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January 6, 2010 11:45 AM   Subscribe

How do I deal with the pain of enforced interaction with an ex-friend?

I had a best friend. I mean BEST friend - we were joined at the hip, talked every day, worked together, had kids around the same time and spent inordinate amounts of time together. This lasted seven years. Then, she and her husband separated and she moved back home with her parents. Communication was cut off abruptly. Overtures from me - whether by phone, e-mail, or text, were met with nearly universal silence. So after about a year of this, I gave up. And I got a new job, so we haven't seen each other in months. But now we're both attending a local conference of people in our field and I'm feeling nervous about seeing her. The meeting is small - maybe 15 people - so it's not like I can get lost in the crowd. This feels so silly to me - I'm a 30-year-old woman and should be able to handle it, but I've been lucky enough to never have a friend who hurt me so much before and now I don't know how to process these emotions. I plan to be cordial, of course, but does anyone have any other tips for dealing with a situation like this?
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (25 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Just do the cordial thing. Just keep it to small talk, a stiff upper lip, and think of them like they're a shoe salesperson or something.
posted by rhizome at 11:48 AM on January 6, 2010

From my perspective I'd just say don't be too hard on her I guess, sounds like her life went off the rails with the divorce/separation.
posted by so_ at 11:51 AM on January 6, 2010 [19 favorites]

I had someone do this to me when I was younger. It hurts a LOT and it's very easy for the anxiety to build up and to overthink things and imagine all the worst scenarios if you ever see them again. I have so much sympathy for you right now.

In my case, I imagined things would go really poorly and spent literally years just freaking out about it, I guess. What actually happened is after ten years she contacted me again and apologized and things are great now. My point is, while it's very hard not to worry about these things, you don't know how things are going to be and you'll have wasted a ton of energy worrying if things go well. If things don't go well, worrying isn't going to help anyway. As best you can, try to relax and don't think about it too much.

As for what to do at the conference: She's the one that quit talking to you. Let her take the initiative to speak to you. If she doesn't, don't bother to speak to her; people do things for all kinds of weird reasons and as much as we'd like explanations, life is a lot easier if you don't expect them. If she does talk to you, your plan of being cordial is a good one -- even if, for some reason, she doesn't return the favor.
posted by Nattie at 11:52 AM on January 6, 2010

I should clarify: we had some mutual friends/acquaintances, and we still liked the same sorts of things so I always worried I'd run into her at various places. That sort of thing. In a way you're lucky that you know exactly when you're going to see her. The speculation drove me nuts.
posted by Nattie at 11:53 AM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm with so_: I'd give the friend the benefit of the doubt. It sounds like she may have been through a lot. I've had friends pull back when they feel like they're just total fuckups compared to me or other friends (and I've done the same).
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:03 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Seems to me like an excellent time to reconnect with a lost friend rather than a chance for bitterness and drama. Be nice. Talk to her. If she remains cold or distant and doesn't want to reconnect then just let it, and her, go. What do you have to lose?
posted by Pollomacho at 12:16 PM on January 6, 2010 [8 favorites]

One of my favorite sayings is "When in doubt, be kind." Be mannerly and polite, and know that she may have had a very rough time of it. Think of her as someone in need of a little kindness; you need not extend yourself further, or torture yourself with how she's interpreting your humane behavior. She may too be processing her emotions at the loss of your friendship. It may turn out to be permission for her to open communication, but *even if it isn't* you will know that you acted like an adult and a good person. That's something that you'll be able to live with long after this meeting is over.

Good luck.
posted by MonkeyToes at 12:17 PM on January 6, 2010 [16 favorites]

Speaking from painful but useful experience: even after 7 years of intense friendship, you cannot know what this woman has gone through, her fears, her reasons for not being in touch with you. It may be nothing like what you imagine.
It's entirely possible that divorcing and moving back in with her folks has made a big dent in her self-confidence. Having to face you -- still married? still happy? perhaps further advanced in your shared profession? -- may be very difficult for her.

It's equally possible that she's been through a hard time and wants to move on, putting anything that reminds her of her past behind her.

Other scenarios are also, equally, possible.

If I were you, I'd approach her with curiosity and an open heart. It's not just about you.
posted by Paris Elk at 12:17 PM on January 6, 2010 [15 favorites]

I understand that you are hurt, but you're coming off as kind of self-centered here. Like others have said, give her the benefit of the doubt. Some people isolate themselves when they are depressed; I certainly do.
posted by amro at 12:42 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I've been in a similar place as your friend. When I was younger there was very traumatic/painful incident with my family. In the end I did the same thing as your friend: I moved away and severed ties with everyone I knew. I moved out of convenience (not far, but far enough) with no intension of leaving all my friends behind. But I did. It was just easier to start over that way. Eventually fate/circumstance brought me back into contact with some of the people I had cut off and over time fences were mended and now we're friends again.

