On Friends Who Suck

by F.

In his diary on July 30, 1931, H.L. Mencken wrote:

It is perhaps a fact that I am over-quick to drop friends who annoy me. The list is a long one—Dreiser, Wright, Nathan, Harry Barnes, and so on, not to mention other older friends. But I see no way to avoid it. Life is too short for anyone to be burdened with friends who demand too much.

If you disagree with Mencken, pick up a copy of The Underminer, which is both painful and funny.

The story is told in a series of meetings over fifteen years between two “friends.” The story starts at the end of college. One of the friends, the protagonist, never speaks. Her (or his—it could be a man but I think it’s a woman, given the digs about weight, hairstyle, and so on) dialogue has to be inferred from the single voice in the book, that of “the underminer,” the protagonist’s friend (whom I picture as a woman, too, but could be man.)

You’ll recognize the underminer immediately, even if you haven’t had one, though I suspect most people have (often, I think, it’s a family member, like a sibling or parent). My underminer was a guy I met in 7th grade and who kept turning up in my life like a bad penny. We remained friends through college, though by my senior year I had extricated myself from him and essentially “dropped him” (to use Mencken’s phrase).

(For a while I thought my mom was an underminer, but I don’t think so anymore. She is just socially inept. Had she been a man, I’m pretty sure she would have been called an “Aspy” or autistic. Her social cognition was, basically, undeveloped. She admitted this and said people had long told her it was the case, even as kid. If you point out to her how human beings actually think, she gets it, because she isn’t dumb, even at 82. It just doesn’t come naturally for her. I probably spent a lot of time inferring much more into what she said than was warranted. Oh well. You can’t cry over spilled milk.)

I got some fairly sweet revenge on my “best friend”-cum-underminer. (I’m still trying to outgrow my vengeful streak; it’s faded, but still there, unfortunately, as it is in most people.) Yet he still wouldn’t leave me alone. On balance, our friendship was probably a net positive for me until that time. When it started to become noticeably negative, I stopped returning his calls and e-mails and haven’t heard from him in ten years.

My underminer did me a favor, though: he taught me about toxic friendships. Because of my experience with him, I avoided—and continue to avoid—such people. Any friendship—any relationship—must pass the cost-benefit test.

And tit-for-tat seems to be the most effective friendship strategy. That is, assume everyone is nice, but watch for cheating or undermining. When it happens, punish quickly and disproportionately (two eyes, a nose, and a hand for an eye). Then go back to being nice. If things are still bad, kick the other person to the curb and drive on to sunnier country.

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