More social awkwardness!
May 19, 2010 6:35 PM   Subscribe

How do you grieve a friendship breakup when you work with the person? And how do you then get over the chronic hopelessness with being lonely?

So I recently had a friendship end. Well, not so much end as change--he told me that he no longer feels we have much in common, and it fizzled out, and he needed space because he felt I was expecting too much from him. I acknowledge that I fucked up a bit in the friendship. Part of it is because we were so close before--we would talk on the phone for hours, talked about meeting up outside of work, and even ate lunch together. That was then. He forgot my birthday recently and won't say more than hi to me at work, although he made a thing of jam for a co-worker who was leaving her job. This change upset me, and I may have demanded a bit too much in the friendship.

There's a lot more to the story that I won't go into, but suffice it to say that our friendship, while it still exists, is no longer what it used to be, and it hurts me, and I want to know how to grieve.

What makes grieving difficult, though, is that I have Aspergers, and so I've constantly had trouble with friends. I haven't had a best friend since elementary school. I've screwed up so many friendships in some way or another that I'm starting to think that maybe I'm not meant to have friends. It seems like everyone has friends that they are close with/go out with/talk all the time with except me. Me, my "friends" always grow apart from me, and I'm thus starting to think it's me. Every time I see that episode of "Six Feet Under" where the woman dies and they can't find anyone to contact because she didn't have any friends, I cry, because I feel that sometimes when I watch that episode I'm looking at my future.

I'm seeing a therapist about this, and I know about the ways you can find friends (Meetups, etc.). My work/commuting schedule makes the Meetup thing difficult since a lot of the ones near me that interest me are on weeknights, and I live in an urban area where there are no people with a background similar to mine who I can relate to. Anyway, what's the point in trying if at some point I will make some social gaffe or other or become too needy and eventually ruin the friendship? The anxiety is way too much to bear.

I don't want to feel so hopeless, but I feel like my friendless future is staring me in the face all the time. And I want to properly get over this friendship in a way that doesn't put me at risk for more friendship loss. I know this entry sounds weird, but I'm a bit distraught right now. Thanks in advance.
posted by bookwibble to Human Relations (13 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I think there's missing information here. He says your friendship "fizzled out" because you don't have much in common anymore. If that were true, he would just be disinterested (not hostile, as you make it seem), and you would also be disinterested in him, right? Could this be a lie he is telling you to avoid hurting your feelings? I don't know if you want to eventually repair this friendship, but if you do, it would help if you could get him to be completely honest with you about why he no longer wants to be your friend.

Regardless of whether you want to repair the friendship, you need to spend some time away from him: not only to reduce your attachment to him, but to give him a break from (what he perceives as) your clinginess, and for both of you to become less emotional about the situation. It's unfortunate that you work together, but intentionally staying away from him while at work could be enough.

Also, you need to distinguish the loss of this friendship from never having any friends ever again. Those are totally unrelated. How did you become friends with that guy? The same thing will happen again.
posted by k. at 7:00 PM on May 19, 2010

I was looking for new friends my age/gender, so I used the "strictly platonic" section of craigslist. yes, some people use craigslist personal ads for non-sexual encounters. It actually worked out really well. I just said "I'm looking to expand my circle of friends and would like to find a good friend that has similar interests." I was looking for a single girl my age who would want to go out to bars and go dancing, but there are people on there looking for a variety of things. Think about it--most people meet and make new friends through school or work. That's pretty much the only time you're interacting with people in your peer group, so if you're trying to find new friends outside of work and school, Craigslist is a good place.

Sometimes friends fall out of touch as they get involved with their own personal lives. Other times they move away, or the friendship just runs it's course and one day you realize you're not having that much fun with the other person anymore. It's no big deal! It doesn't mean anything is wrong with you or the other person. That's just life (personalities and interests change, you know). Stop focusing on the ways that you "screwed up" the relationship, and move on to another one.