It's hard to say what your friend will do when you see each other. I wouldn't ignore her or act like she isn't there. Be cordial, and when a moment presents itself, say hi. I know the first time I bumped into one of my old friends I was really nervous. I thought he would hate me. It was a little awkward, but we chatted and exchanged info and eventually met up.

Obviously this is just my experience. But perhaps the perspective might help.
posted by phelixshu at 12:43 PM on January 6, 2010

You wanted to see her, now you will. Tell her it's nice to see her.
posted by StickyCarpet at 1:06 PM on January 6, 2010 [6 favorites]

Another vote for being friendly and warm. She hurt you, and very badly - and perhaps that's something you can talk about if and when you reconnect. Maybe she feels incredibly guilty about what happened and is even more terrified of seeing you than vice versa. Maybe it was one of those things where it escalated to the point where when she was ready to be your friend again, she felt it had gone past the point of no return.

I would personally ignore the overtones here of you being self-centered. That's nonsense. You were hurt badly by a best friend, and whether or not your friend had valid reasons for doing what she did does not in any way mitigate the hurt you felt.

That said - forgiveness is the most fucking awesome thing around. It's amazing. She may not want to reconnect - you may not either. It might be awkward. But you might just surprise the hell out of her and get a friend back in the process. And if there's even a slight chance of that, I say it's worth it.
posted by ORthey at 1:24 PM on January 6, 2010 [3 favorites]

Yes, it might turn out that you reconnect and she explains and there will be wonder and roses. But it might not.

Be cordial and casually friendly, try not to be cold if you can, limit your interactions, and realise that she probably doesn't want to have an awkward confrontation any more than you do, so with the two of you both trying to avoid each other, you'll probably be okay.
posted by jeather at 1:37 PM on January 6, 2010

Like you and Nattie, I was abruptly cut off by a best friend. It hurt immensely, and though it's far in the past it still rankles to think about it. If that friend waltzed back into my life, I'm not sure if I could completely welcome, trust, or forgive him.

Giving your friend a break and dismissing any bad blood is what Jesus would do, but is probably pretty hard for regular people. It sounds like you put in a lot of effort to try and reach out to her, and it makes sense that you'd be hurt by her non-response. I don't think that's overly selfish.

However, drama only leads to more drama. I think it's a good idea to be warm and friendly, if only for the reason that you don't want to escalate any sour feelings.

Maybe it would help if you approached it as if you were running into an old classmate - someone you like well enough and know a little bit about, but don't really consider yourself close to anymore and have no plans to keep in touch with. From there, if she wants to reconnect, let her take the lead. Sometimes friendships that break apart can never be perfectly fixed, but sometimes two people can go right back to being best friends. You never know.
posted by Metroid Baby at 1:39 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

Bring tissues.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:44 PM on January 6, 2010

Correct me if I'm wrong, but you don't have anything to worry about. She's the one who's ignoring you...and kind of owes you an explanation.

I think you have 2 choices here:

1. Ignore the hell outta her.
2. Cordial like with any other attendee.
3. "Hi...whats going on...I haven't heard from you? Are you ok?"

Either way, there is NOTHING for you to worry about.

PS. I suggest 2, unless she comes up to you at first. Maybe she just needed some time to get her shit together after she went through a life-changing divorce. She does have kids...and maybe she's focusing on them now, and not anything else.

Shit happens...good luck.
posted by hal_c_on at 1:44 PM on January 6, 2010

Friends do that for so many reasons. At least in your case, you have some idea about what happened. That's a lot to go through, most of which you don't know about. One year is nothing when it comes to a major blow like that. But you are equally justified in feeling hurt and bitter. Every one's threshold for trying is also different.

You really don't have anything to be nervous about. You did nothing wrong. On the contrary, you tried, didn't get a response and you stopped trying. When you face each other, make eye contact, say hello/how are you/Long time, no see etc. You can proceed after "hello" depending on the reaction you get. Its not the words, the demeanour will be unmistakable. You will know whether she wants to take a step forward or remain where you two are right now. And either way, you have nothing to lose. You can however learn two things from this experience. One, that people bahave in mysterious ways. You could encounter this again and the next time you won't agonize thinking too much about it. Two, don't ever forget how much it hurts and be the one to ever treat your friends this way. Also, either way, don't rule out the possibility that things could change in the future. Even when things turn sour, possibilities are always endless.

In short, keep your expectations low but try to keep your heart and mind open.
posted by xm at 2:04 PM on January 6, 2010

So you two are ex-coworkers who spent copious time outside of work together because you had similar lives. That isn't synonymous with Best Friend.

