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Best-friend boundaries

Elizabeth Taylor's death reminded me of an autobiography that I read years ago by Debbie Reynolds, the star of the musical Singing In The Rain. She was just as famous as Taylor, although Taylor's name is the one that is more familiar to a younger generation.

The book, My Life, told the story of how Taylor, grieving over the death of her husband Mike Todd, had an affair with his best friend Eddie Fisher, who was married to Reynolds, then close friends with Taylor. The ensuing scandal shocked America as Fisher divorced girl-next-door Debbie and married the sultry Elizabeth.

Of course, it brings to mind the modern day parallel of the Aniston-Pitt-Jolie triangle with the crucial difference that Aniston and Jolie weren't friends in the first place.

Suspicions

What struck me as I re-read the piece was Reynolds writing she never suspected that the two would fall for each other and that she was happy for her close friend to spend so much time with her husband. She didn't set any boundaries. Obviously Fisher was to blame as well as Taylor but it's a truth universally acknowledged that the biggest friendship line you can cross is the one where you sneak off with your best friend's other half.

Where would we be without our friends? Friendship is precarious balancing act at times -- if one person pushes the boundaries then it can be tricky for the other to resist that and gently put that friend back in their place without losing the friendship all together. Most don't end with huge scandal like Reynolds and Taylor. Too many end because one person is nudging the boundary lines (unlike Taylor who couldn't even see it, she was so far over it).

Accusations

I learnt the hard way. I had a fabulous friend who could make me laugh until I cried. Once, going through a difficult time, I demanded too much of her. She told me she couldn't give it and I blew up, accusing her of not being a good friend. The end result was that I lost the friendship, something I regret to this day. I was younger then and hope I would handle it differently now, but sometimes you're so caught up in what's going on that you don't see the line that you're crossing.

I have a theory that TV shows such as Friends and Sex in the City have encouraged people to see their friends as their nuclear family -- people who will be there at their beck and call, drop everything to be with them and take them on fabulous holidays when their romances don't work out.

Some lucky people do have friendships like this but they are rare. For the most part, there are some things that it is just not appropriate to ask of your friends. Money is always a dodgy territory to enter. A friend told me that she had recently been contacted by another friend of ours to request the use of her credit card in order to book a holiday. Really, if you need the use of a credit card, you should be asking a family member. Requests like this put people in an awkward situation.

The majority of 'crossing the friendship line' scenarios arise out of three things -- emotional demands, financial affairs and affairs of the heart. You might think that once you are not involved in a love triangle with a friend and partner that rules out affairs of the heart. Not quite. I heard of a situation recently where someone was being used by their friend as a decoy for an extra-marital affair.

The friend would tell her husband that she was spending time with this woman when she was in fact with the man that she was having the affair with. Her friend was left deeply uncomfortable by this. The worst part was that the friend didn't even ask her permission when she included her in this story, supposing that, as a good friend, she would go along with it.

As I write this, it does seem that anyone with reasonably good judgement would know when to pull back and realise that what they're asking is not appropriate. But we're not perfect and certainly not always rational.

We justify it to ourselves as we think 'but they're my friend'. That is not a free pass. When I look back at my own mistake, I think the best thing I can say to anyone is step back and think about what you're asking of someone. Maybe try putting the scenario to someone you trust and see what they're reaction to it is. If this person is such a good friend that you're willing to make the request of them, are you also willing to risk losing the friendship over it?


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