Does your therapist know of local support groups or meetups for people with Aspergers? I'd imagine that you'd have a lot in common (or at least you have 1 thing in common to talk about), but that you'd also feel more relaxed becoming friends with someone who shares the same anxiety about interacting and making new friends. I'm sure you could mention it in the craiglist post and find someone in the same situation.

Don't feel bad! I have a hard time making new friends because I'm shy, and it's really hard to meet new people outside of work or school (should I just go accost a friendly looking person in the grocery store?!). It's not because there's anything wrong with you, and it's not because you have Aspergers.

Good luck. And as Reese Witherspoon tells her dog in Legally Blonde (I know it's lame but it feels so strangely apropos), "Don't be scared, everyone will love you."

I'm rooting for you.
posted by wannaknow at 7:14 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

maybe I'm not meant to have friends.

Everybody is meant to have friends, and 99% of people deserve to have them; they're the best. :)

Consider expanding your interests; don't worry if they are people "like you" and more if they are friendly, non-judgmental people.

Start hanging out via an activity - could be a new sport, could be dungeons and dragons at the local game shop (pro tip; nerds and geeks tend to be less judgmental).

Don't try to rush it, let things grow organically, and be sure never to use a friendship as a substitute for gap in your own life or personality - that's too heavy a burden for most people to bear. Hour+ long phone conversations and intense, "love-like" friendships are a real alarm bell here. Those kind of friendships take years to develop; if you're getting those feelings quickly and early, you are not responding to the actual person and they are not responding to you. It's co-dependent, and yucky and weird.

Just be nice, enjoy seeing and talking to someone once a week or so, enjoy hanging out and remember that friends are great, but forget any "you complete me" "soul matey" "we just have so very very much in common" kind of stuff; the people into that are serial frienders and tend to have an ever-changing roster of these intense friendships, with equally intense friend breakups, etc. I suspect this has been the problem for you - it's not who you are, it's who you are selecting to be friends with.

So: join a new group, don't be too full on, see what happens. Stop seeing someone after it takes to eat one meal, drink one beer, watch one movie etc. Don't hang out with them for hours on end until further down the track, and you'll be golden.

PS Lots of people on Mefi will be your friend. Organise a meet up. :)
posted by smoke at 7:26 PM on May 19, 2010

I live in an urban area where there are no people with a background similar to mine who I can relate to.

What exactly do you mean by this? I'm having a hard time thinking of any kind of background so unique that there's no one in a whole urban area for you relate to. But even if it's true, it's still probably a good thing for you to stretch yourself and try to build relationships with people who you don't think initially you can relate to, and give it a shot to see if it works. (And yeah, do you know about MetaFilter meetups?)
posted by EmilyClimbs at 7:47 PM on May 19, 2010

I think what you need to do is work with your therapist to come up with some friendship guidelines. If the loss of one friend leaves you lonely then you were putting too many eggs in one basket. Most friends are not "hours long conversations" friends, and those that are are almost never co-workers. It might help to start thinking of acquiring friendships like building a pyramid. First find several people that you only have one thing in common with. There's your "we talk about baseball on Wednesday" friend, your "we vehemently disagree over who to vote for on American Idol" friend, your "will drive up to 30 minutes to watch a good horror movie" friend. Do that one thing with each of them. Until you have a bunch of these friends it will indeed be lonely. But the advantage is that once you have a bunch of these situational friends, you'll be busier. And by assigning each person a role you stop yourself from relying too heavily on any one of them. Now, sometimes one of these friends will invite you out for a drink, or to dinner. They then become your "horror movie and dinner not more than twice a month" friend. Things can keep progressing from there, and eventually you WILL find one or two people that have so much in common with you that they become your "hang out every Friday" friends. The thing is, since it sounds like your pattern is trying to jump over all these levels and put someone at a much higher level on the friendship pyramid than they're comfortable with, you need to let them set the friendship pace. That doesn't mean that you don't ever ask them to do stuff, but that you only ask them to do stuff at the same "level" and with the same frequency as the last thing they asked you to do.

