A few years ago one of my closest friends accused me of plagiarism. It was weird because I’m a professional writer and she’s in another field, writing for publicity, and I’d never even read the article she had written. Perhaps we’d discussed some of the ideas in our regular friendship, but I have no need to copy her.
She cut off all ties with me saying (via email) that unless I apologize, we can’t be friends. I’m certainly not the first friend she’s cut off or accused of copying her ideas.
At the time I was trying to have a baby and had gone through my gazillionth miscarriage and then a very tense pregnancy. I was kind of shocked that she didn’t contact me when she found out I was finally pregnant or even when I had a baby. I invited her to the baby shower but she didn’t come. I was thinking of reaching out to her again, but she told my sister that unless I gave her a full apology we can’t be friends.
We have been friends for over 40 years and I find it sad that she doesn’t even know my child. My husband thinks this is actually about her being single and me being married and moving forward in life. (Interestingly, she accused me of being jealous of her.)
But here’s the thing: I kind of miss her anyway! I’ve started a dozen letters to her but don’t really know how to make up with someone who demands an apology for something I haven’t done. I told her I was sorry that I hurt her feelings, but it wasn’t enough. I know we won’t ever be super close again, but I wish there were some way to just neutralize everything.
Sad Over Lost Friendship
Dear Sad Over Lost Friendship,
I want to start by going back to an earlier column, in which I mentioned the difference between content (what the argument is about; here, plagiarism) and process (the dynamic that underlies the argument). Whereas a friend might advise you based mostly on the content, a therapist will focus primarily on the process, because in order to resolve the content, the process must be addressed.
Two things caught my attention in your letter, SOLF. First, that your friend has accused others of plagiarism; and second, that this occurred around the time you were trying to get pregnant.
I have a feeling that when your friend of 40 years — let’s call her Jane — accused you of plagiarism, she was sick and tired of feeling like you were stealing stuff from her, and that this plagiarism incident was simply the straw that broke the camel’s back.
What are you talking about? you might be thinking. Jane’s my lifelong friend! I’ve never stolen anything from her!
Ah, but you have.
You see, for four decades, you two went through similar life stages together. Elementary school, first kisses, driver’s licenses, high-school graduations, leaving home, college, first jobs, the nightmare of dating in your 20s, the bigger nightmare of dating in your 30s. You were on parallel tracks — even your professions are alike. And then — boom! — you got something she didn’t. You got marriage and the possibility of raising kids with a husband — not because you’re that different from her (given your long friendship, you’re likely similar in many ways), but because of luck and timing.
And just like that, you stole from Jane. What did you steal?
You stole the version of life she expected you both to have. At the eleventh hour, you ran off with that life, just in time to marry and have children. When you both did everything else on parallel tracks, why should she be the one left behind now? You didn’t just steal her article — you stole her future.
But before you write this off as “Jane’s problem” — because if you’re interested in her and the friendship, it’s a shared problem — I want you to consider your own experience with your multiple miscarriages. I’m guessing that during that time, you had mixed feelings about your friends who got pregnant, and I’ll bet that you had your most intense feelings about the friends you were closest to and who were in a similar situation — trying and trying, and then finally getting pregnant. The people closest to us are our mirrors, and the feelings they engender are especially complicated. When those friends of yours got pregnant, did you ever feel a bit robbed? Did you ever think: Why them? Why not me? And did you ever wish that you didn’t feel those feelings or think those thoughts? Did you ever write off those feelings as petty and ungenerous and try to push them away? Did you try to avoid those friends — their baby showers, their birth announcements — so that you could keep a safe distance from your unwanted feelings, too?
I doubt that Jane wants to feel those kinds of feelings either. I’ll bet she wants to be happy for you. And in order to reconcile the person she believes she is (generous, kind) with the feelings she might be having, she needs to get rid of her unwanted feelings — so unwanted, in fact, that she may not even be aware of them. But that’s okay, because her unconscious can get rid of them for her.
With a defense mechanism. We all use defense mechanisms to cope with unwanted impulses or feelings. A familiar example might be “denial” — a smoker clinging to the belief that his shortness of breath is due to the hot weather and not his cigarettes. Another person might use “rationalization” (justifying something shameful) by saying that he never really wanted the job he was rejected from in the first place. In “reaction formation,” unacceptable feelings are expressed as their opposite, as when a person who dislikes her neighbor goes out of her way to befriend her, or a religious man attracted to same-sex partners makes homophobic slurs. In “sublimation,” a person turns a potentially harmful impulse into something less harmful (a man with aggressive impulses takes up boxing) or even constructive (a person with the urge cut people becomes a surgeon who saves lives).
And then there’s “projection,” which is placing unwanted feelings on somebody else. “I’m not worried — you are!” Or, “I don’t feel envious — you do!”
