Have an ethical quandary? Beliefnet's wise and insightful ethicist will sort it out for you. Just ask.

Dear Joseph,
I just wrote a letter that I'm now having second thoughts about sending. It's to a friend of mine, a person who somehow seems to bring out the worst in me. When I'm with him, I become sarcastic, and often a little bit nasty. So, I wrote him that it would be better if we weren't friends any longer. Now I find I'm feeling guilty about sending the letter and ending our friendship. What do you think?

Dear Confused,
Years ago, I found myself growing increasingly frustrated and annoyed with an old friend. It somehow seemed that whenever we were together our conversations quickly degenerated into banter and humorous insults. I found that I no longer looked forward to seeing him; it was tiresome and annoying to spend time with him. One day, I said to him, "I don't know why this has happened, but it seems as if whenever I'm with you, you turn every comment I make into a joke, and throw insults at me." My friend was taken aback. "I'll tell you the truth," he said. "I've been feeling for awhile that that's what you've been doing, and I've been getting pretty sick of it too."

I'm very grateful we had that conversation. To this day, I don't know how this silly and annoying quality had been introduced into our relationship (I still suspect he was more responsible for it than me, and he undoubtedly feels the reverse), but once we spoke about it, the nature of our social communication changed immediately for the better.

So, before dispatching any letters, I would speak to the person involved. If you find it difficult to say these things to your friend, then maybe use the medium of a letter, but one written in a very different tone. Tell him what is making you unhappy, and how you'd like the friendship to change. If you're real friends, then I suspect such a conversation or letter motivate this person to try to undo the damage done.

But what if your attempt to heal the breech is unsuccessful--if your friend thinks you're oversensitive, and has no desire to change his behavior? In that case, my instinct would be to terminate, at least, temporarily, the relationship. Sometimes, there are people who really don't bring out the best in us. I've witnessed this many times. There are people, for example, who are very cutting in their comments about others, and we find ourselves becoming more critical of others when we are with them. We become concerned that if we speak sweetly of others in their presence, we will sound naïve. The same applies to those who are cynics, and who mock and mistrust other people's ideals and righteous actions.

Such people have pernicious effects because they make goodness itself seem pointless. And, in your case, you find that in the presence of this person you become sarcastic and often angry. As I have long concluded, life is too short to spend it with people who neither bring us pleasure nor help us grow and become better human beings.

Of course, sometimes the person who has a negative impact on us is one to whom we are intimately related, and with whom it's not realistic to cut off contact (like a parent or sibling). In such a case, try and convey your concerns to the person so that you can bring the relationship to a new level.

But if you can't bring about a change, then cut down on--but don't eliminate--contact, so as to preserve your sanity. This particularly applies to overly critical relatives.

If you don't succeed in improving the relationship, eliminate, to the extent possible, that person's presence in your life. One should seek out for a friend a person who helps inspire you to be a better person, and in whose presence you feel better about yourself, not worse. Anything less is masochistic and self-destructive.

Joseph Telushkin, a rabbi and Beliefnet columnist, is the author of 10 books, including "The Book of Jewish Values," just out from Bell Tower/Crown.

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus