Dear Carolyn: I'm single, educated and retired. I own a beautiful home in a unique location, am involved in creative pursuits and travel quite a lot. What I don't have is a spouse or children. I am estranged from my siblings because they are mentally ill — the mean variety who purposely inflict damage to property. I am alone.
I've just experienced another friend expressing jealousy in critical ways — sucking in breath, mean laughing — over my ability to travel. I don't brag, or go on and on about experiences. These friends are surrounded by family and love. I'm sure none of them would trade places with me. What can I say to defend/protect myself?
Carolyn says: I understand your impulse to "defend/protect." That's the effect snark tends to have.
But if you acknowledge your friends' envy as a defense mechanism of its own — and it is — then suddenly what you have is a group of people rushing to defend themselves against one another.
This is such a missed opportunity — to listen, to learn, to understand, to support, to appreciate. Especially so since you're all supposed to be friends.
I hope you'll push past this urge to defend yourself and instead, counterintuitively, make yourself vulnerable: "You're just joking, I'm sure, but it stings. There are parts of your life/lives I'd kill for." Or: "I love that I can travel, but that doesn't mean the reasons I'm free to travel aren't painful."
Often the purpose of a response is to shut down further discussion of a topic that's too painful or overworked — understandably, and the ability to do that is an important skill to have. But it's not the only response, and it's not always the necessary one for the moment.
In cases like these, where you're among friends and where more understanding might actually help — unless you just need nicer friends — please at least try to find a response that prompts further discussion. Think empathy. Think, "Do we always want the one thing we don't have, or is that just our mind's way of trying on alternate lives to remind us why we chose our own?"
Think of it as an experiment, too, if that helps you approach it with a level of detachment, which is an alternate, less distancing form of protection. It'll still help you find out whether your friends are serious about what it means to be friends — or if they're just looking for foils.
E-mail Carolyn Hax at email@example.com, or chat with her at 11 a.m. Friday at washingtonpost.com.