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I'm sick of being my friend's sidekick. What do I do?

The question

My old friend and I have always had a very uneven relationship. Picture Fred Flintstone to my Barney. He finally went too far with his "friend-bullying" and the relationship has changed for me. I certainly don't want to end this lifelong friendship, but having any kind of discussion on how he behaves would only turn out badly – imagine how Fred would react if Barney wanted to discuss Fred's bullying. So I've decide to remain friends, but to keep our contact to an absolute minimum ("Sorry, I'm too busy to meet for dinner," etc.). The dilemma is this: I've become very close to his teenage son over the years and we spend quite a bit of time together (I make sure he tells his parents whenever he's going to meet up with me), but I'm feeling weird ever since I've cooled out the dad. What am I supposed to do now?

The answer

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My memory of The Flintstones is a little hazy, but I'll yabba-dabba-do my best to help you out.

Now, I don't want to sound too shrink-like, but it's interesting you chose that way to describe yourself, and your relationship with your friend. Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble were inspired by (cough, cough, i.e. ripped-off from, cough, cough) Ralph Kramden and Ed Norton from the classic sitcom The Honeymooners.

Both Barney Rubble and Ed Norton are "sidekick"-types who, yes, are tormented and perhaps even bullied by their "instigator" friends – but, you sense, would be lost without them too.

Life would be more peaceful for Barney without Fred and Ed without Ralph – but also a lot flatter and less interesting. Would anyone watch a Barney Rubble or Ed Norton show? Nix.

I guess what I'm hinting at here is: If you are truly a sidekick type deep down, you may secretly need your instigator friend – someone always urging you, to quote a more modern TV Barney, sitcom ultra-instigator Barney Stinson from How I Met Your Mother, when he's urging his friend to lick the Liberty Bell, in Philadelphia, to "grab life by the crack and lick the crap out of it."

And to continue in the shrink-type vein, you do say, "I don't want to end this … friendship" and also Freudianly describe him as a "lifelong friend" – and your life's not over yet, friend.

Basically, I am very pro-making-it-up with people, especially lifelong friends.

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I know it happens sometimes when you've been friends a long time that the person stops treating you with respect and courtesy. Usually a short or medium stint in the friendship penalty box will solve it.

But you have to talk to him so he knows what infraction, exactly, he's being penalized for. (We always think people know why they're bugging us, but all things being equal and human nature what it is, I've found that's rarely the case.)

Even if you can't bring yourself to make up, you owe a lifelong friend more than this "sorry, too busy for dinner" b.s. explanation.

That's way passive-aggressive. And really, is anyone ever fooled in 2013 when you drop a WASP-y type froideur on them with no explanation? He knows you're not that busy: You're hanging out with his kid all the time! Another question: When you rappel deep, deep into the murky depths of your soul, push open the creaky door labelled "The Truth," tiptoe into the crepuscular gloom of that room, go to a filing cabinet marked "My Real Motives for Doing Stuff," and pull out the one marked "Why I Hang Out With My Cooled-Off Friend's Teenage Son," can you honestly tell me there's nothing in that dossier that says "… to stick it to my friend a little"?

Have you given any thought to the message it sends the son? I mean, by hanging out with the kid and not his dad, you are in effect saying: "I like you, not him. You're good, he's not."

This puts the son in a state of internal conflict, and when there is a conflict, as a wise friend of mine says re: this type of situation, "Family trumps friends."

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Exactly right. And what it means for you is that when you're wondering who might be the ultimate loser in this ticklish three-way transaction, check in the mirror, because that could be the guy.

If mending fences with your friend is absolutely out of the question, the least you owe him is a two-topic conversation.

Topic one: Why you decided to drop a froideur on his derrière out of what might seem to him like the clear blue.

Topic two: You still want to have a relationship with his son and hope he's cool with that.

Of course a teenage son can hang out with whomever he pleases, and maybe it's Father's Day coming up that makes me say this, but I think it's bad juju not to have not only the dad's permission, but also his blessing, for that.

What am I supposed to do now?

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