Carolyn Hax: When to tell a friend she’s dating a dud

Carolyn Hax
Columnist November 15, 2013

Hi, Carolyn:

A good friend recently ended a years-long relationship because of her boyfriend’s emotional limitations. After they broke up, I let her know I had always wondered whether he was right for her.

Carolyn Hax started her advice column in 1997, after five years as a copy editor and news editor in Style and none as a therapist. The column includes cartoons by "relationship cartoonist" Nick Galifianakis -- Carolyn's ex-husband -- and appears in over 200 newspapers. View Archive

She feels disappointed that, as a good friend, I had not been more forthcoming about my own doubts.

My negative opinions were about his personality and personal style, things my friend and I had discussed, but only insofar as she had mentioned problems with those things. There were never any concerns about safety or abuse. I had often wondered if I should offer my opinion, but decided that if she was happy, then who am I to criticize her choices?

She is surprised I would see sharing my opinion as criticism and feels let down. I feel genuinely confused about whether her expectation that I weigh in (and that I could have helped her avoid wasting years on a bad relationship) is reasonable. My husband and I had a similar situation with another friend and his wife. They divorced, and he was later angry that we had not told him we didn’t like her.


(Nick Galifianakis/For The Washington Post)

Am I a bad friend or are these dear friends placing too much responsibility on me for bad decision-making (or luck)?

Trying to Be a Good Friend

As with the imploded relationship itself, the assignment of blame isn’t so tidy.

Well, one part is: The notion that you extended the life of these time-wasting relationships by not speaking up is just buck-passing bunk. Someone reeling from a fresh breakup does get a pass for floating this idea. Once. But the people who start and stay in unhappy relationships are fully accountable for any time wasted.

Meanwhile, there’s a fine line between withholding your objections and creating the impression that you have no objections. If my closest confidants put on a show of liking a partner of mine about whom they privately had concerns, I wouldn’t blame the relationship on them, but I would feel lied to by people I trusted. Chronically so. So it’s worth asking yourself on which side of this line you’ve stood.

There’s also this: We can’t expect our friends to have needs or expectations identical to ours, nor can we read minds. Sometimes, we guess their needs wrong. Bummer, right? So we listen when they correct our mistakes, and vow to improve: “I’m sorry I let you down. I didn’t know you felt this way — but I understand now, so I’ll do better next time.” If you’re unclear on any fine points, discuss, then move on.

Next, there’s the matter of holding in all your doubts and concerns . . . until you let them seep (or tumble) out as soon as the breakup’s official. There’s a fine line there, too — the told-you-so line. On one side, there’s useful debriefing; on the other, there’s telling everyone who’ll listen that you were right about this guy all along.

And finally, when in doubt: “Do you want my opinion, or just an ear?” From now on, invite friends to state their preference while you have a chance to provide it . . . lightly, at first, to be sure. However, if they punish you for telling truths they punished you to extract, then you can safely assume you’re not the main problem here.

Write to Carolyn Hax, Style, 1150 15th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20071, or tellme@washpost.com. Sign up for Carolyn Hax’s column, delivered to your inbox early each morning, at http://bit.ly/haxpost.

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