It’s a tragic thing when your social happy hour shape-shifts into a therapy session for someone else. You know what I mean, right? People who complain about the same problem, over and over, begin to monopolize every meet-up, and you sit there wondering, “Should we be eating these tacos, or should you be cutting me a check for $250?” And whether they’re venting about their toxic boss or how they need to break up with Unremarkable Blake (“Again?“), you’ve literally run out responses. So for the sake of your friendship and your sanity, what’s a good way to say, “I love you, but the doctor is out”?
Maybe this isn’t a problem for people like my hairstylist, who recently told me she’s part of the “live and let live” school of thought, which I respect. However, I’m a graduate of the University of Here’s My Unsolicited Opinion About What You Should Do with a major in You’re Being Effing Stupid and a minor in But I’m Not Your Mother, So Whatever. I can’t not try to help my friends when they bring me problems—especially when they bring them up repeatedly. So when my advice seems to get ignored, it stings a bit more. While that might be a specific-to-me thing, is it wrong for anyone to cut off friends when the complaining becomes draining?
Short answer: no. Well+Good’s Good@Work columnist Amy Odell refers to these people as two-hour friends, because they require so much emotional labor that you can really only dedicate, like, two hours to them. It’s not a terrible thing to have two-hour friends, and recognizing who the two-hour friends in your life are might just be the secret to having a healthier relationship with them. Likewise, there’s a big distinction between a healthy vent sesh and chronic, conversation-monopolizing material from people who complain constantly.
“We all need to vent and validate each other about issues we are dealing with, and it’s healthy and helpful to do so,” says Deborah A. Olson, a Houston-based counselor and author of The Healing Power of Girlfriends. But when someone rehashes the same issue, monopolizing every single conversation about it despite ideas for resolution having been offered, “it crosses a boundary line.”
So then, how do we establish boundaries that don’t make us come across as and personally feel terrible? Olson’s three-step plan can help:
Step 1: Ask your friend why they aren’t doing anything about the problem
“Summarize for your friend that you have observed them continue to ruminate about this issue,” Olson says. “Yet, despite the potential ideas and solutions you have suggested, they have not taken action, so nothing has changed.”
Let’s say the problem is something solvable, but not totally clear-cut. Maybe they’re having recurring issues with a higher-up at work named Becca. You have offered, “maybe you should talk to her” or “maybe you should talk to your supervisor” or “maybe you should talk to an HR rep or literally anyone that isn’t me,” but you friend has gone with D. None of the above. In that case, Olson says to ask why your friend seems hesitant to take action and what’s currently blocking them from finding resolution.
Step 2: Express your concern
As you’ve heard several times now, Becca is a GD monster who is constantly undermining your friend in front of the whole team. You’ve seen your friend stress out about this through novel long, on-the-clock text messages, and then drink away the stress at night. This is not good. Please tell them it’s not good.
“Tell your friend you care a lot about their well-being, and you worry how this unresolved problem is affecting their health,” Olson says. “Say you would really like to see them take some steps now toward resolution to protect their emotional and physical health.”
Step 3: Communicate that you miss the fun times before venting took center stage
At this point, you’re concerned about the health of your friendship since it seems to have become a one-sided relationship. It’s fair to share that you feel left out of the conversation, which isn’t much more than a two-hour monologue about Becca. Tell your friend their unresolved problem has become the main point of conversation, “and that you feel like you are both missing so much of the potential benefits, the fun, the sharing, and the connection that you used to enjoy.”
To be clear, there’s no problem with not wanting advice about a given issue. Venting in itself isn’t the problem here, and if it were, I would have zero friends. Monopolizing the conversation for the Roast of Becca, though? It’s just…it’s a lot.
And if you want to be a good friend to someone who’s stuck in a rut while preserving your own mental health and the health of the friendship itself, let them know that they’re currently the Mayor of Rut City. And if action isn’t taken soon and/or the venting isn’t scaled back, then, well, start charging by the hour, because happy hour tacos don’t pay for themselves.
People who complain can be tough to deal with, but when it’s your pal, the effort might be worth it: Friendships can help with your mental health, after all. And if your friend’s new baby is kicking you out of the relationship, here’s how to deal.