And the fact that you live in an urban, and thus densely populated, area, makes it more likely that you will find someone who shares your background. Even if that background is "home-schooled farm kid, uncomfortable in urban environments" or whatever. The fact that you have made friends before is a great sign! You know how to make the connections, but you just need to spread your attention a little thinner. You're halfway there.
posted by MsMolly at 7:49 PM on May 19, 2010 [7 favorites]

I feel sad, reading how hopeless you feel about about friendship. Although I think that hopelessness is a perfectly "normal" and understandable emotion, I want to encourage you not to submit to the thinking and core beliefs that frequently give rise to these emotions.

It's always painful to lose a friend, and all the more if you've been lonely and thinking yourself "less than" for much of your life, which it appears that you have. In this case, it seems that not only the pain of "rejection" is present, but the lost sacred trust that bonded you. Worse, you hold yourself responsible for the loss of the friendship; according to you, the very intensity of your need for the friendship lead to its demise! (This last is a particularly tragic and insidious way to put yourself down. Unfortunately, I've been there.)

I wonder if this last idea of yours is valid: did you disrespect your friend in some way, running roughshod over his boundaries and his need for space? Even if that's the case, isn't it his responsibility to let you know that before he abandons the whole friendship?

If the roles were reversed, is that how you would have treated him?

Of course I don't know the whole story, but it does seem that you are awfully quick to hold yourself responsible for the unraveling of this relationship. According to you, you are guilty and he is innocent.

I think that if you buy that story when it is not true, that is worse for you than the loss of the friendship itself!

Is it possible for you to explain to your friend that while you respect and accept his choice not to continue to be friends, you would appreciate more feedback from him as to how he came to this decision, if only for the sake of closure and to learn for the future?

If he's not willing to do this, then I believe that your insistence on holding yourself responsible for his rejection is vastly misplaced. After all, how can you be expected to behave in a way that works for him, when you have not been told exactly what that looks like for him?

Can you really be guilty of the friendship ending simply for failing to read his mind?

In your post, I identified at least two thinking errors (according to Cognitive Therapy principles) that are quite standard when it comes to emotional pain. The first is Called All-or-Nothing Thinking, the idea that one gaffe could (and rightfully should!) ruin an otherwise solid friendship. Second, related to the first, is simple Perfectionism, the set of beliefs that maintains that you are unworthy or unacceptable if you do not behave perfectly at all times. To the extent that you hold these beliefs as true, I do think it would make getting and keeping friends very difficult.

However, you (and only you!) can change these beliefs if you want to, although support and assistance to that end would make it a lot easier. Changing your beliefs is very challenging, demanding work (not for the faint of heart!), but I have found it to be more than worth the time and energy involved. In this regard, I would strongly recommend two books which I have not only read, but studied in great depth, with abundant personal reward.

The first is Feeling Good by David Burns. The second is The Relationship Cure: A 5 Step Guide to Strengthening Your Marriage, Family, and Friendships, by my hero, John Gottman. The first is the most recommended book by psychotherapists to their clients. If you follow its instructions, it has been clinically proven to relieve depression. (Even if you don't have depression, this, to me, strongly demonstrates the personal power of its methods. He also wrote a sort of "elaboration," 25 years later: When Panic Attacks: The New, Drug-Free Anxiety Therapy That Can Change Your Life , also very practical and helpful for dealing with internal emotional pain.)

I hope this helps. I know that spending extensive time working with these principles (both Burns' and Gottman's) has made a world of difference for me!
posted by SociologistTina at 8:05 PM on May 19, 2010 [6 favorites]

The unfortunate truth is that throughout life, friends come and go. When one has a friend one really likes, it can be difficult to let go of the friendship, but that's the right thing to do. It feels awful, it involves grieving the loss, and it make one wonder if one will ever have a friend like that again. So that's where you are now. Work through the grief with your therapist. Rest assured that you will have friends in the future, but not one of them will be exactly like your departed friend, because people are all different. You will have friends you will enjoy in new and different ways. I'm rooting for you!
posted by exphysicist345 at 8:15 PM on May 19, 2010

