of. So either my life is uniquely chaotic (which: maybe!) or you can be sure that this won’t be the first or last time this happens to anyone involved. That is step one in cutting this problem down to a manageable size. Step two is to understand that people are messy. And how do we tame mess? With maths!
Assume that the average messiness of one person is m. I think it’s a reasonable supposition that the total messiness of a friend group is exponential, and that each member’s mess is multiplied by each other member’s mess. So the formula for the total potential mess (M) of a group of n members is given by:
If we assume that one person’s mess is 10 (in some useful unit of chaos) then for just two friends, the total mess is 10^(2 * 1) or one hundred. For three friends that increases to 10^(3 * 2 * 1) or one million. For five friends, your total mess is 10^120, which is a number so big it doesn’t even have a name. For comparison, scientists estimate there are between 10^78 and 10^82 atoms in the observable universe. Five friends is not a big friend group! Yet it contains one and a half universes of potential chaos and hurt feelings. That is the second reason this question feels overwhelming.
Let’s zoom back out from the maths and think about what the equation is telling us. Relationships get so complicated so fast because they take place between people, who are all fully sentient and infinitely complicated individuals with their own hopes, dreams, thoughts, feelings, goals and fears. You can’t solve this problem, because it’s much bigger than you. Your other friends each have to decide what they want to do now, and what you owe them is nothing more or less than what you always owe them, which is the honesty and trust you would expect from them in return.
Should you deny your own feelings to keep your friend group together? Of course not. In fact we can generalize this rule for any human relationship:
Should you deny your own feelings to keep your ____________ together?
❌ Friend group
❌ Dungeons & Dragons party
❌ Pirate crew
✅ Shipwrecked polar expedition
Ok in that last case, the only way any of you are going to survive is by sticking together at any cost. So if you’re Francis Crozier, writing in from King William Island, then do whatever you have to. Otherwise, no.
You need to talk to your other friends and tell them what happened, and that you don’t want to be around your ex-friend anymore. Let them know that you love and respect them as fully sentient and infinitely complicated individuals with their own hopes, dreams, thoughts, feelings, goals and fears, and that you hope you can remain friends with them, and then let them decide what they’re going to do.
I have never been more confident that the notoriously honest and extroverted Polly will agree with me! So what do you say, Polly?1
Polly: Here’s my terrible advice: Pretend it’s fine and keep the friend group. Why? Because even though you’ll know, privately, that she sucks a little more than you can stand, there’s nothing to be gained from having it out or letting everyone in the group know that it’s an issue.
I say this as a fairly confrontational human being with an honesty fetish. I’ve blown up some friend groups by saying too much and I’ve also pretended my way through a few conflicts and lived to thank my lucky stars I didn’t make a stink. In your case, it’s important to keep in mind that the kind of friend who lashes out over something small is also the kind of friend who’ll never shut up about your infractions if you push back. All you’ll do is say one innocuous thing in your defense to mutual friends and suddenly you’ll be hearing that this “friend” never shuts up about how awful you are. Life is too short for that shit.
Most friend groups don’t have the structural integrity to withstand total honesty. They’re built to accommodate group brunches and group vacations, not group therapy. But look, it’s amazing to have good friends you can tell everything to, and it’s also amazing to have a group of acquaintances to swill mimosas with. One of the biggest regrets of my adulthood is that I never learned the difference between the two, and I did an inadequate amount of mimosa swilling as a result.
I am the most staunch advocate of authenticity that you’ll find in the wild, [👀 —R] but my long years on the fun and bumpy road of extroversion are forcing me to tell you this: Lower your expectations of this friend group and pretend things are fine. Eventually, the whole conflict will strike you as more amusing than infuriating. This friend doesn’t matter that much and this friend group might not be around forever. Don’t over-invest in them, but don’t blow the whole thing to high heaven just because of one human who thinks that every time she feels an unwanted emotion, someone must be to blame for it. Try to cultivate some empathy for her, in all of her confusion. And while you’re at it, forgive yourself for feeling so shitty about this. Sometimes people just don’t trust each other, and there’s nothing to fix or say or resolve. Be good to yourself, bite your tongue, and move the fuck on.
