“We’ll be Friends forever, won’t we, Pooh?” asked Piglet.
“Even longer,” Pooh answered.
— A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
Human beings crave a sense of community, we want to belong, we want to share our ideas and opinions even as we strive to establish our unique identities and thus friendship blossoms. Friendship lets us learn from each other, support each other, laugh and cry with each other. A sense of peaceful resonance fills us when we are with a kindred friend.
However, friendship is also fluid, ever-changing. It needs nurturing and care. Over time, what starts as a great friendship, built on common experiences and interests, might wilt and wither away. What brought us together loses the power to keep us together as we constantly grow and change.
How, then, can we identify when we have outgrown a friendship?
Lack of reciprocity
Give-and-take is the keystone of any relationship, including friendship. Is your friend unavailable for you, but you find that you have to make yourself available on demand? Have your exchanges become a venting session for your friend where you are smothered by all their negativity? Are you feeling drained by your friend’s self-absorbed tirades? Do they give you no scope for comfortable silences without any obligations or expectations attached?
Insecurities and resentment
Instead of rejoicing in your triumphs and championing your goals, your friend’s compliment tends to be back-handed. Their advice is dispensed from a holier-than-thou perspective. There is a growing lack of empathy and mutual trust. You find yourself thinking twice about sharing your low moments for fear of ridicule, and you are careful not to share your happy moments for fear of jealous retorts. There is a constant tug-of-war in your mind about revealing anything personal as it makes you an open target for criticism.
Anything you’ve done, your friend has done better. You mention a recent book you’ve read, but she rattles off the best-sellers she’s read; that too hot-off-the-press! You describe a local show you’ve enjoyed; but she professes to be a culture-vulture with backstage passes to boot. There’s always a subtle tension of wanting to be one better than you, even when you have no interest in such petty comparisons. What used to be a pleasant exchange of favourite things, has turned into an unsavoury wrestling match.
We all love some friendly gossip. However, your friend gossips about other friends and people you know in such a malicious and slanderous way that it is distasteful to you. And it irks you because you realise that she could be talking this way about you to others when you are not around. All too often, it seems like the line between a genial teasing and rip-apart censure gets blurred in these conversations.
You can’t seem to get a word in edgeways, and resign yourself to becoming a passive sounding board with this friend. You find it hard to keep your composure and be polite in your conversations. You are tired of your friend’s constant bickering over trivial things and their disproportionate reactions to minor misunderstandings. In short, it stresses you to maintain this one-way friendship as it brings out the worst in you.
So, you’ve noticed how exhausting and unproductive this association has become; you’ve identified factors that don’t seem conducive for a healthy relationship; you’ve weighed the pros and cons and decided that your life can be much more positive without this drain on your energy. You feel you are ready to snap the cord. What now?
Ascertain the reasons
First, make sure you are dissolving this friendship for the right reasons. Occasional lapses should be forgiven, but a consistent pattern of toxicity should not be overlooked. A rift is hard to mend unless the friendship is grounded deep.
Absentee friends or disappear-at-will friends are possibly in a genuinely troubling situation and are not ready to open up yet. Perhaps your friend needs this cocoon of isolation to recharge as they have to deal with something profoundly personal. Maybe it’s something that not even a close friend can peek into, and hence they have not been available for you.
Perhaps their acrimony comes from hurt feelings due to a miscommunication. People are sensitive to tones and inflections as much as the actual words; and potentially, your style of communication can use some improvement. Kinder phrasing, gentler manner and a jovial attitude can possibly ease the tension even in a volatile situation.
Play your own devil’s advocate and explore your reasons to be absolutely sure that this friendship is not worth saving.
Take the logical step
Consider communicating your concerns, along with a plan of action that will rectify the situation. Are you able to talk openly without putting the other on the defensive? Are you willing to apologise, if needed, with no strings attached? Can you discuss a tricky situation without finger-pointing? Can you curb the urge to assign blame? Can you approach delicate conversation without unease?
If you’ve answered yes to most of them you are geared up for taking charge of the situation. Now, how best can you go about it? If only it were as easy as clicking a button to ‘un-friend’.
Talk from the heart
Set up a meeting to tell them what bothers you in as neutral a way as possible. Always, use “I…” sentences expressing your own feelings, rather than “You…” statements that are accusing and confrontational. Lace your talk with appropriate humour to keep it diplomatic.
If they value the friendship, they’ll make the necessary adjustments. Perhaps they didn’t even know that they were affecting you this way. If the clear-the-air talk is turning explosive, take some time to cool off and walk away.
And if they stomp off in a huff never to return, you are better off without the baggage anyway. If the friendship is important, then you’ll both find a way back to each other, willing to make the effort.
It is hard to break a friendship made in school/college/work or other similar social settings both of you are in. For one thing, you see them everyday. Plus, you might end up having to lose more than one friendship due to close associations and implicit loyalties.
Even if it is tempting, it seems quite impractical to change your phone number or move houses/jobs to avoid contact with this friend. Instead, set boundaries for yourself. Allow yourself to screen calls. Choose to distance yourself emotionally from a friend who has consistently let you down and failed to respect the two-way interchange.
Call them on it in a civil way, without nitpicking. A simple, “Sorry, I did not appreciate that. It makes me feel uncomfortable,” is all it takes to express your feelings truthfully, on the spot, minus the anger.
While it might take longer to forget the hurt, it is easier to forgive and move on. Holding grudges and letting ill-feelings fester is not only harmful, but futile. Chalk it down to a lesson learnt, a life experience that builds character. At least you are willing to release the toxic hold, which is the first step towards healing yourself.
“You will know that forgiveness has begun when you recall those who hurt you and feel the power to wish them well.” — Lewis B. Smedes
Very few friendships survive the test of time. The ability to pick up a conversation where you left off months or years ago; trust and respect for each other’s interests and ideas; a safety net for emotional vulnerability; and the privilege of both listening and being listened to; that is a special bond that transcends the mundane and enters the sublime.