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Our Mutual Friend

How to steal friends and influence people.

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A few years ago, I learned that my friends K and L—whom I had introduced a year earlier—were going on a group skiing vacation to Utah, organized by K, and I hadn’t been invited. True, I hate the cold, hadn’t skied in twenty years, and probably would have turned down the invitation. But the fact that I hadn’t been given the opportunity to say no left me feeling angry and excluded. L had been my friend: An old college pal, she’d only recently moved here from the West Coast. The words “Thanks a lot” kept flitting through my brain. It was as if L were my first love, and I the jilted lover.

Just because we don’t sleep with our close friends—well, not always—doesn’t mean we can’t get jealous about the company they keep. Unlike lovers, however, friends have no socially legitimized claim over each other’s social life. Maybe that’s why watching one friend steal another away can be such an unsettling experience, especially when the two of them become closer than the two of you ever were. Not only do you feel hurt and rejected, you’re ashamed and embarrassed that you care. Even worse, you worry that the two of them will get together and discuss your personal life in snickering tones. (It’s safe to assume that they will.)

In short, friend-poaching is not the exclusive province of junior high schools: It actually poses serious challenges to New York adults as well. Friends matter more when family life is not the only game in town, not least because they’re often business associates, too.

After K and L ran off together, my first instinct was to distance myself. I took my time answering their calls and e-mails, and when I did respond, I would offer only brief and superficial updates on my life. The problem: It wasn’t clear if either one noticed.

If revenge is your goal, the most meaningful strategy is to steal one of the poacher’s old friends for yourself, preferably his best friend from childhood. Alternatively, you can take the “therapized” approach and call your estranged friends to a meeting where you share your hurt feelings and profound sense of loss.

Over time, however, you may come to see that your treacherous friends have actually done you a favor. The only thing worse than friend-stealing is “friend-burdening”—when you find yourself playing 24-hour Miss Lonelyhearts to a lovesick pal who keeps thanking you for being the “best friend in the world.”

By becoming each other’s closest confidante, K and L, I realized, had actually relieved me of a great deal of hassle—especially regarding L, whose man troubles showed no signs of ending. I also saw that, in the bigger picture, the connection might work to my advantage, since the two of them would forever be indebted to me. Neither, for example, could now refuse my requests for information about the other.

I also had to admit that I was guilty of a similar crime. Not long after K stole L from me, I stole B from my friend V. Aware of the ways I’d been hurt, I made an effort to continue scheduling social dates with V without inviting B to join us. What’s more, I didn’t spend the time V and I were alone talking about B, and even went so far as to thank her for having introduced us. Rather than getting possessive, V seemed to view my and B’s hookup as confirmation of her excellent taste in people.

Lately, though, I’ve noticed that B and V are spending more time together than usual. Now V is the one who always seems to be talking about B, who has become very close with V’s husband as well. In truth, I’m not sure how I feel about this new arrangement.

Whoever says junior high is over is wrong.


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