Imagine if you kept trying to get pregnant — and the process never ended. Imagine if you’d been trying for 20 years (as long as Jane’s been dating) and your lifelong friend just kept having baby after baby. Now imagine Jane’s experience. Once you got married, every time she saw you, you had a partner, and she didn’t. And then you were trying to have a baby, which meant that one day, every time she saw you, you’d also have a child.
When we don’t have the important things we want or expect as adults, we have a tendency to operate from a place of deficit. We’re often so angry that we don’t have what everyone else around us has — like when you were trying to get pregnant — and so afraid we might not get it, that we don’t want other people to have it either.
One thing Jane does have, on the other hand, is her career. And then your article comes out with ideas that you both talked about (and that she had written about), and she’s thinking: Really? Just this once, can’t you let me have something I want? Do you have to steal the one thing I do have, the one thing that feels good and solid and mine? Do you — with the husband and the future baby and the writing career — have to be so greedy as to take everything, even my idea? How dare you!
This isn’t at all to say that single people are bereft and angry human beings. Rather, when we want something so terribly badly, when we long for the thing the people closest to us have but we can’t seem to get — whether that’s a dream job or a partner or a child — the experience of not having it can feel very isolating. And when that thing we want so badly is love, not having it can be excruciatingly painful. And so we hold on more tightly to what we do have — our articles, our ideas, our pride in ourselves. And that might be why Jane has accused others of plagiarism as well. When we operate from a place of scarcity and fear, we become hypervigilant about marking our territory, about protecting what’s ours — so that nobody can take it away. And all of this generally happens outside of our awareness.
At the same time, you’ve also played a role in this rift, SOLF, and part of repairing this friendship will be figuring out what that is. For instance, I wonder how — or if — you and Jane talked about what it was like for her when you got married? Did you both try to ignore this significant change in your relationship? While you were preoccupied with your courtship and proposal and wedding, or while you were focused on the challenge of getting pregnant, how attuned were you to what Jane was going through? Did you talk to her about her own feelings, as she grappled with the prospect of potentially never becoming a mother? How sensitive were you to her situation? How curious were you about her experience? And if you were aware of how delicate this situation might be for the two of you, did you respond with pity (which comes from a place of superiority) or compassion (which comes from a place of love)?
I wonder, too, how you might have handled other potential differences in the friendship even before you were married. For instance, when she cut others off or accused them of plagiarism, did you talk about her choices, or brush those incidents under the rug, too?
I understand why you miss Jane. Forty years of friendship, even an imperfect friendship, is significant and meaningful and irreplaceable — not the kind of thing that should go up in flames over the incident you describe.
There’s a saying I often share with couples: “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” Meaning: If one person is having an unusually strong reaction to something, that person might be reacting not only to the current hurt, but to hurts from the past as well. Jane’s sense of betrayal is likely a reaction to past hurts in the relationship, hurts that culminated in the plagiarism accusation. Often when we’re hurt, and can’t get the other person to acknowledge our hurt or assuage our pain (i.e., the apology she’s demanding), the only way we believe we can get relief is by making sure that the other person feels hurt, too. So, if you’ve stolen Jane’s future, she’s stealing your past: erasing your 40 years together, that feeling of being known by somebody who knew your parents when you were children, who knew your secrets, who saw you blossom into the person you became. And she’s stealing your present: a childhood friend unwilling to meet your own child.
All you can do now is try to get into the process with Jane. Until you do, the plagiarism conversation will go nowhere. Write her a letter and tell her how much you miss her. Tell her how much she means to you. Tell her that because you love her so much and want to give your friendship the strongest chance of not just surviving, but thriving, you want to put aside the question of plagiarism for six months and spend that time instead understanding her better and letting her understand you better. Tell her you feel that you realize that maybe you’ve been distracted, haven’t paid attention, and drifted away without meaning to. Tell her that you have too much between you — four decades worth — to throw away. Tell her that sometimes the difficult things are the things that are most worth fighting for.
Send the letter and then release it like a helium balloon.
If she doesn’t respond or continues to demand to stay in the content, let that be her answer — for now. But if she’s willing to engage on the process level, get very curious about her experience. Don’t ask her to meet your baby. Don’t whip out your phone and subject her to photos. Listen to what she has to say through her filter rather than yours. You say you want to “neutralize” things, but what you really need to do is to repair and rebuild so that the friendship — like a marriage after a significant rift — can withstand the weight of the betrayals and resentments that inevitably come up between people who travel through life together.
Eventually, there will be enough trust to talk about the plagiarism. And you’ll know that you’re in this for the next 40 years if you can peacefully agree to disagree.
Lori Gottlieb is a writer and a psychotherapist in private practice. Got a question? Email email@example.com. Her column will appear here every Friday.
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