DEAR MISS MANNERS: I have a friend with whom I used to have a lot in common. She has many fantastic qualities, and I quickly grew to consider her one of my best friends, despite her living a few states away. We could talk for hours on the phone every day, and we collaborated on creative projects. When we first met, she had some ailments for which she was on leave from work for a few months.
I quickly began to realize, though, as new excuses for why she could not work began to pop up (and the paid leave from work extended on and on), that dwelling on her ailments and illnesses and many symptoms is a very big fixation for her and not just a passing hardship. I also began to find it odd when she would become furious at her husband if he ever became ill with a cold or flu and got attention or sympathy from others.
I am not sure if this person is genuinely experiencing chronic pain, suffering from hypochondria, or suffering from Munchausen syndrome. As I am neither a doctor nor footing the bill for her medical leave, the truth is really none of my concern. I believe that if your mind tells you you are suffering, then you will suffer.
What IS my concern is that our conversations have become one-sided fishings for sympathy. I am tired of the negativity and having to console and comfort someone constantly, when it has become clear that she does not do anything to help her situation.
I recently went on a fantastic weeklong trip and she didn't once express interest in hearing about my trip, though we share a love of travel. Instead, upon receiving my first message that I was back home and had internet again, she immediately began to complain that she tripped a few days earlier and went into great detail about how sore her shoulder is and how she might have fractured something, or how she had to chop wood for the wood stove and now has a terrible backache that makes it difficult to sleep (despite having a free way to heat her home in the winter, which seems like a plus to me!).
Is it ruder to ignore her complaints, or is it ruder to tell her the truth as to why our friendship is now strained?
GENTLE READER: The answer will depend on how you approach each option. Telling your friend that her recitation of symptoms has become a bore is ruder than excusing yourself for the delay before you returned her call, or finding that you have to get off the phone now.
Never answering messages, or interrupting your friend to change the subject, is ruder than telling her how much you feel for her suffering, but you miss the times when you used to enjoy one another’s company so much because you had so many happy things to talk about.
As to which is to be preferred, Miss Manners recognizes that the latter, while more difficult, may be worth a try with a dear friend who has lost her way. But she will understand if you choose the former.