I once had a therapy client, Jake, who introduced me to the curiously paradoxical term, “foul-weather friend.” Always fascinated by the many twists and turns of language, I explored with him the meaning he ascribed to the derogatory phrase he’d created for how others treated him.
Jake had, I thought, an unusually pleasing personality. He exuded warmth, understanding, generosity, empathy, and caring. Yet he had one feature that apparently seemed to prompt others to discriminate against him and be embarrassed by his company. Admittedly, he was not particularly attractive. But his biggest “flaw,” by conventional standards, was simply that he was obese.
And that isn’t to say all “foul weather friends” are morbidly overweight, for as a therapist I’ve discovered that individuals possessing what others typically regard as a facial or anatomical defect are thereby disadvantaged in making friends. It doesn’t much matter whether that imperfection is physical (e.g. cross eyes, buck teeth, an extraordinarily bulbous nose, or an awkward, unbecoming gait), or mental (e.g., a bad stutter, terrible temper, poorly controlled ADHD, or some sort of information processing disorder). Regrettably, anyone who stands out in an unflattering way is liable to be looked down or frowned upon, or outright rejected as a candidate for anything like a “true blue” friendship.
But moving beyond why some people struggle to attain the relationships they seek, let’s look at three kinds of friendships likely to be as frustrating as they are fulfilling:
1. The Fair-Weather Friend
Unquestionably, the best-known kind of disappointing friend is the one who’s only interested in relating to you when it’s easy, convenient, or personally gratifying for them. When conditions suit them (i.e., the psychological weather is welcoming, mild and pleasant) they reveal interest in you and you can generally depend on them. But as soon as storm clouds appear—whether, that is, you’ve lost your looks, fame, or fortune; feel despondent; or really need something from them—they quickly “take cover” from you. It’s as though you suddenly got demoted from friend to acquaintance, and they no longer experience any caring or responsibility for your welfare. And that lack of availability is likely to leave you feeling abandoned, and pretty much a persona non grata to them.
The two main attributes of steadfast, long-lasting friendships are loyalty and reliability. And these are qualities missing in fair weather friends. They may expect, and typically receive, unwavering devotion from you but aren’t motivated to reciprocate this kindness and consideration. If you just got divorced or lost your job, don’t expect them to be there for you. And if you’re going through a difficult time generally (meteorologically, getting heavily rained upon without an umbrella), it’s not prudent to anticipate any comfort or protection from them. For you’re not likely to get it.
“Here today, gone tomorrow” might be a way of describing these friends’ untrustworthy presence in your life. You can’t safely turn to them in times of emergency or personal crisis, although when all is well with you they’re happy to join you—say, for lunch, especially if you’re the one preparing it (!). For one simple example, consider a participant in an Internet forum on the subject, who notes: “Bill stayed for lunch but he wouldn’t help me with the yard work.” (No doubt he felt he had more important things to attend to).
2. The Foul-Weather Friend—Type A
Curiously, there are three kinds of foul-weather friends: the first two, which I’ll call Types A and B, are inversely related and depict two distinct contrasts to the fair-weather variety. The third foul-weather friend, which I’ll refer to as Type C, takes us directly back to where we began—with the hapless, heavyset Jake, so jinxed in achieving genuine friendships.
As regards Type A, it’s when things aren’t going well for you that you capture their interest. Ironically, you’re much less attractive to them when your internal barometer registers somewhere in the optimal range. They’re more comfortable being in your corner when you need support, and are then happy to offer you succor and sympathy. They’re somehow relationally “turned on” to you when you’re suffering some burden or hardship. And during these times of misfortune, they’re good at empathizing with your feelings and validating your viewpoint (why one forum respondent designates them schadenfriends! ) .
Strangely, however—and in direct opposition to fair-weather friends—when you’re doing just fine, they pretty much absent themselves from your life. It appears that in this mentally or emotionally improved state, you’re no longer experienced as having much to offer them.
What, then, do these individuals get out of being there for you almost exclusively when you’re facing adversity? And why wouldn’t they enjoy your company all the more when your mood lifts? After all, opting for negatives over positives seems rather perverted.
