Good Friend, Bad Friend? Make Your Friendships Blossom

When my friend Riley and I met for coffee, I was feeling somewhat gloomy, looking forward to a little emotional support. As I sat down, however, Riley recounted a harrowing tale. Only hours before, as she was chomping happily on some caramel corn, one of her front teeth had snapped off, right at the gum line! Her dentist glued it back in, but I mean… The horror! The horror!

My bad mood disappeared as I grilled Riley about every detail, told her it was perfectly normal that the incident upset her more than global warming, and affirmed that her teeth looked great (they did). After a while, Riley drew a deep breath, exhaled, and relaxed.

“Now,” she said, “what’s going on with you?”

Immediately, my previous unhappiness resurfaced. Riley did some heavy therapy on my private psychological issues, which was no doubt recorded and posted on YouTube by the bored baristas. No matter—I felt worlds better by the time we parted. So, she said through her totally normal-looking teeth, did Riley.

To me, this was friendship at its best. Riley and I spontaneously and easily switched roles, taking care and being taken care of. But not all relationships (certainly not all of mine) flow this smoothly. Many friends have unspoken but ironclad rules about which person will do what share of the emotional and logistical work.

Right now, scan your mental files for friendships where the roles never change: She’s the talker, you’re the listener; she’s the star, you’re the screwup; she never calls you, you always call her. Imagine what this friend’s response would be if you stopped playing your part or stepped into hers. Would she be shocked or angry? Would she ice you, scold you, drop off your social calendar? If so, I’m afraid that particular connection isn’t exactly a friendship. Rigid roles enforced by social pressure add up to something else—something I call a naiad dyad.

What the Hell’s a Naiad Dyad?

Naiads are mythological nymphs who ruled the rivers and springs of ancient Greece. One of these watery demigoddesses had a famously handsome son named Narcissus, who attracted many admirers, none more admiring than himself. He fell so madly in love with his own reflection that he did nothing but stare at it. Narcissus’s friends found this daunting—all, that is, except for another nymph named Echo, whose curse (naiads were highly curse-prone) was that she couldn’t voice her own thoughts, only repeat words spoken by others.

In their twisted way, Narcissus and Echo were ideal companions. Both were obsessed with the same person (him), and both expressed the same thoughts, ideas, and opinions (his). I’m sure the next-door satyrs thought their relationship was perfect. Not so much. In one version of the story, Narcissus, unable to work out the logistics of being in love with himself, plunged a dagger into his heart and was transformed into a flower. Echo, devastated, wandered off to haunt canyons and glens, repeating random sentiments shouted by strangers.

Question: Do you see any similarities between your rigid-role “friendships” and the Narcissus-Echo relationship, or do I have to bash you over the head with them? Answer: Too late. Brace yourself.

To paraphrase Tolstoy, unhappy friendships are all different, but those inflexible relationships almost universally signal the psychological dynamics of narcissists and their echoes. On the surface, these friendships look idyllic—as Jennifer Coolidge’s dim character says of such a relationship in the film A Mighty Wind, “It’s almost as like we have one brain that we share between us.” Since no two individuals are identical, such unanimity is always an illusion; the “one brain,” or at least the dominant will, belongs to the person both friends implicitly agree is more important. The echo voluntarily surrenders personal needs, ideas, and even rights in exchange for the narcissist’s “love,” which is actually directed at her own reflection. “Enough about me; let’s talk about you,” she says with words and actions. “What do you think about me?”

Such relationships exist because narcissism is a basic factor of human consciousness, beginning in infancy. Tiny babies literally can’t focus on anyone but themselves. As children grow, however, they realize that others have feelings, needs, and rights. They learn to share and care.

Usually.

There are some individuals who never outgrow infantile self-obsession. Throughout life, they take without giving and expect others to give without taking. Even when they have their own children, they can’t focus on anyone but themselves. One woman told me quite seriously that her 3-day-old son was “a selfish brat” because “he cries when he knows I’m trying to sleep.” Extremely narcissistic parents often have echo spouses, who limply accept unfair treatment from everyone, including their children. “Don’t mind me, sweetheart,” sighs the echo parent. “Here’s money for cocaine—I’ll stay here, knitting you a sweater from my hair.”

Children raised by such parents grow up unconsciously assuming there are only two possible relationship modes: Some become thoroughgoing narcissists, others eternal echoes. (Some bounce between these two states, acting oppressively in some of their relationships but groveling in others, like the middle manager who trashes subordinates but toadies up to the boss.)

When two people who fall into this kind of dyad meet, they bond instantly, like Krazy Glue. “I feel as if I’ve known you all my life,” they say, basking in the familiar narcissist-echo energy. There are no arguments, no awkward uncertainty about who should do what, because the echo immediately begins reflecting the narcissist. She stops listening to rap, catching her new friend’s polka fever.