Rusty: I think this is the first time we have given completely opposite answers! I assumed this was a core friend group and the offense was unforgivable, but if your advice strikes the questioner as doable, I would wholeheartedly cosign it. It would be much easier, and it didn’t require any maths.
Polly: Nice hedge, Rustoleum, but I stand by my terrible advice even if it’s a close friend group. I guess if you’re all boarding a rocket ship to Mars you should talk everything out first. Otherwise? Nope. Taking a stand and refusing to be around this friend will, nine times out of ten, create more pain and suffering for you alone. I have taken so many stands. I regret most of them.
Like a few seconds ago, when I claimed to be the world’s fiercest defender of authenticity? I regret that a lot.
Rusty: Well now I’m reconsidering whether my life is, in fact, uniquely chaotic, and what the reasons for that might be.
I encouraged my wife, who was burning out, to quit a job/career she didn't like to homeschool our kid. That experiment was a bust but no harm, no foul, ultimately; the kid's been back out of the house (during the day) for around 6 months.
Apparently, though, my wife's burnout runs deeper and has a longer shelf-life than we'd anticipated. Despite knowing that I'm seeing some classic signs of depression and exhaustion in my life partner, my stupid brain is telling me I'm jealous that she "has options"/"has all this free time" while I, "trapped," grind out a living that funds the household.
I still want to give her the space and resources to figure her shit out (I had to do a lot of this shit more or less alone! Nobody should have to do that!), but the voice inside me that just wants her to skip to the figuring shit out and/or sucking it up part is getting real loud.
In an ideal world, I just manufacture more patience and the reserves to take up whatever slack is there. In this world, I have no idea what to do with this shit but I feel like I need to figure something else out.
Thanks, you two.
Supportive Husband (Or Perhaps the Opposite)
Rusty: You sound pretty burned out yourself, which here in the twenty-first month of March, 2020 is true of 100% of everyone, and I think that fact is making it more difficult for you to recognize what you already know, which is that your wife doesn’t need more space to be depressed in, or for you to silently seethe while also beating yourself up for having perfectly reasonable human feelings. She needs your help to move forward.
Two phrases jumped out at me from your question, S.H.(O.P.T.O.): “classic signs of depression” and “manufacture more patience.” Much like a severed artery, patience alone is rarely the best treatment for depression. Having you on her side, and willing to stay on her side while she gets better is a good start, but it sounds like you need to figure out what “meaningful progress” looks like and what steps you both need to take to get started on them. I think your frustration is telling you something important, which is that it’s time for action, and since “taking decisive action” is also not a huge strength of the depressed, maybe you can channel that frustration into taking action for you both.
Polly: Not to be a dick, but sometimes the worst cure for burnout is doing nothing at all. Obviously most jobs are terrible, and burnout is real, and quitting is almost always justified. I say quit early and often. Embrace your quitter soul until you find a career you can stand.
However! As someone who’s worked very hard to avoid working very hard for many years now, I can tell you that being underemployed and living a structure-less existence is a recipe for severe depression. Ever met a trust fund kid? They’re the least happy people on the face of the planet. They got that way by drifting around, knowing that their parents’ success would always overshadow theirs (“success” being a stand-in for “happiness” in many monied circles) and knowing that they’d never have to do jack shit and they’d still be drinking $15 cocktails every night. All play and no work make Jack a dull boytoy.
Oops, now I’m spinning off into an imaginary dreamworld where I retire young and spend my days drifting around the local bars, picking up washed up trust fund kids hitting their fourth or fifth mid-life crisis, and using their huge piles of cash to finance my lifestyle of leisure.
Idleness is always wasted on the idle, is my point! We all think we’d be joyful and productive if we could only follow our drifty whims wherever they led, but the truth is that most of us, when given a clear break from work, stop exercising, eating healthily, and going to bed before midnight, and start staring at our phones and avoiding any and all tasks that seem even moderately unpleasant.
It took me a solid decade of working from home to figure out how to impose some structure on my life and feel good about it. Most people are very bad at self-imposed structure. And sadly, knowing that you’re depressed and you’re bad at structure rarely helps. Reflecting endlessly on what you really want tends to make things worse. What works is just doing something, literally anything, until you figure out a path forward.
I think you can tell your wife that you’re worried about her and also worried about the big picture. That’s not an accusation or a plea for action, it’s just an emotional reality. If you delay that conversation endlessly, you’re going to get more and more resentful and blurt something out that you regret. And look, you don’t need her to grab the nearest job this week. You just need to have an open conversation about what her plans are. Avoiding life doesn’t feel that good, and it sounds like that’s what she’s doing right now. Avoiding the fact that she’s avoiding life won’t help, it will amplify the problem, and destabilize your marriage, too. Honesty is good for your marriage and will prevent a future meltdown. Tread gently, but tell the truth.
Rusty: Yeah there we are, back on the same page. Phew. We’re here to chew gum and tell people to get their asses in gear, and I personally don’t like gum. Grandpa Joe was right, gum is for nitwits.
Polly: Chewing gum and negging is definitely our calling. Now I feel like we’re both wizened old coaches played by Burgess Meredith in some plucky kids’ sports movie from the 1970s.
My planning brain is broken. Permanently? I literally do strategic planning for a living, and pretending that everything was business as usual at work across the last 18 months appears to have fizzled out my executive decision making in all other corners of my life.
My partner is trying to buy a company. In another country. In a pandemic. I am fiercely trying to continue working remotely from our new city while my company 800 miles away begins clawing back employees against their will, pre-holiday season, peak twindemic. I don't know where I will be living in a year, if I will be married (COVID delays!), pregnant (clock is ticking!), working (relo likely!), isolated, blooming, grieving, meeting anyone's (or my own) expectations. Other than loving my partner and committing to working very hard during the pandemic, I feel I haven't made a choiceful move in 18 months. And the slightest decision sends me into a spiral. "How can I decide if I want to eat this hamburger for dinner, when really I need to evaluate if I should go back to being a vegetarian, and how can I make THAT decision if I don't know where I will be living in a year, if I will be married, pregnant, working, iso…"
Advice team: how do I quiet the brain that wants to look 12 months ahead and see some tiny goddamned morsel of stability on which to plan backward against? How do I be "in the now," and "comfortable with discomfort" when the "now" seems to be near monthly radical change and the discomfort is unending? I am also conscious of women getting the short shaft culturally on major life decisions pre- and especially-during-pandemic -- and the uppity independent me who lived alone for the last ten years is sending constant panic bombs off inside me, WARNING, WARNING, YOU MUST PROACTIVELY DO SOMETHING TO AVOID SOCIETAL NORMS BEFALLING YOU. Is it possible to make a cogent decision, to love the now, to avoid The Norms… you know, in These Times? Are you?
Can’t Be Here Now
Polly: I understand. I am also in a weird kind of post-cross-country-move limbo, where I’m adjusting to a new life but I absolutely, positively have not mastered any of it yet. My life feels like a gauntlet of alarms going off, too. And even though I like to retreat into some hazy vision of how things will be in a year or two, the fact of the matter is that the best possible way to prepare for that future is to learn how to live right here, right now. I have to welcome the small challenges of this hour instead of experiencing them as oppressive or revisiting the unresolved big-picture questions over and over again.
Because there are always bright lights and blaring horns everywhere, throughout the entire course of a life. Being an adult is a maze of uncertainty. You can have a lot of the security you long for – Now you’re married! Now you’re pregnant! Now you’re saving money! Now you’re moving somewhere you actually want to stay for a while! – but the lights and horns don’t disappear. A baby is an alarm that takes years to turn off. Unpaid bills, pesky five-part errands, health challenges, financial difficulties… these things never stop rushing toward you and messing with your peace of mind.