So far as I’ve been able to determine, this is a phenomenon yet to be explored by academic researchers, although (as with fair-weather friends) several forum contributors on the Web have seen fit to comment on it. Having myself done some 40,000 hours of therapy over the past 40 years, I’d like to propose my own empirically derived understanding to account for this peculiarly human tendency.
Obviously, there must be something about functioning in this (supposedly, at least) altruistic role of consoler that meets the particular needs of these foul-weather friends. It must make them feel better about themselves—perhaps more valued and important. And, paradoxically, maybe “one up” in the relationship as well, since earlier their needing to subjugate themselves to the needs of others made them feel “one down.” If in their original families these individuals were acknowledged or validated only when they were subordinating their wants and needs to those of other family members, it makes sense that as adults they’d feel compelled to act similarly. For that’s how they learned to adapt to their parents’ preferences in order to feel more appreciated and accepted.
Having “internalized” these self-sacrificial messages, later in life they’d actually (however unconsciously) be on the lookout for those who might be thankful for their help. Strategically putting themselves in a position to assist others could be therapeutic for whatever feelings of anxiety, insecurity, and inferiority that plagued them during their upbringing. It could afford them an increased sense of power, capability, and control. (And here it might be instructive to look at a much earlier, 3-part post of mine called “From Parent-Pleasing to People-Pleasing,” 2008.)
3. Foul-Weather Friends, Type B (the “user”) and Type C (the “used”)
These two foul-weather friends operate symbiotically. Although Type B’s are the ones who are exploitative, Type C’s paradoxically get something favorable out of the relationship as well. So to see the latter as simply victimized by the former doesn’t really do justice to this not particularly healthy union.
The way my client Jake (clearly a Type C) saw himself as a foul-weather friend was on the basis of others’ (namely, Type B’s) getting in touch with him only when none of their closer friends was available. In other words, he wasn’t ever their first choice, but their last resort. It was only because he was so empathic, responsive and reliable that they held him in reserve—as a kind of substitute, 3rd or 4th tier, friend. Beyond that, he was viewed as an acquaintance, hardly a friend at all. And he was painfully aware of this circumstance, despite his remaining grateful whenever he was contacted. And this even though he’d already experienced that if he himself had a problem, these essentially self-serving friends couldn’t be counted on to offer him any understanding or support.
. . . a foul-weather friend, only seeks you out if they have a problem, need a shoulder to cry on, a ride to town or someone to watch their dog, but otherwise they act as if they don’t even know you. They’re only your chum when they’re glum [and, I might add, believe you can console them or cheer them up].
As one forum participant notes:
I have two friends who love to lean on me when they are having a tough time and “need to talk.” But when things are going well for them I hardly hear from them.
And to add another personality dimension to this discussion, consider the words of this respondent:
Introverts can be really great confidantes and friends . . . and we must find a balance in how we spend our energies with others so that we’re not too often in the “helper” role.
I’d like to close this piece with yet another quote. For I think it reflects a truly high-minded, enlightened response from someone “used” as a foul-weather friend. Rather than reacting bitterly to being exploited by self-seeking Type B’s, the writer (in her “The Bad Weather Friend,” 2016) suggests a more humble, accepting, and even appreciative, attitude in dealing with such individuals:
They [the Type B’s] always have someone they know they can reach out to, and how humbled I am that they know it’s me. I could feel petty and jealous that they [don’t] invite me to dinner, or I can feel honored that they [do] invite me into their struggles. I can marvel that sometimes after years have gone by without a word, someone will think of me when they need something, when they need encouragement or advice, and know that I’m the person they want. . . .
So we thank you, friends, we bad weather ones who are waiting in the wings. We thank you for trusting us, for turning to us. Most likely you come to us because you know we will be there, because something in us wants to be there. . . . We’d like to share in some of your good times as well, but if we don’t get it we’re still happy for you. . . .
Sometimes we [too] need a shoulder to cry on. Sometimes protecting everyone’s secrets gets heavy and we just need someone to sit with. . . . So I ask, friends, on behalf of all the bad weather friends, don’t forget about us until you need us. Let us be all-weather friends.
© 2019 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.