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With empathy, or not 

In a rare non-sex question, Dan—with help—tackles a woman’s co-dependent relationship with her best friend.

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Q I keep running into the same issue with my best friend of five years. (She's also my maid of honour at my upcoming wedding.) We're both empaths—most of my friends are—and we're both in therapy working on how to cope with that. I have severe anxiety that impacts my physical health, so one of the empath-related issues I'm working on is not following through with plans when I need to take time alone. My friend claims she understands this but my actions severely impact her mood. Example: We'll make tentative plans to get together, I'll feel too sick to follow through and then she's in a negative emotional spiral for days.

The final straw came when she called me late this past Friday night—just once, with no subsequent voicemail, text message or follow-up call. On Monday morning, I sent her a text asking how her weekend was and got an icy reply. Evidently, something happened to her on Friday, she called me for support and my failure to return her call left her feeling very upset. I apologized for the accidental trigger and tried to lay down some protocols for reaching out in an emergency situation (leave me a voicemail and send a follow-up text) so I know it's urgent. She hasn't replied.

I'm really frustrated. She has a lot of baggage around being shamed for being emotional, so I try to be careful not to invalidate her feelings, but I don't know if that's even making a difference. We've had several conflicts over the last year, always triggered by something I did or said, almost always accidentally, that caused her to "take a step back." She insists she understands I'm doing my best to be a good friend while also working through my own emotional shit. But that's not the sense I'm getting.

I'm feeling increasingly like it's impossible to be a human being AND her friend. Until recently, I had zero emotional boundaries and made myself available to her at a moment's notice to help shoulder her emotional burden. But now that I'm trying to be more conservative with my abundance and take better care of myself, it seems like all I do is hurt her. What the fuck do I do? I've tried to be open-minded and patient with her dramatic mood swings, but she seems unable to give me the benefit of the doubt, which I always try to give her. This rocky ground between us is adding more stress to the whole wedding situation. (You're supposed to be able to rely on your maid of honour, right?) This thing we have is not sustainable as it is, although I love her deeply. Help me figure this out?
—Emotions Making Personal Affection Too Hard

A Being so attuned to other people's emotional states that you feel their pain—being an empath—sounds exhausting. But Lori Gottlieb, a psychotherapist in private practice, isn't convinced your empath superpowers are the problem here.

"EMPATH's moods seem overly dependent on what the other person does," says Gottlieb. "That's not being 'an empath.' Most people are empathetic, which isn't the same as what these two are doing. They're drowning in each other's feelings. This is what pop culture might call co-dependency, and what in therapy we'd call an attachment issue."

From your letter, EMPATH, it sounds like you might be ready to detach from your friend—you mentioned a final straw and described the relationship as not sustainable—and detaching would resolve this attachment issue. "This feels less like a friendship and more like a psychodrama where they're each playing out their respective issues," says Gottlieb. "A friendship isn't about solving another person's emotional issues or being the container for them. It isn't about being devastated by another person's feelings or boundaries. It should be a mutually fulfilling relationship, not being co-therapists to each other. In a strong friendship, each person can handle her own emotions rather than relying on the friend to regulate them for her."

Gottlieb started writing an advice column because, unlike psychotherapists, advice columnists are supposed to tell people what to do. I'm guessing your therapist mostly asks questions and gently nudges, EMPATH, but since Gottlieb has her advice-columnist hat on today and not her psychotherapist hat, I asked her to tell you what to do.

"She should act more like a friend than a therapist/caretaker," says Gottlieb. "She shouldn't treat her friend or herself as if they're too fragile to handle basic communication or boundaries. And they should both be working out their issues with their respective therapists, not with each other."

And if you decide to keep this woman in your life (and your wedding party), EMPATH, you'll both have to work on—sigh—your communication skills. "Right now, they don't seem to know how to communicate directly with each other," says Gottlieb. "It's either an icy text or complaining to outside parties about each other. But when it comes to how they interact with each other, they're so careful, as if one or both might break if they simply said, 'Hey, I really care about you and I know sometimes you want to talk about stuff, but sometimes it feels like too much and maybe something you can talk to your therapist about.'"

Lori Gottlieb's new book, Maybe You Should Talk to Someone, is a New York Times bestseller. You can follow her on Twitter @LoriGottlieb1.


Q I will be driving to New Orleans from Toronto. It's almost impossible to drive from Ontario to Louisiana without stopping for fuel/food/hotel in Ohio, Georgia or Alabama. But I want to boycott Handmaid states during my trip. Even then, I feel I have to check the news every day to see what state is next. Do you have any practical advice for me? Or should I just stay home until your democratic systems and your courts are fixed and your Electoral College is abolished?
—Canadian Avoids Nearing Terrible Georgia, Ohio...

A Why head south, CANTGO? Even if you've lived in Canada all your life, you couldn't possibly have explored every corner of your beautiful country. But if you absolutely, positively must board the Titanic—excuse me, if you must visit the United States—take a hard right after you cross the border and head west instead. Enjoy Michigan's Upper Peninsula, check out some of those lakes they're always talking about in Minnesota, speed through the Dakotas, Montana and the skinniest part of Idaho, and pretty soon you'll be in Washington State, where a woman's right to choose is enshrined in the state constitution. The summers are lovely, we've got hiking trails that will take you to mountain lakes and Democrats control both houses of the state legislature and the governor's mansion, so you won't have to check the news every day when you're in Seattle.

CONFIDENTIAL TO EVERYONE: Anti-choice, anti-woman, anti-sex bills have been rammed through Republican-controlled state legislatures in Ohio, Georgia, Kentucky, Missouri, Arkansas, Utah, Mississippi, and Alabama. "The new wave of anti-abortion laws suggests that a post-Roe America won't look like the country did before 1973, when the court case was decided," Michelle Goldberg wrote in the New York Times. "It will probably be worse." If these bills are declared constitutional—a real possibility now—doctors will be jailed, women who have miscarriages will be prosecuted, and many forms of birth control will be banned. If you're as pissed off as I am—and anyone who isn't can piss right off—please make sure you and all your friends are registered to vote so you can vote out anti-choice state legislators and governors in 2020. To be clear: Right now, abortion remains legal in all 50 states. So you don't have to wait until next November to send a "fuck you" to red-state Republicans pushing these laws. Make a donation to an organization that helps women obtain abortions in red states—like The Yellowhammer Fund in Alabama (yellowhammerfund.org), Gateway Women's Access Fund in Missouri (gwaf.org), and Women Have Options in Ohio (womenhaveoptions.org).

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