BRENT STOLLER

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What “Seinfeld” Taught Us About Friendship

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(Question has been modified for space and clarity.)

I’m a happily married father of two. We have a family we hang out with regularly who we’ve been friends with for a long time. Let’s call them the Jacksons.

The husband, “Michael,” is a party animal who’s clingy. This past New Year’s, he threw a man-baby tantrum because our group of friends wanted to go to a movie instead of drinking. He showed up to dinner drunk and ruined the evening. We didn’t talk to him for awhile after that, but all was well by the Super Bowl party. (Go Pats!)

Recently, we planned a trip to New York. The week before we left, Michael asked where we were staying, and I told him Times Square. Within a few hours, he texted me the receipt of his booked hotel — in Times Square.

It was so awkward. One of the nights, my wife and I were going to have a date, just the two of us, to celebrate her birthday. We had reservations at a nice restaurant and tickets to a Broadway show.

Then, here comes Michael, suggesting we cancel that and go out as families. When I said no, it didn’t take him long to text me pictures of his tickets to the Broadway show we were seeing. He and his wife were on the other side of the theater, but still…it was so uncomfortable, because he never asked if we were OK with any of this.

What do we do?

We don’t want to be rude, and we like hanging out with the Jacksons in small doses. But every time we do, we can count on a barrage of texts to make future plans. And this New York incident is downright disturbing. It feels like “The Cable Guy.”
–Caught Between the Loon and NYC; Boston, MA

Your friend, “Michael Jackson,” has moonwalked so far across the line and so far beyond what’s acceptable that you can barely make out his glove’s glitter. He’s that far out of bounds.

Ruining social outings; crashing vacations and Broadway shows; throwing tantrums when he doesn’t get his way; borderline stalking you. His behavior is straight out of a movie.

Although I must admit I’ve never seen “The Cable Guy.” Which is unfortunate, because I love referencing pop culture, and I would’ve loved to have written this answer based on that movie.

Instead, though still in that vein, I’m going to lean on a more familiar (for me) source of pop culture to prove my points:

“Seinfeld.”

After all, Jerry struggled with a few Michael Jacksons of his own.

And while among its writers the show’s motto was, “No hugging, no learning,” the lessons gleaned from Jerry’s dilemmas can help you sort through yours…

THE CHILDHOOD FRIEND

The Dilemma: Joel is an obnoxious, self-absorbed dolt who’s oblivious to the world around him. Jerry befriended him as a kid, because Joel had a pingpong table.

Now, as an adult, Jerry’s still stuck going to lunch with him, where Joel berates their server for not knowing the exact source of the turkey on his sandwich.

Jerry tries to break up with Joel but fails, leaving him to screen his phone calls and write a list of excuses to reference every time Joel asks him to hang out.

But no amount of excuses or rejections will slow Joel down, because he just doesn’t get it.

The Lesson: Michael Jackson doesn’t get it, either.

Clearly he’s unaware there’s any problem — much less that he himself is the problem.

If you want to keep it this way and not turn this into a big deal, you can mitigate Michael’s insanity by limiting your exposure to it.

That doesn’t mean ignoring him completely. But you could not call him as much, or not take his calls as often. (Like you did after New Year’s.) One thing I’d definitely do is stop sharing as many details with him, as he’s proved he’ll use them against you.

This withdrawal could give you some breathing room.

Of course, it’s also the epitome of passive aggressiveness.

And as we’ve learned from Jerry, a friend’s clueless aggression will ultimately trump your passivity.

THE POOL BOY

The Dilemma: Ramon, the pool boy at Jerry’s health club, strikes up a friendship with Jerry. At least, Ramon thinks it’s a friendship, leading to a series of real-world encounters in which he leaches onto Jerry.

Everything comes to a head at a subway stop, where Jerry decides he’s had enough.

“Look Ramon, you’re a nice guy. But I actually only have three friends. I can’t handle anymore,” he says.

This does not go over well. Ramon begins harassing Jerry at the club — until he gets driven to the bottom of the pool by a Newman cannonball.

Ramon almost drowns; Jerry loses his membership when he refuses to administer mouth-to-mouth.

Nobody wins.

The Lesson: Direct confrontations are a double-edged sword.

On one hand, they ensure you get your point across. There are no lines to read between; everyone knows where everyone else stands.

For instance, you could say to Michael Jackson what you said to me: His behavior is inconsiderate and at times “downright disturbing,” and it’s ruining the relationship.

You are well within your rights to say this. And in a perfect world, it’d be a great thing to say.

On the other hand, we don’t live in a perfect world.

Too often the person taking issue (you) fails to express himself in a considerate, respectful, non-attacking manner.

And the person causing the issue (Michael Jackson) rarely internalizes the message and instead gets angry, upset and/or defensive.

The result is a drowned friendship no amount of CPR can resuscitate.

THE NEIGHBOR

The Dilemma: Kramer is the keeper of Jerry’s spare set of keys.

Though he’s supposed to only use them in case of emergency, Kramer instead uses the keys to enjoy Jerry’s more desirable apartment whenever Jerry is away. He hangs out there, hosts women there, even takes bubble baths there.

Until one night when Jerry brings a date home and finds Kramer there with a date of his own. Jerry immediately confiscates Kramer’s keys.

Convinced he got a bad rap, Kramer hitchhikes to Los Angeles, where he tries to make it as an actor, frightens Fred Savage and appears on “Murphy Brown” before getting falsely accused of murder.

While visiting L.A., Jerry hashes things out with Kramer. Shortly after, Kramer moves back to New York — at which point Jerry reinstates his key privileges.

The Lesson: The middle ground can lead to a happy ending.

Like Kramer, Michael Jackson has overstepped his bounds repeatedly.

Unlike Jerry, though, what you don’t want to do is keep quiet — then explode the next time it happens again.

Whether you choose to address the issue in person, by phone or through email, give yourself a beat to cool down from this New York incident.

This calmness will allow you to stress how much you value Michael and the Jacksons’ friendship and how much you enjoy hanging out.

It also will allow you to politely make clear what boundaries Michael’s crossed in the past, and what boundaries you need him to honor in the future.

He might not take it well initially, and you might have to give him time to process it — which he’ll hopefully use to look at the “Man in the Mirror.”

But even if he doesn’t, simply getting this off your chest could be enough for you.

And if the friendship is meant to continue, the two of you will make the necessary adjustments and concessions to stay in each other’s lives. Just like Jerry and Kramer did.

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This article originally appeared on the Good Men Project.

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