Personally, I’m battling my own feelings of uncertainty and stress by repeating this mangled bit of wabi-sabi philosophy: Nothing is ever finished, nothing is ever perfect, and nothing lasts. The best I can do is embrace this moment and savor it. I’ll write this (inadequate, imperfect, unfinished) bit of advice to you, then I’ll go outside and wrestle with some huge piles of leaves (oh yeah, seasons, who knew?) and then I’ll work out (fuck) and pay some bills (blecch) and when that’s done, I’ll have a drink with my mom and ask her what she’s been thinking and feeling and doing lately. If I didn’t know that nothing is ever finished, I would try to wrestle with ALL of the leaves (not possible). If I didn’t know that nothing is ever perfect, I would edit this little snippet of advice into the ground and it wouldn’t be any better for it. If I didn’t know that nothing lasts, I would still be in the shitty mood I woke up in, and I wouldn’t take the time to hang out and listen to my 79-year-old mom talk about whatever she wants to talk about.
Planning your life is important, but it can also be paralyzing. Ultimately, you make choices and you rethink them. You try things and some of them fail. There’s no way to get it all right. The best way to think clearly about the future is to notice that you’re young and you’re thriving right now, whether you feel that way every day or not. You’ll probably look back on this time and feel very romantic about where you are, even if you experience it as a nightmare now. So relish this day. Enjoy your dumb animal brain and your strange animal needs – your hunger, your desire, your curiosity, your laughter. Something is always burning in the oven. You’re alive. Celebrate that.
Rusty: Take a breath! Literally, this question is stressing me out. We are in a world-historically bad time for planners, I’m sorry to say. Probably not the worst, but somewhere on the list. If I can just brag for a second here, I am, personally, not much of a planner at all. My favorite thing to do at a restaurant is to ask whoever I’m with “why don’t you just pick something for me, it’ll be fun!” The only time I ever get anything done is when I’m procrastinating something else that’s more important.
“Wow, that sounds great Rusty,” I hear you saying. “I bet you’re a wonderful partner and/or employee. How can I be more like you?” I’m glad you asked. The secret is: forgiving yourself.
Think back to some mistake you made in the past. As specific a mistake as possible, and feel free to start small. Maybe you bought some pants that have sat in your closet ever since. Now, if you haven’t already, forgive your past self for buying the bad pants. Maybe, knowing what you know now, you’d have gotten different pants. But you didn’t know, so you did your best, and it just didn’t work out. Or maybe you did know they weren’t right, but they were the pants an ideal version of yourself would have wanted, so you bought them in the hopes they would transform you into someone who wanted them. Of course they didn’t, they’re just bad pants with a weird cut designed for someone with truly, much skinnier legs. Like whose legs would even fit in these pants? Stick Man? We’re getting off track here, focus up.
The point is if you can forgive your past self for making mistakes, you can also imagine a future you that will forgive your present self for the mistakes you’re about to make. Like the apocryphal adage about advertising, we know that some of our decisions are going to be mistakes, but we don’t know which ones. So basically, if you’re not a vegetarian now, and you want a burger: have a burger. If it turns out to be a mistake, it probably won’t be a huge one, and you’ll forgive yourself.
Start with that, practice forgiving your past self if you need practice doing that, and then stop trying to plan everything out and trust yourself to make decisions one at a time, as they need to be made. Some of them will be the wrong decision, and that’s ok. It takes an unfathomable amount of courage to live, but you have it. Just do what you can, and then forgive yourself.
Polly: “Do what you can, then forgive yourself!” is honestly my signature move right now, so I endorse this advice. I also like “Stop thinking about tomorrow!” - kind of the inverse of that Fleetwood Mac song.
Rusty: Or the cisverse of that other Fleetwood Mac song. There‘s a Fleetwood Mac song for every occasion, is the real lesson here.
That’s all we’ve got today, so now it’s up to you. Who’s winning? What’s your advice for our advice seekers? What did the Great Turkey bring you for Thanksgiving? Have a little hair of the dog and leave a comment.
Rusty: This line was absolutely cheating, I added it after I read Polly’s answer FOR THE RECORD.