She obviously didn't consider you a Best Friend if she didn't turn to you in a time of dire need. More importantly, you are being a mediocre Best Friend at best with your total failure to be sympathetic to her needs.

Divorce and moving back home? I would feel like a total failure who would want to become a hermit too. I would feel uneasy going back to my old life and want a total reboot.

Sure, you deserve to feel hurt. But realize that the likelihood that this was done with any sort of malice or vengeance is nil. And if you were a true friend, you'd understand that she deserves the latitude she feels she needs to heal from this sort of thing. Even if it's difficult for you because it changes the shape of your friendship.

Friendship is like any other relationship. It will change and grow, and life might pull you further or closer apart.
posted by politikitty at 2:30 PM on January 6, 2010

Do you have another friend who is going who you can hang out with? Sometimes the addition of another person keeps things from getting too heavy.
posted by MiffyCLB at 2:39 PM on January 6, 2010

This is not a problem, this is an opportunity.

When you see her, be nice. Reconnect.

If that doesn't fly, then you've lost nothing.
posted by dunkadunc at 2:46 PM on January 6, 2010 [1 favorite]

I had something like this happen. When we were together - always in a group, she was friendly, obviously making an effort, but I was simply too burned by her complete rejection to respond; I treated her like all of the other acquaintances in the group. The unfortunate thing was that this obviously hurt her, I could see that it did, but since this was very much the best response I could muster, and I didn't want to just go off on her and yell. It was for the best that I wasn't interested in re-gaining any level of friendship with her, too, because after that, there was never another overture from her.
posted by lemniskate at 3:24 PM on January 6, 2010

I'm a bit younger than you, but I've had a "break up" with a best friend of 9 years (we were as close as you describe your relationship). I tried for several months to communicate with her, but she was kind of depressed about her post-college career/living/love life situation and decided that our friendship wasn't 'real' anymore and pushed me away.

I saw her at a concert some time after we "broke up" and I said hi as I walked by and she literally just put her head down and focused real hard on the floor and walked by as fast as she could. I haven't talked to her in years. I imagine your friend would be more professional and will at least say hello since it's a conference, but I wouldn't expect much when you see her. Say hi, smile, say "good to see you, you look great, I hope you're doing well." This puts the ball in her court and shows that you're willing to be friendly and talk, but I wouldn't be surprised if she didn't want to reconnect.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 4:47 PM on January 6, 2010

I've had this happen more than once in my lifetime--where a very very good friend stopped talking to me seemingly out of the blue. In retrospect I realize I *must* have been somehow responsible, but it wasn't explained to me ....I never found out.

The "silent treatment" thing is never a reasonable way to handle conflict. You have my sympathy that your former friend is so wiggy. It is unlikely that you would have have treated her the same way under any circumstances! Nevertheless, you do not have to handle things as oddly as she has.

Life is like high school...an endless high school! No matter if you are 30, 40, 70....there are people who think the world completely revolves around them. Your former friend seems to qualify! Let us feel sorry for her and realize that she must have deep emotional issues that are distorted. It is not normal to cut off a good friend without a good explanation. Be yourself, take your cues from her. I wouldn't go out of my way to engage her unless she made the first move.
posted by naplesyellow at 10:10 PM on January 6, 2010

Metroid Baby has it.

I had a "best friend" cut me off when we started college -- and she didn't even cut me off because of any personal drama. She just....did.

I've seen her a few times since then, and I've been...cordial. Most times I've known she would be there, and my stomach was in nervous knots before, but I stuck to just being cordial, and letting her make the overtures. If she'd ever opened a conversation with "so....I kind of ducked out on you, didn't I?" I'd maybe bring up how hurt I was by that. But...she hasn't. And I've figured that that's evidence enough for what kind of relationship she wants now.

It also helps to have someone you know now whom you can vent to -- both times I've seen my older friend, I've had a current friend I could talk to, and that helped a lot (one time it was a mutual friend I've still stayed in touch with, another time it was a new friend who was having a similar "omigod I'm about to see a frenemy" experience).

Be cordial and friendly, but follow her lead when it comes to whether you bring up The Past. Or HOW you bring up The Past (my own friend will harp on "can you believe I still know someone I met in Kindergarten," but she's not so much with the keeping in touch NOW, and NOW is what matters to me, so...okay, she's made her decision about what she thinks is important.)
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 10:11 PM on January 6, 2010

i had a really good friend who i spoke with almost daily ... until my divorce. i kept up the relationship for a while, but, not intending to, i discovered that my friend was adding to my stress level. so i cut them off.

a few years later, i got over it and reestablished contact. sometimes that happens in a divorce.
posted by lester's sock puppet at 7:32 AM on January 7, 2010

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