Asking for a Friend: Where to Draw the Line at Lies

Dear Olive,

My best friend lies about everything. It was easy to ignore when she was just bragging about rich boyfriends and wild parties. But now she’s ramping it up, telling people she had a miscarriage, and most recently that she’s “battling cancer” after she had a tiny, non-malignant mole removed. She’s a devoted and supportive friend. Do I need to dump her over this?

-Fed Up with Best Friend’s Falsehoods

Dear FU BFF,

So many mysteries remain between the lines of your few sentences. To whom is your friend telling these whoppers? Who believes her? What do you say to her when you’re sure she’s doling out fibs? What conversations have you had before arriving at the crossroads between ditching and dealing? How could it have been easy to ignore her lying before she upped the ante, when the truths it told about her character were no less damning?

I’ll be honest; your friend’s behavior is confusing to me, in no small part because the usual skeleton of my advice — have a conversation — bumps up here against suddenly upended rules of engagement in which words mean almost nothing.

I trust words, normally. I value them. I’m suspicious of social games in which the tone of what’s said has more weight than the content. In your friend’s case, it’s hard to know what to trust — but it seems clear that somehow, in her elaborate, elusive way, she is trying very hard to communicate something, and that something has little in common with the words she’s using to do so.

If you were merely her acquaintance, I’d suggest you run. That frequently quoted gem from Maya Angelou applies doubly when the someone is one you don’t have much of a relationship with yet, and acting on what they show you is easier. Getting to know another person is complicated enough; unless you’re in it for a story to tell later, it seems reasonable to sidestep the kind of complexity that tangles rather than weaves.

But you’re not mere acquaintances. You describe this person as your best friend — and while her words may have lost much of their meaning, your consternation with that state of things suggests that yours haven’t. What, then, does the term “best friend” mean to you? Does it imply an unconditional acceptance or tough love? Does it stretch as far as a night out, a bridesmaid’s dress, a funeral? What do you look for in a friend? What do you offer to one?

These questions are critical, not just to illuminating the path that’s right for you to take, but to building it. If your BFF-ness in the past has meant that you’re the one to hold her hair back after a whirlwind night but never one to weep with her over a broken heart, digging into painful truths might not feel so great. If your friendship has been a patchwork of holding each other up through the thinner parts of thick and thin, then ignoring her escalating cries for help — or outright dumping her over them — may strike a discordant note. (If the latter is true, I wonder how you’ve gotten this far without asking her about her increasingly wild inventions yet.)

People have endured more and been dumped for less, and an out-of-context lie about a melanoma is unlikely to be the straw that tips it one way or the other. Before you decide which way to turn next, consider the road that got you here. What fibs did she first get away with? What confrontations did you sidestep? What are you willing to overlook to keep her support and devotion? How far does her mendacity erode it?

If your friend is as supported and devoted as you say she is, I wonder about the steps that got you to your breaking point. Have you tried an honest conversation with this person? Have you asked her why her fabrications have escalated? (Or why they started?) Unless your friend is putting on the masks of tragedy and turmoil for fun — in which case, dump her — chances are that her lies are a plea for something she desperately needs: attention, yes, but also some kind of understanding and help. Try reaching out a hand to her before shoving her away with it, and see how she responds.

Breaking off a friendship is no small thing, but lying in escalating echoes isn’t, either. Neither normally reaches its apex without warning, without many incremental increases that go unnoticed or ignored. There’s not so much a required response as an imperfect weighing of options. What are you prepared to fight for? What are you prepared to sacrifice? How far does your empathy extend, and how far your patience? How brave are you willing to be to rescue this friendship? How much do you want to?

Ultimately, faced with an unreliable partner in this endeavor, it may come down to the work you’re willing to do. Without knowing everything — without knowing much, really — the optimist in me is certain that there’s more possible. More work, more closeness, more answers, yes, and also more questions, more hurt feelings, more lies. Your decision is whether the more on one side outweighs the more on the other.

Love,
Olive

 

For a little unprofessional advice in these uncertain times, send your questions to yourfriendolive@gmail.com or to our anonymous portal. We want it all: the embarrassing, the baffling, the epistemological. Check back in two weeks from now for another dose of aggressively earnest advice, next time on Asking For a Friend.

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