Another way to find/make friends: For some reason, when I read your post, I thought, "penpals." I used to have lots of penpals when I was in high school, and I know you're not in high school, and people still penpal (see, it's a verb now!) into their 20s, 30s, 40s, 50s… It's not just for 10-year old girls or whatever. It helped me at a time (and I know tons of people go through this too) when it was hard for me to get close to people in person. Writing to people was much easier (like what we all do here on askmefi) - you can think about what you say, you don't have to worry about body language and social cues, body odour, things in your teeth, bad breath, your appearance, you can erase things and edit things. And there's something about getting handwritten letters that is really, really nice, using nice paper, decorating the envelope, whatever. You can have friends by mail from all over the world, it broadens your horizons, and you can find people who have the same interests as you. The problem is, the response is not instantaneous. That's why it's important to have more than one penpal, but to have a few, so while your letter is travelling to country x, another one has just arrived and you can take time responding to that one, etc. etc. And just like people in real life, you'll get along with some, you won't with others, people may stop writing to you and vice versa. And yes, writing letters DOES take time/is time-consuming, but so is having anxiety about all these issues. Here's a site to find some penpals.
posted by foxjacket at 8:35 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

You should Do Things! Going to meetups just to . . . meet up with people totally pushes me into the augh anxiety territory and I am unconvinced I could really manage it.

And now I'm in Foreign Lands where most people don't even speak the same language I do! Well, I can speak the language here well enough to get along, but really going-out-doing-things-talking-all-the-time friendships aren't going to happen.

So I solved my problem of LONELY by choosing to go out and do various activities. Dancing (contra is a good social dance option I've recommended before), music (Private lessons can be good even as an adult, and participating in a band can also be fun), sports (You can find Softball leagues almost everywhere, it seems, and Volleyball can also be a good intro Sport), crafts (knitting groups are particularly popular), and all sorts of other things can be done. Having that Thing that everybody is coming to do gives a point of common contention for everyone to start off from, and it provides a number of people all interested in the same thing. If you aren't feeling too much like talking, the activity also tends to lend itself towards allowing you to concentrate on that without having to really interact outside of the bounds of the activity.

I think the benefit of these things is not necessarily that they lead into deep friendships, but that they provide a wider net of shallower friendships that are nice for hanging out with once a week and having casual conversations without any anxiety about getting it right or wrong. I get the feeling that getting out and making these kind of shallower friendships might be good for you, because it will make you feel less like you need to have one or two really close friendships, and if you have a friendship that drifts apart you'll still have a bunch of others to spend time with.
posted by that girl at 9:12 PM on May 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

I don't have Asberger's, but I do know what it's like to lose friends and be lonely. It's good that you're talking to a therapist about it.

Everyone here gives good advice for finding friends. I just wanted to say that all friendships have a kind of organic rhythm to them. You go through periods of being very close to one friend, and then not so close for a while. It's just the way things go. People get busy, or they get interested in different things, and so they fade in and out of your life. It's actually one of the things I like about friendship. People usually come back with interesting experiences and ideas to talk to you about after a hiatus. I know this isn't so comforting to you, but if you follow others advice here and make a wide range of friends (not all have to be bosom buddies), you may appreciate this rhythm of people weaving in and out of your circle with time.

Good Luck!
posted by bluefly at 3:45 AM on May 20, 2010

Hello, fellow lonely person. I used to ponder posting a similar question. My situation is different, since I'm married (to a lovely, very busy person) and have young children, but I haven't had people in my life I'd call friends for years now (unless you mean the Facebook variety). This is due to a few factors: first of all, I've moved around frequently for more than a decade. Secondly, I'm introverted, awkward and shy. Thirdly, I'm a little weird, so it's always been hard to find people close to my wavelength. Finally, there's a language barrier (I live abroad).

It hurts. I used to wallow in self pity, counting how many years it had been since anyone shared their inner world or problems with me or really, even asked me out for a coffee.

