Social Minefield: When Your Friend Has Issues

Today in Social Minefield, we look at how to help a friend in need — or a friend in need of a swift kick. Follow the jump for tips on dealing with a friend's breakup, bereavement, or bad behavior.

Unless your friends are total underminers, it's easy to be around them when things are going well. But the real test of friendship is how you respond when your friend has a crisis — and in said crises, it's sometimes hard to know how to behave. Below, a few tips:

Breakups

This is one of the many situations where the best thing you can do is listen. Especially at first, the heartbroken usually want space to vent way more than they want advice. Also a good tip for this and many other shitty situations: ask what you can do to help. Some people just want a shoulder to cry on, some want a beer, some want to watch stupid TV shows and forget about everything, some want to be alone (though with this last category it's good to make sure that's what they really want, and let them know you're available if they change their minds). In general, compliments are always good after a breakup — nobody doesn't want to hear that they're hot and awesome, and even if these words of kindness seem to fall on deaf ears at the time, they matter. Insults to the ex are a trickier area — if the breakup-ee starts it, it's reasonably okay to pile on, but don't initiate the shit-talking. Too much dissing an ex can make someone feel like the entire relationship was worthless, which is never fun. A helpful friend may also discourage drunk-dialing/begging an ex to reconsider, but if those things happen, don't be judgy. As Katy said in her helpful post on the subject last year, at some point in life, "everyone begs."

Bereavement

Storytime: during one week last year, I went through a breakup and my grandmother died. I happened to be with three of my closest friends when I got the call about Grandma, and they 1) took me home so I could cry/talk to my dad/figure out funeral plane tickets, and then 2) came back an hour later with a care package of DVDs, nail polish, and a calming eye mask. This was basically the nicest thing ever and I am sort of choking up writing about it. Not every bereaved person wants nail polish (I totally did), but the point of this story is that showing you care is really the most important thing. People (myself included) have a hard time talking about death, and it's easy to get caught up in the idea that you need to say the exact right thing. But what really matters is letting the bereaved person know that you're thinking of them, and that you're there if they want to talk. And if you're far away and can't be with the person physically, simplicity and speed are best — just get in touch with a call or card and say you're sorry for their loss. If you knew the deceased, it's fine to say nice things about them, but don't bother trying to think up any new insights. Nobody's insightful about death anyway.

Illness

When a friend is ill (and this is true whether the illness is physical or mental), my best advice is 1) be there, and 2) don't be freaked out. If your friend is hospitalized and wants visitors, visit. If you're uncomfortable with illness or hospitals, don't show it. This is another area where a simple "what can I do" works great — and can also help your friend establish boundaries. For instance, someone recovering from illness or surgery might not want a whole bunch of visitors at once. Also, remember that someone who is sick or drugged up might not be able to be very fun or entertaining — and it's worth letting them know that if a little quiet company/co-TV-watching/reading aloud is what they want, you're happy to oblige.

Depression

This is really a subset of the above, but it deserves a few specific tips of its own. First of all, what not to do: if your friend is suffering from depression or any other mental illness, don't tell them it's all in their head or that they can just snap out of it if they want to. And while inviting them out for a walk or cooking them a healthy meal can be sweet and helpful, telling a depressed person she just needs more exercise/vegetables/vitamins/whatever probably isn't going to do that much good either. Really, if a friend is exhibiting the symptoms of depression, she needs to see a professional, and one of the best things you can do as a friend is help make that happen. Does she need someone to drive her to appointments, or to help her find a therapist who takes her insurance or offers a sliding scale? Getting mental health treatment, especially for the first time, can be difficult, and having someone to help you negotiate the system can mean a lot. A caveat: if your friend is suicidal, you need to call 911 or take her to the hospital.

Eating disorders

Another type of illness worthy of some specific advice. Eating disorder website Something Fishy points out, "If your relationship with someone suffering from Anorexia, Bulimia or Compulsive Overeating is anything other than their parent, or if your child is over the age of 18 then you cannot force them to seek help." That said, you can — and I'd argue you should — voice your concern. The National Eating Disorders Association has some useful tips on how to approach the conversation — basically, be specific, don't guilt-trip, suggest professional help, and make it clear that you're there as a source of help and support. And if someone is in recovery, don't talk about weight — says Something Fishy, "Saying they look 'healthy since you've put on some weight' is heard as 'you are fat,' and expressing disappointment or concern in weight loss comes across as 'you're a failure' or 'you're a burden.'" Actually, avoiding comments about people's weight is a good idea in general.

Abusive relationships

The Center for Relationship Abuse Awareness defines relationship abuse as "a pattern of abusive and coercive behaviors used to maintain power and control over a former or current intimate partner," and notes that the abuse "an be emotional, financial, sexual or physical and can include threats, isolation, and intimidation." If your friend is suffering from any of these, there are limits to how you can help — as with eating disorders, you can't force her to get help, nor can you force her to leave. It's also a bad idea to judge her for not leaving — you want her to be able to keep talking to you, and not isolate her further. That said, the CRAA advises, "If you believe she is in danger, let her know that you are concerned. Help her create a safety plan." This could include helping her access resources like the National Domestic Violence Hotline. According to the CRAA, you should not "tell her what to do, when to leave or when not to leave." And while individual counseling could be a good idea, couples counseling is not.

Being a jerk

Above, I mostly discuss bad shit that can happen to your friends, but when your friend is the perpetrator of bad shit, things can sometimes be even tougher. If your friend is being a jerk to you, and it's significantly impacting the friendship, it's worthwhile to mention (in the least accusatory way possible) what's making you feel bad and how they can fix it. But if your friend is being an asshole to some third party, your role is more complicated. Generally, I find assholishness interventions are most effective if the asshole in question isn't fully aware that she's hurting people. I've been that asshole, and when a friend kindly but firmly let me know it, I made restitution. The key here is knowing your friend and your friendship: is she someone who generally tries not to be a dick? Are you close enough to call her out without pissing her off? If the answer to both is yes, it's probably worth a sit-down. And if the answer to the first question is no, you might want to reconsider the friendship.

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Image via Stephanie Frey/Shutterstock.com.