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Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

SocietyApril 6, 2023

Help Me Hera: My friend’s partner is a social black hole – is our friendship doomed?

Image: Tina Tiller
Image: Tina Tiller

‘The best way to deal with an unavoidable black hole is to starve it. Make yourself as emotionally insubstantial as possible.’

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Help Me, Hera: I have a good friend whose partner is an insufferable social black hole. Is the friendship doomed? Or is there a way to have my cake and eat it too?

Of course you should eat your cake! Why have cake, if you’re not intending to eat it? But this looks like one of those situations where you might have to pick around the raisins.

First of all, you must look deep inside your heart and ask yourself: is your friend’s partner a genuine public nuisance, or just someone you dislike? Most grudges have more to do with obscure historical grievances than any specific character flaw on the part of our enemies. Unfortunately, many of the people we profoundly dislike are kind and reasonable individuals who regularly call their grandmothers.

Black holes are a different species entirely.

Some people are born with the innate ability to transform every staff meeting, every baby shower, every dolphin-sightseeing cruise into an unabridged marathon of human suffering. You can recognise a black hole by their infinitely small and dense core, which warps the surrounding area and draws everything inexorably toward them. Black holes are galaxy eaters, destroyers of stars. The more resistance and pushback they encounter, the stronger their gravitational pull. As you approach, all conceptions of time and space break down, until nothing, not even light can escape. The best way to deal with an interpersonal black hole is to stay as far away as possible.

But what if someone you love is stuck in their orbit? Do you forfeit that region of the galaxy entirely? Do you try to rescue them, and risk spaghettification?

Before you sign the death certificate on your friendship, there are a few things you might try.

First of all, should you tell your friend you hate their partner?

The stock answer to most questions like this is: communicate. But there are a great many instances in life where communication is neither helpful nor appreciated. Sometimes, the most enlightened course of action is shutting the hell up.

One area in which shutting up is notoriously the best policy, is when it comes to other people’s intimate relationships. For some reason, people are resistant to hearing their significant other is one of the most ham-brained yokels ever to lick pavements for a hobby, and you’d rather eat a mattress full of antique horse hair than spend another second in their company.

Maybe if you and your friend have a strong foundation of mutual goodwill and a history of being able to weather difficult conversations you can cautiously express concern. But it’s the kind of thing you can only say ONCE, and even then you have to be prepared for it to backfire spectacularly.

The obvious risk is you offend your friend so badly you destroy your friendship. But even if they aren’t offended, they’re still unlikely to leave their significant other based on your opinion. It’s generally better to express concern through leading questions delivered at psychologically astute moments, like “I noticed you were a little quiet after Lydia kicked that service dog. How’s your relationship going, by the way?” A more curious and less judgemental approach will keep the door open longer.

Anyway, most of the time, telling someone you don’t like their spouse is pointless, because they probably already know. So how do you maintain your friendship and sanity?

The most effective workaround is to spend time with your friend alone. Does their partner have a fear of heights? Guess who has a newfound passion for rock climbing! Are they allergic to jam? What a coincidence, you just booked a weekend trip to the county produce fair. Group situations are much harder. Intentionally excluding someone is a lot of work, because first you have to organise something to intentionally exclude them from, and then you have to make sure they don’t find out and get mad about it. I imagine this person is inextricably entangled with your wider social network, and you usually see them at shows or parties where it’s not within your remit to deny them access.

A black hole doesn’t care what sort of energy it absorbs. If you try and destroy a black hole by going nuclear, the black hole only becomes bigger and more gravitationally powerful. The best way to deal with an unavoidable black hole is to starve it. Make yourself as emotionally insubstantial as possible. Counteract every provocation or overt act of hostility with a blinking, sheep-like tranquility.

I know this technique works because I have been in customer service for over 15 years.

One of the first things you learn on any shop floor is that some people leave the house with the express intention of ruining someone else’s day. There’s always someone trying to discharge some ancient grievance the only way they know how: by going into the nearest shop and yelling at a teenage girl about greeting cards.

You cannot argue with this kind of person. Even trying to wrong-foot them with kindness is an occupational hazard, because if you overdo it, they’ll take a shine to you and come back. In my experience, the best way to permanently debilitate someone like this is to purposely cultivate an air of serene ineptitude. There is nothing that thwarts a reactive personality faster than a ruthless application of cheerfully disinterested stupidity.

This is where mindfulness can help. Like any tool, mindfulness can be used for evil. You can use a spade to dig a hole and plant a tree. But you can also use a spade to sever the head of an enemy and carefully dispose of the evidence.

In the spirit of mindfulness, I’m going to pass on one of the best pieces of advice I ever heard, which is: You can always rotate a cow in your mind for free.

How beautiful. How profound. How full of joy.

The next time you find yourself backed into a corner by this person, I suggest you expend your emotional energy on mentally rotating a cow. I cannot tell you how many times I have successfully used this technique. It’s particularly effective because the cognitive energy expended on accurately rendering the cow gives you a look of profound gormlessness, which most people find deeply unsettling. If you are one of these people who can’t visualise objects, give your enemy a theme tune instead. Memorise the opening credits of Law and Order, and mentally deploy it every time they open their mouth.

If you’re in a group situation, and you can feel the atmosphere becoming contentious, it’s worth learning a few interesting facts about tractors. Whenever the conversation takes an unpleasant turn, you can cheerfully derail it by casually mentioning that the Ford 9N is superior to the 8N because the 8N only has a single-stage clutch, and the brush hog acts like a flywheel and will tend to overdrive when turning. Enlist another friend and have them chime in with their agricultural findings. If nothing else, it will entertain and distract you.

Everyone makes a few bad decisions about partners and, luckily, most of them aren’t permanent. If you love your friend and have any patience left in the tank, now is the time to summon it. Take a deep breath. Count slowly backward from 10. And when all else fails, remember: in the criminal justice system, the people are represented by two separate yet equally important groups. The police, who investigate crime, and the district attorneys, who prosecute the offenders. These are their stories.

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