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?

Comments

  1. MissT says

    This was so timely… A person who I thought was a good friend of mine just ‘broke up’ with me. I was really hurt because I didn’t really expect it. The apparent reason was because I didn’t show enough interest in her wedding when she came back from honeymoon (it was out the country and I was in the process of being made redundant at the time of the wedding so I couldn’t afford to go)

    I’d also started to get counselling for my issue with low self esteem. (I once went to a counselling session and asked the psychologist how she was feeling… echo much?)

    So now I think that it wasn’t all me that caused the breakdown of the relationship. It’s really been bothering me and this article made me feel sooooo much better. Yay for synchronicitous timing.

    T
    ps thanks for your amazing books they have helped me so much

    • Alison says

      Appreciate your comments, Miss T; and I did LOL at your comment about the therapist. You sound like me : ) (Which is why I loved the article, too). Take care.
      Alison

  2. says

    really interesting timing for me, too, as this topic has been on my mind while i consider the quality of friendships in my life. it seems harder and harder to form real friendships as i get older, and the basis for them seems to be so superficial and arbitrary (do you have a daughter the same age as mine??). how to shift and deepen them…or search for new, deeper ones…or both…that is the mission now!

  3. Sam says

    Martha, you are so spot on! I have left all my (I think… I will have to do a little stock check now) narcissistic friendships behind. After my baby died, it was interesting to see how my values of what is required in a friendship, ie. give and take, changed. Sometimes I do look back a little nostalgically and feel sorry about the loss of these friendships. But never for long! I am not sure if it is mentioned in one of your books, but ‘friendship is like an elevator’. As you move up the floors, some get out, making room for new, lovely ones to step in!

  4. Sue says

    So now I have another name for my relationship with my mother, the echo that I was as I have changed my role with her and have limited it. I now have words for a former friendship that abruptly ended when I mirrored back a negative quality of my narciccistc friend’s excessive frequent drinking and the boom was lowered. I did know that it wasn’t about me, but can see how I “echoed” just to be friends with her.

  5. says

    I love that you put words around this dynamic I’ve often wondered about where I fall. I’ve moved twice in recent years and it’s been tricky to create new friendships. I think in the past I settled for all kinds of dynamics and have been on both side of naiad dyads?? Now I only want to invest in fluid & balanced friendships. There are not as many opportunities, but the rare connections are so worth it :)

  6. Vera says

    Thank you so much for all of your wonderful insights!! You have helped me grow in so many areas of my life and through many traumatic events.

    I just love how I can be struggling with an issue and the right article shows up and it’s always presented in a clear, easy to understand (and often very funny) manner!

    Thank you!!
    V

  7. says

    Hi Martha,
    I started listening to your books when I was thinking of divorcing my husband. Well, I’d been thinking about it for a while but we had just had our second baby and our son was only 2yrs. We’d just filed for bankruptcy, lost out house, moved in with my parents. He was determined to continue our flute repair business and wouldn’t watch the children so i could work.
    After much curfuddle and a failed move to Europe and back,
    I made the bold move to get my old job back and my Hubby would stay home, make music, repair instruments and take care of the then 2 yr and 4 yr old.
    Working full time, coming home to work full time with the kids and teaching yoga on the weekends, my ex decided he needed a psycological break. The constant critizm about not being humble enough, attractive enough, feminine enough broke me. When i heard your chapter on the Dark Triad I broke down in tears. It really hit home. He and I started counselling, then divorce mediation but finally i just had to file myself.
    Oddly enough, the day I gave my lawyer the go ahead I opened the advice collum of the Globe and there was my answer – a women asking about the fate of her children after divorce – signed, Divorcing the Narcissist.
    One year later, I am so happy, the children are happy and my ex is 3000 miles away on the west coast.
    Thank you so much for helping me give a name to my difficulty and supporting my spirit so I could do what was necessary.
    In gratitude,
    Jean P.

  8. Judy says

    Martha, I re-read this post today, and the light bulb finally went on! My mother has exhibited some narcissistic traits in our relationship for years, but she doesn’t seem to do it with other people. Now I’m realizing that her family has a pattern of children being echoes, while parents are the narcissists. I didn’t step into my supposed role when I became a young adult, and there’s been hell to pay ever since.

    This “ah-ha!” comes at the perfect time: she has been recently diagnosed with metastasized cancer, and I want to focus on healing our relationship. This insight will help me as I venture into some really uncomfortable territory. Thank you!

  9. Alison says

    I had a friend break up with me yesterday, and your article is a hug. As I read, I saw my relationship and what has been bothering me for some time. Now as an adult, I have resented the “give” that I’m expected to give, and my friend resented it when I stopped. I will keep your article close and reread it to remind myself of why my situation is okay – it means that I can stop echoing. Thank you, Martha.

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