By Esther Mann, LCSW
Miriam and I have been friends for a very long time. We are practically like sisters. We grew up next door to one another and attended the same schools and camps. We were always the best of friends and lived similar lives.
That is, until we got married. Miriam married someone who was learning. I married a man who was groomed to go into his family’s business. Miriam had baby after baby, finally having a total of nine children. My husband, Tuvie, and I have five children. Miriam is living, somehow, in a three-bedroom rental. Tuvie and I live in a lovely, spacious home.
I’ve always felt sorry for Miriam. Even though I understand that this is the life she chose for herself, it was hard for me to see how hard her life was. While I had full-time help at home, I think Miriam was lucky to get someone in once a week to help her out for a few hours.
As a result, many years ago, I got into the habit of giving Miriam money for special situations. For instance, before a yom tov, especially one like Pesach, when I was being taken to a beautiful hotel by my in-laws and I knew Miriam would be slaving at home, I would hand over to her a generous sum of money to help her out with the grocery shopping and maybe even some household help. Initially, I never really discussed this with Tuvie. I would just start putting aside money months in advance, and save up a substantial amount for her. It didn’t cramp my style to do this.
Sometimes I would bring over brand-new clothing for her children, telling her that it didn’t fit my kids or that my children didn’t care for them. I always tried to make her life easier, though honestly it seemed like a drop in the bucket. But I think there was an unspoken understanding that the friend who had more would help out the friend who had less.
Originally, Miriam might have felt a little uncomfortable taking the money and gifts from me, but pretty quickly she got over her discomfort and I think began to expect help from me. Which was fine. It hasn’t taken away from my lifestyle. I’m not even sure that it made a dent in the basic difficulties of her life. Tuvie and I are not rich by any stretch of the imagination, but we are comfortable, thank G‑d, and I know that if we ever were to really need anything, we could go to my in-laws for help. They are kind, generous people.
Anyway, about two years ago, Miriam’s refrigerator broke down and I felt if I didn’t step in to replace it, no one would. Since it was a big expense, I decided to discuss it with Tuvie and asked him if we could pay for a new, side-by-side refrigerator for her. You need to know that Tuvie is very, very generous. He writes out beautiful checks to tzedakas all the time. But I think his feeling is that he doesn’t want to be told where to put his money. Furthermore, he doesn’t feel that it’s our responsibility to take care of Miriam and her family. Tuvie feels that her husband has to figure out how to take care of his own family. He’s not a fan of this whole lifestyle that creates dependence on others to survive.
But Tuvie said that it would be all right if we bought them a new refrigerator as a loan, and that he expected them to pay him back. He said it would be all right if they only sent us as little as $50 a month for the next three years, but that it was important to him that they took it seriously and didn’t take him or us for granted. Basically, Tuvie feels it’s the principle of the matter. (If Tuvie knew how much money I’ve given Miriam over the years, I think he’d have a stroke!) Meanwhile, Miriam and her husband were very grateful for Tuvie’s offer and agreed to pay him back according to Tuvie’s schedule.
We haven’t seen a penny of the money. I know Tuvie isn’t counting on the $50 a month to pay our bills, but he is very aware of the situation. He’ll ask me every so often if we’ve received anything from them. The fact that I have to say “no” drives him crazy. He feels they are taking advantage of his generosity. This has created so many problems. When it comes up, Tuvie and I argue, because I wind up trying to defend Miriam and her husband. I’ve started feeling uncomfortable talking to Miriam, because on some level I feel it was dishonest of her to promise to repay us and then just totally pretend it never happened. Also, I find myself in a real bind, generally speaking. I gave her some money before Rosh Hashanah, but not as much as always, and felt a combination of guilt and anger at both of us. I don’t want to be put in this position of not wanting to give to her as generously as before.
I’m not happy about how things presently stand and I wonder what to do. I don’t know whether I should sit down with Miriam and explain to her what is happening from Tuvie’s perspective, or whether I should just lie and give Tuvie money that I’ve put aside and say it was from Miriam. It’s really all messed up. Or maybe I should just try to convince Tuvie to change his mind about the whole loan thing.
Saddest of all for me is that I feel like I’m losing someone who was my best friend for many years. I’m no longer able to feel as close to her, which is a great loss for me. Any way to get out of this mess that I helped to make?
In The Middle
Dear In The Middle,
Sometimes, no good deed goes unpunished. I know that you started out treating Miriam so very generously because it seemed to you to be the obvious and natural way to react to a dear friend’s plight. You clearly love Miriam, you are able to feel her pain, and you want to make some kind of difference in her life by helping her out in ways that are practical and generous.
But money is a funny thing. Most of us want it, need it, and love it. It can also be symbolic of so many emotions. It can reflect one’s feelings of power, success, generosity, and security. On the flip side, the lack of money can stir up feelings of disappointment, failure, weakness, and fear. It can bring out the best in mankind and the worst. Money can sometimes distort the playing field. The whole notion of the “haves” and “have-nots” can insidiously affect feelings one might have about oneself and others. It’s complicated stuff.
That is why some people stay far away from mixing finances and friends. But you’re too kind for that. You empathize too deeply with Miriam’s struggles and therefore have not been able to stand idly by, without trying to pitch in in some concrete way. Perhaps on some level, however, you knew that Tuvie had a different take on the situation, which is why you didn’t, from the get-go, tell him how you were helping Miriam out. Though understandable, that was probably your first mistake.
Nonetheless, let me be clear that I do commend your generosity. However, I believe that at this time, your loyalty must lie with your husband. Tuvie sounds like a principled, good man who takes his role as a provider seriously and probably cannot relate to Miriam’s choices and those of her husband. Miriam entered into an agreement with you and Tuvie regarding paying back the loan. If at the time of her needing a new refrigerator Miriam had said to you and Tuvie that she appreciates the offer of a loan but that she can’t imagine ever being in a position to pay you back, I suspect that Tuvie may have offered to buy them a new refrigerator. But there remains the issue of honesty and integrity involved. And maybe a touch of entitlement thrown in to boot.
Therefore, I think you need to sit down with Miriam and explain to her how she’s put you in a bad position with your husband, compromised your own comfort level within your friendship with her, and generally created a difficult situation all around that you would appreciate her figuring out how to resolve. It’s not your problem to fix—it’s Miriam’s and, of course, her husband’s.
Maybe there is a learning opportunity for all of you from this difficult situation. Though the conversation will be extremely uncomfortable at best, I believe it will be worth it in the long run. Whether or not Miriam ever decides to pay you back, at least Tuvie will know that you supported him.
Regarding the potential of losing a close friend with whom you have so much history, that would be extremely sad indeed. Friends are precious, and my hope is that the two of you have banked enough years of wonderful memories together that you will be able to rise above this predicament stronger than ever and with a deeper level of honesty and respect for each other.
Esther Mann, LCSW, is a psychotherapist in Lawrence. Esther works with individuals and couples. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 516-314-2295.