The steps that have helped me immensely:

- Acknowledging that this is a genuine need I have which isn't being met; it's perfectly normal for it to hurt. Accepting my loneliness and the hurting as a fact I need to live with, just like some people have to live with a pesky chronic pain.

- Accepting that my loneliness is partly due to my personal limitations, but nevertheless refusing to whip myself into self loathing; I am who I am, and I'm doing my best, gaffes and all. I think of it as being my own best friend.

- And this is important: cherishing all the connections I have with people that fall short of friendship. They nevertheless fulfill a fraction of my need for human interaction, closeness and the feeling of being useful or helpful to others. The more I give my time and kindness to people, the better I feel, being able to unfocus from what I don't have. Call it practicing "outgoing love" if you will.

- Accepting that there is a chance this is something that will never fundamentally change, but making sure my life is as active, fulfilling and interesting as possible nevertheless.

I'm not saying you shouldn't try to take steps to change the situation. You got good advice here and hopefully it'll work out for you - I'll be keeping my fingers crossed. Just trying to convey that there are ways to live with loneliness, for however long it lasts.
posted by sively at 4:31 AM on May 20, 2010 [3 favorites]

Right. Recognize that:

1- All friendships ebb and flow.
2- Take your friends as they are. Maybe they can't give you what you need or want, but enjoy them for what they are.

I've found that there are a few different kinds of friendships, and they very often don't cross boundaries well. One type is no better than another, and this isn't meant to be restrictive, only descriptive.

There's the lifelong friend, who you cherish as an equal, and pick up right where you left off no matter how long it has been.

There's the work/school/neighborhood friend. You are friends of convenience. Admit it; enjoy it. Everyone has had the super close friendship like this, and then when you finally end up doing something outside of work/etc., it sucks hard. You don't love them any less, you simply share one strong bond, and few others.

There's the day friend and the night friend. You can spend the day with a day friend, they will help you move, they will pick you up from the airport, they will go and change a flat tire on your grandmother's car if you are out of town. And then there is the night friend- you have a hell of a good time out at clubs and bars and whatnot, but if you see them during the day, you want to kill them. You love them, but you wouldn't loan them money.

In other words, (sively's, mostly), enjoy the people around you for who they are, for the connections you share. Be good to them. Try new things with them, but don't be disappointed if it doesn't work out. Don't take it personally if the relationship fizzles or fails; the *relationship* failed, not you.
posted by gjc at 5:21 AM on May 20, 2010 [2 favorites]

Thanks for posing the question that's been on my mind for the last couple of years myself.

I don't want to take up too much time describing the scenario I was in, but things between a really trusted friend started to drift apart in communication, and while I understood that my friend was adjusting to a life in graduate school in a foreign country which of course entailed cultural immersion and finding a new and supportive social network, I realized I was becoming bitter in that I thought previous friendships didn't have to become completely sacrificed for this to happen. I tried to find out why and when the answers were inconclusive, evasive and contrary to the reality I had believed our friendship was built upon, I was troubled, angry and depressed.

I try often to grapple with my current and past bitterness (some days are better than others), and I also try to be more aware of my thoughts, how those thoughts are built around constructing certain parts of the past, and associating current events with past memories with my friend---when these associations happen, I note them down. Making these notes have been helpful to me, and perhaps it might be of use for you. At first it may seem counterintuitive for the purpose of getting over someone or finding closure, but charting the origins of these thoughts might help you mitigate the effect of losing the essence of what was your friendship by allowing you to be confront them on your own terms. You will start to sort things out and not let them cloud other forms of interaction and future friendships you will indeed have.

gjc's comment about the failing relationship is a valuable way to look at it---because social relations are always shaped by the context in which they are formed. Some of these relationships are able to adapt to new situations and scenarios, and others simply don't---they remain static, they become "irrelevant" or they simply run their course. Contemplating this might not make you feel better, but I do think you are on your way out of this pain when you become increasingly aware of this concept. Best of luck to you!
posted by wallawallasweet at 3:20 PM on June 18, 2010

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