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How to Stay Friends When Times Get Tough

A peek at 4 duos who worked out their differences

By Deborah Quilter

Sometimes, life difficulties shipwreck friendships, but certain folks manage to stand by friends under circumstances that would test the patience of a saint.

How do people do this?

In the following examples, sometimes it appears to be great kindness; sometimes they are receiving a gift that may not be obvious to outsiders:

Jamie and Marcus: Winners and Losers

Most friends studiously avoid insulting each other or pushing one another to peer into painful past wounds. But if you’re Jamie Long and Marcus Youssef, you construct a play based on exactly that.

(MORE: 7 Friends You'd Be Better Off Without)

The two actors co-star in a work they wrote based on their real-life friendship. Called Winners and Losers, it’s an onstage game they devised that examines the competitive dynamic between them. While there’s a basic script, sometimes they improvise. Any topic can be debated — as long as they tell the truth.

As the play begins, things are affable enough as the men argue the merits of microwave ovens or Mexican beaches. But the comments grow increasingly barbed — and personal — as to which of them is the most streetsmart.

While Youssef, who comes from privilege, claims he’s better in situations that require great social savvy (such as attending a party at the U.S. Consulate in Canada), Long scoffs at “cocktail smarts” and says he has far more genuine street cred. He left home at 16, rented a grungy apartment and took bad jobs to stay alive. Plus, he can hold his own in a rough bar.

Eventually, the question of which of them is a winner or loser leads to what amounts to mutual verbal evisceration.

Coolly drinking beers in their dressing room after the show, you’d never guess these two had spent the past 90 minutes demolishing each other’s character. They seem, well, friendly. But they confess that doing the show is extremely hard work.

On numerous occasions, they’ve had to discuss what happened onstage — often a new bit one of them threw in or a way something was said that really hurt the other. “Usually this takes the form of: ‘It's not fair that you do X,’” said Youssef. “But I'd argue the subtext is equally: ‘It makes me feel sh***y about myself when you do X,’ but that's more difficult to admit. If we weren't able to talk to each other in the dressing room after, we would have stopped doing it a long time ago.”

So do they think they’ll remain friends, even though they verbally beat each other up every night?

“I believe we will remain friends,” Youssef replied. “I didn't always know if that would be the case. The early days were harder; the brutality of it cut more deeply.

Interestingly, the rough patches have often been triggered by absurd, small things — frustration at a bad hotel room, a cutting joke someone took personally — in other words, the same petty stuff that creates trouble for people who know each other and care about each other, but are also negotiating their ways through conflict and competition.”

The Takeaway: Long has some advice about friendship: “Follow the 50-50 rule. If something goes wrong, before you blame 100 percent on others, find your 50 percent.”

(MORE: The Joys of New Friends)

Frank: He’s Not Heavy, He’s My Brother

Frank, a 68-year-old educator, has a friend from college, Lenny, who had a stroke due to a congenital condition when he was barely past 30. Lenny has used a wheelchair ever since because he’s paralyzed on his right side. He is also aphasic, so conversation can be taxing.

Though Frank and Lenny live in different cities, Lenny visits once or twice a year. Frank includes him in holiday parties. When Lenny visits, Frank helps him bathe, dress, eat and perform other daily activities he can’t do himself. He gets Lenny into and out of his wheelchair and into taxis and restaurants. “When Lenny is here, you can’t have an agenda other than him,” Frank explained.

So how does he cope with what might be viewed as a lopsided relationship?

“I don’t do anything for him that I wouldn’t do for myself,” Frank said. “It’s because I don’t feel sorry for him that I am able to do — and not do.”

For instance, if Lenny wants to stay up late and Frank wants to go to sleep, Frank tells Lenny that he’ll have to get undressed on his own. (Lenny can do it, but it takes a long time.)

“Lenny is a great responsibility, but it’s not an obligation,” Frank observed.

The Takeaway: Frank treats Lenny the way he would want to be treated if he were in that position.


“I wouldn’t want to be alone,” he said.

(MORE: Why We Lose Friends in Midlife)

Vicki: The Friend Who Asks Too Much

Vicki, a 52-year-old marketing executive, was in the throes of launching her business when her friend Bev asked for a huge favor: helping her publicize her indie movie about her experience with a degenerative disease. This would require a whole lot of time Vicki didn’t have — even if she were inclined to take this on.

Yes, Vicki knows marketing — but not in the area of filmmaking, as she explained to Bev, as a way of declining. That made no difference; Bev just kept asking for more and more help.

“She’s right in your face. She keeps writing and calling me,” Vicki explained. “If you say no, she’ll keep trying. She found a way to spend half a day with me this weekend,” Vicki continued.

So far, Vicki has offered strategic planning and agreed to host a pre-screening party. But she has also set limits: “I’m telling her the things I can and cannot do for her. I’m not changing plans to make time for her. I’m not traveling to her,” she said. Still, Vicki admitted, “I’m doing more than I want to.”

She's conflicted. “Most people would feel angry. Part of me is annoyed and put out, and part of me is happy to help. When I’m with her, I’m happy; when I’m not, I feel it’s a burden. I admire her because she’s doing her life dream. And, she has a devastating diagnosis and she’s turning it into a positive thing. But I also feel a little suckered into it, and I’m doing more than I had hoped,” said Vicki.

The Takeaway: Vicki sees an upside to this relationship and is using it to learn something about herself. “Bev never has any issues about asking people to help her. This is something I need to learn and do more of. Maybe this might wind up helping me,” she said.

Pedro: The Risky Hire

Pedro, artistic director for a small community arts project, hired Karen, a friend in her mid-60s who was down on her luck, to help with an upcoming project. “I knew it was very risky,” Pedro said, “because she was at the point where she would take on a job for money regardless of how well it suited her.”

Pedro also knew Karen could also be her own worst enemy:She put up a show of being the successful businesswoman and was a self-described 'princess,’” and she clung to that image, which could make her hard to work with.

As the project developed, Karen and Pedro would find themselves in long argumentative conversations where she would talk about issues that he was not asking her to work on. Karen was also trying to tell him how to do his job.

At one point, Pedro tried to fire Karen by paying her full fee and dismissing her. It was costing him too much emotional energy and time. She protested, though, and in the end, he was glad he didn’t kick her off the project; it boosted her self-esteem, as well as her bank balance.

The Takeaway: They remain friends — but would he hire a friend based on her needs and not his work needs again? Especially Karen?


Deborah Quilter is an ergonomics expert, a certified Feldenkrais practitioner, a yoga therapist and the founder of the Balance Project at the Martha Stewart Center for Living at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York. She is also the author of Repetitive Strain Injury: A Computer User's Guide and The Repetitive Strain Injury Recovery Book. Read More
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