The Trouble with Envy

In a charming essay on envy, A.S. Byatt observes that it “works inwardly; concealment is part of its nature.”


Envy is a festering kind of sin. It’s also the Deadly Sin that dare not speak its name.

In the 21st century, the other Big Seven sins are more easily managed, when not downright recycled as virtues.  The “greed is good” 1980s and bubble years celebrated Avarice. Gluttony has become more a dispassionate public health problem than a sin; Sloth is arguably a virtue, not a vice, for the slacker generation that works “smarter, not harder”; Pride has been rehabilitated as the peppy, positive stuff of self-esteem; Wrath is the lingua franca of American politics; Big Pharma has alchemized Lust into a medical imperative, and its absence into a pathology that must be treated with Viagra.

But Envy still lurks and stalks in the dark alleys and bad neighborhoods of our minds. Nothing festers more virulently than unexpressed—unspeakable--envy.

When friends—driven by shame, humiliation, or self-loathing—refuse to acknowledge or confess to their envy, it gets sublimated into largely bogus pretexts and rationalizations for abruptly ending the friendship.

These pretexts attempt to neutralize envy’s bitter, corrosive acid into the alkaline of reason. Usually, they’re unconvincing.  Referring to envy’s literary embodiment, Iago, Samuel Coleridge described envy as “the motive-hunting of motiveless malignity.”

Sally and Sharon were, truly, like sisters. In their case it was no exaggeration. Sally vacationed with Sharon’s family. They’d been roommates, and in school together. They partied, grew up together, and shared almost everything, from freshman year in high school through to their 30s. Starting in their late 20s, their paths diverged. Sharon got married. Sally always wanted to, and she always wanted to have children, but that didn’t work out, and it was difficult for her even to find men to date. Then, Sharon told Sally that she was going to try to have a baby. At that time, their almost lifelong friendship came to an abrupt, irrevocable, heartbreaking and baffling end. Sally initiated the friendship break up.  

Sally claimed that she was aggrieved to the point of ending a 20-year best friendship because Sharon hadn’t been duly impolite in a brief conversation with someone that Sally had been fighting with for some time.

No one really believed this. Sally’s cover story was disproportionately puny to the depth, intimacy, and longevity of the friendship. One animating reason for the friend break up was clear, if unstated: Envy.

It sounds like an obscure problem but it’s not actually rare. Envy is a silent friend killer. I’ve been informally collecting examples of envy-curdled friendships for years, and, recently, I had occasion to hear more. Women in their 40s described how treasured, lifelong friendships were ended abruptly around major life milestones such as engagement, marriage, professional success, and motherhood. Friends dropped off the face of the earth when a baby came around; friends refused to attend a baby shower or acknowledge motherhood; others didn’t attend weddings on the lamest of pretenses, and then never got in touch; another gossiped viciously behind the envied one’s back.

Of course there are many possible reasons, and each story will sound entirely distinct. Envy is an adroit shape-changer and a master of disguise. It can always be made to look and sound like something else, even to ourselves—something reasonable and morally unimpeachable.

But each story sounds suspiciously familiar, too: The friendship ended with no real reason, the friend who ended it violated basic social courtesies and rituals, and the action was pungent with envy, since in each case, the ditched friend was achieving something that the other friend very much wanted for herself. The most common envy stressors were marriage and pregnancy.

Curiously, it isn’t the bad moments of life that are killing these friendships—those slurry, quasi-therapeutic conversations about break-ups, career failure, and bankruptcy— but the positive, happy moments of accomplishment or transition.

There is a pragmatic treatment for friendship envy. Carolyn Hax, the syndicated advice columnist, recently advised those afflicted with envy to think very honestly and hard about whether they would actually swap for the entire life of the person they envied. You can’t just cherry pick the envious, successful parts of their lives and toss out the rest. You might want Sue’s career success, Jane’s sex life, Ann’s legs, and Beth’s beautiful house, but do you want Sue’s money woes, Jane’s alcoholism, Ann’s wretched husband, and Beth’s career troubles, as well?

Suddenly, the pool of the enviable shrinks to manageable dimensions.

Is there even one person about whom you know a fair amount whose life you would want, if everything had to be included? We tend to envy the particulars, but a life doesn’t happen a la carte (in other pernicious cases the envious one strips her friends’ lives for parts and takes the best and most enviable from each and creates a composite, a sort of Bionic Woman to be envied, built from coveted parts).

The less literal remedy is that we need to fess up to our feelings, even the shaming ones. It may be the great unmentionable emotion, but we all have envy at some point, and some time, toward people we love and care for. There’s nothing wrong with the feeling, per se, only with letting it consume and lure us into to what Byatt aptly calls “pointless plots of destruction.” Let’s out friendship envy. It kills not because it is felt but because it is denied. 

Envy feeds on silence. But breaking the silence, as judged by the wreckage of many a stalwart female friendship, is so very, very hard to do.

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