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The question

I have a friend I've helped through hard times, including often taking him out to eat. This friend now has a full-time job but still calls and says, “Are you going out tonight?” If I say yes, he rides the bus and comes there. I usually pick up the tab – and, since he has no car, offer a ride home. This is becoming a once or twice a week thing and is getting expensive. Somehow I will have to stop it. I am not supporting a child here. How do I stop this selfish behaviour without ruining a friendship?

The answer

“No good deed goes unpunished” is the pithy saying variously attributed to Oscar Wilde, Clare Boothe Luce and others.

I would like to expand on that, shade it in a bit and probably be a tad less pithy by saying:

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When you consistently perform a good deed or service for someone else, you may discover, over time, depending on the character of the favouree, that your good deed or service becomes “your thing,” and thus invisible – and the favouree feels zero gratitude for your efforts.

Parents of teenagers will understand what I’m saying.

Let me give two examples from my own life: doing dishes and walking the dog. How many (seeming) eternities have I spent slaving over a sudsy sink, thinking those around me were turning internal cartwheels of appreciation that I was shouldering the burden of this never-ending task?

And how many tens of thousands of times did I walk our family dog (Murphy, now sadly deceased, R.I.P.) through sleet and hail and snow, in rain and horrible muggy weather, thinking my loved ones were sending metaphorical thumbs-ups and fist-pumps of gratitude my way for my stoicism?

Only to discover my efforts in these departments, if anyone ever thought about them at all (i.e., never), came to be viewed as “my thing” – and on the rare occasions I dared suggest anyone pick up the slack in either of these departments, they would squawk and bridle.

In effect: “Dad, why are you suddenly hassling me out of the blue to do the thing that is traditionally your thing?”

Slowly but surely, I realized that in order to have anything I do appreciated, it would be better if I were to force my beloved loved ones to get off their behinds and help out.

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And so it has come to pass.

By the same token, it’s clear to me picking up the tab and giving your friend a lift have become “your thing” – i.e., invisible, and no longer met with gratitude on his part.

Your job now is gently to ease him out of this mindset.

Even if it means a bit of tough-love pushback – or pullback, really. You need to pull back from being cast as the character in his life who whips out the plastic when the bill comes, then becomes his personal pro bono Uber and drives him home.

You say he has a full-time job. Next time you go out, say something to the effect of: “Who’s going to pick up the tab?”

Or even (you have my permission): “So: are you going to pay this time?”

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If he says: “What? No!” You say: “Why not?”

If, spluttering, he then turns around and responds with (words to the effect of): “Because … well, I don’t know, because … that’s your thing!” Say again: “Why?” Or even: “You’re working now. I picked up the tab all those years. Now it’s your turn.”

Same goes for the lift home. You, at end of meal: “So how are you going to get home?” Him: “I assumed you were going to drive me.”

You (with puzzled, blank, almost cherubic face): “Why would you assume that?”

Passive-aggressive, some might say. But better and, I think, more effective over the long run than any kind of one-off confrontation.

Eventually, he’ll get the message. There may be some friction as he navigates the transition period from using you to viewing you as someone no longer useful to him in this vein.

But in the long run it’ll be beneficial for both of you.

You’ll save money – no small consideration. He’ll no longer look upon you as a doormat. And I’ll wager that eventually he will come to appreciate the services you’ve done for him as, like a newborn faun, he slowly, with knees trembling, learns to stand on his own.

Are you in a sticky situation? Send your dilemmas to damage@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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