Even more important, the echo assumes all the subtle work of friendship: initiating contact, arranging activities, offering compliments and other forms of nurturing. She doesn’t mind things being one-sided; she’s just grateful—ecstatic—that she’s being adored by a replica of the parent who couldn’t love her. And the narcissistic friend really is adoring—not of the echo, as they both mistakenly believe, but of her reflection in her new friend’s eyes. It’s all fun and games, right up until someone gets stabbed.

The Bitter End

I’m devastated,” whispered my echoey client Naomi. “My best friend just…dumped me. I don’t understand; we’re so close. We went to each other’s weddings. We talked every day. Then out of the blue, she tells me I’ve changed, I’m getting selfish, she’s done with me. I don’t think she’ll ever speak to me again.” Baffling as it may seem if you don’t understand narcissism, Naomi is probably right. Her long-standing friendship is likely over.

This is how naiad dyads often end. For instance, when Naomi the echo finally became so unhappy she hired a coach, she began to see herself as worthy of reciprocal friendship. She started drawing boundaries and making small, gentle requests. Her supposed friend, a true narcissist, saw this as a selfish betrayal of their implicit arrangement.

Even if Naomi had kept echoing like an empty cistern, this naiad dyad would probably have ended. Because narcissists don’t give love, which is half the equation of a genuine emotional connection, they always become increasingly unhappy over time (remember Narcissus’s suicide). Many blame their echoes: “You’re not making me happy anymore!” Whether the echo gets better or the narcissist gets worse, the relationship may suddenly and completely fracture, the Krazy Glue bond breaking as quickly and completely as it formed.

Real friendship never does this because it’s extremely flexible. Friends take turns performing and receiving “friendship maintenance” tasks, from making phone calls to buying presents. When Riley’s tooth broke, she got my immediate attention: I “echoed” her. Then we switched roles, and we discussed my problems. This simple turn-taking is what naiad dyads lack, and it leads to catastrophic failure. If you suspect that one of your friendships is actually a naiad dyad, try one of the following fixes.

Let’s say you’re in a rigid friendship where you call all the shots and do none of the work. You might be a narcissist, which probably means you don’t care and won’t change. My only advice? Avoid daggers.

On the other hand, if you’re disturbed by receiving one-sided VIP treatment, you might want to talk to her and explain that her excessive selflessness is troubling, that you need to give as well as receive to feel like her friend. I’m haunted by the fact that I never had this conversation with a college buddy who years later committed suicide. Maybe I could have helped by insisting she learn to receive as well as give. You can’t force a confirmed echo out of her role, but it’s worth trying.

And what if you’re playing the echo role? You could ask your friend to do something that’s usually “your” job: “You know, I’d love it if you’d drive over to my place today, since I always drive over to yours.” A normal friend may be surprised, but she’ll comply. A narcissist will go cold, angry, or passive aggressive. This won’t immediately end your inner child’s adulation for her, but it will horrify you enough to begin seeing reality and disengaging.

If you can’t just end a naiad dyad—say your friend is also a co-worker—there’s another option. You can train her like a sea mammal, as author Amy Sutherland reported in her New York Times article “What Shamu Taught Me About a Happy Marriage.” Narcissists hate being ignored—and crave praise. A combination of indifference and adulation can powerfully shape their behavior. When your co-worker shouts that the coffee you made is too hot, don’t react at all. Later, when she’s calm, spontaneously exclaim, “You’re projecting so much authority!” or “You look great!” The narcissist will react like a junkie inhaling opium and probably increase the behavior you’re rewarding. Is this healthy? God, no. But it’s better than helpless echoism.

Making Friendship Blossom

These methods can get you out of truly sick naiad dyads and improve marginal cases, moving them away from strict role division toward reciprocity and flexibility. The more fluid and balanced your relationships become, the more you’ll see that friendship, unlike Narcissus, can flower without anyone’s getting hurt. As someone who’s been blessed with marvelous friends, I can assure you this is worth the effort. But enough about me. What do you think about…you?

On Martha’s Bookshelf: The Night Circus

nightcircus-197x300The book I’m recommending this month is a delicious read, and also has educational components for any wacky tribe members. It’s called The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern. The author has a delicious time creating magical realism—painting pictures with words but, paradoxically, creating a wordless response in the reader. The world Morgenstern dreams up is a place of “real magic,” and you can feel the deliciousness of her vision.

In terms of describing magic as I have learned to see it, this book is slightly off kilter. She describes people focusing intensely and struggling hard to make magical things happen. This is perfectly valid fiction and very fun to read, but not exactly an instruction for working wonders in our reality.

If you want a literary source that is also useful instruction; I recommend The Golden Compass books by Philip Pullman. These are ostensibly children’s books but they hold the eerie resonance of truly compelling children’s literature from the Hobbit to Harry Potter. To work magic in Pullman’s fictional world, humans must go into a curiously blank brain space in which they are at the same time paying close attention and not thinking at all. I suggest readingThe Night Circusand The Golden Compass, one after the other. Notice the difference, and the way Pullman’s books feel a little more real than Morgenstern’s. They are both fabulous reads but the comparison is especially interesting.