Third Party: How to handle a friend who trashes another friend

Dear Take Two:

I have a friend that has a habit of saying negative things about another friend of mine. She knows that I am friends with this guy she talks about. Whenever she does it, I just stop participating in the conversation, but should I be doing more? I'm worried that if I call her out on it, then she'll get upset or stop talking to me. But my other friend's feelings would be hurt if he knew what was going on. Is there a way to handle this without losing at least one friend?

—Big Ears

Says Jill: This is one of those questions that leaves nosy me yearning for more details, like if she perhaps dated this guy in the past or could now be interested in him and protesting too much, as the Hamlet quote goes. In other words, why are your feelings about this guy so different? If you're too shy to ask her why he bugs her so much, you should try setting up a coffee with the three of you, or a home-cooked meal, to see what insights come out in the invitation/refusal process. If that doesn't work out, consider asking him what he thinks of her (subtly, of course); it may be a mutual dislike rather than it hurting him to know she's running him down. If he turns out to be clueless, and there's no bad history with them, you might want to examine whether she's trying to get higher on the friendship chain with you by insulting him, and decide if a friend like that is worth the trouble.

Says Jacki: Yes, you should be doing more. You don't have to aggressively call her out, but you should make it clear that you're not going along with this. Say something like, "It sounds like you've had some annoying experiences with Bob, but he's always treated me well and he's one of my good friends!" Statements like that are good because they acknowledge your friend's complaints, but make it clear that you feel differently. Once you've made your feelings clear, redirect the conversation to something that you two do have in common.

Take Three from Big Ears:

I wouldn't try to set up an occasion with the three of us because that sounds awkward, but I am thinking over Jill's point about why I'd want to be friends with someone who makes a career out of running someone else down when I know he's a perfectly decent guy. Next time she starts this, which I'm sure will be soon, I'm going to let her know I won't listen any more unless she knows something I don't. I'll probably still hang out with her for fun, but I'm not going to trust her with anything important. I'm realizing that this is a really popular thing to do in my group, but I'm not taking part in it anymore.

Dear Take Two:

Do you have some sort of list of signs that your boyfriend might be cheating on you?

—Suspicious

Dear Suspicious:

We had so much overlap we decided to collaborate on this. The first and most important thing to consider: Have you talked about being exclusive and agreed that is what you'll do? Have you had this conversation recently, or revisited it recently? If not, he may be feeling perfectly comfortable seeing other people and is probably justified in doing so.

Then there are the more Cosmo signs that might alert you to the need for a talk:

• Being secretive about texts and e-mails when he wasn't before; frequently having to call someone back or move off where he can't be heard if he's around you when a call comes in

• Marked change in sexual desire or frequency (including an increase—someone else might be revving his engine)

• Accusing you of being interested in someone else

• Suddenly taking up an interest you clearly would refuse to share—gun shows, golf, deep sea fishing

But here's the kicker, the most crucial point we can make: If you don't feel like you can talk to him about your suspicions, it doesn't really matter whether there is someone else involved or if you are going to be able to "catch him" in the wrong. If you feel weird about things, spend your energy examining and strengthening your relationship, maybe even with the help of a counselor if you're both committed—that's much more productive than adding up cryptic "signs" that he may or may not have another love interest.