How do you get rid of a friend?
May 15, 2005 10:45 AM   Subscribe

How do you get rid of a friend? Once upon a time I was carefree when it came to making friends, now I'm a little more discriminating when it comes to who I want to spend my time with.

I feel guilty when old friends call me and I never call back but the cold hard truth is I don't ever feel the need to talk to these people again.

I feel like it would be rude to call them back and say I don't ever need to / want to talk to you again. At the same time I know if I call them back and chat a bit it will only encourage further contact be it on the phone, in person or online.

What should I do - stay friends, continue to ignore their calls until they stop calling (which never seems to happen) or find a way to let them know how I feel.

What would you do in my situation?
If someone wanted to end a friendship with you how would you prefer they do it?
posted by thefinned1 to Human Relations (29 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd rather they just not contact me. With time I'd get the hint. Besides, if you go out to explicitly end friendships, you'll really just make enemies, and that's not the same thing as a friend you don't speak to anymore.
posted by furtive at 12:31 PM on May 15, 2005

What I've done in that situation, since calling back does perpetuate the cycle (and maybe they're just calling out of obligation anyhow), is to call back, after a looooooong delay, and apologize. Then I explain that I've been really bad about keeping up with phone calls. I make my reasons sound pretty permanent (usually I blame my erratic schedule and additional-to-work obligations, which is always true in my case), and ask to take the conversation to email. Once it's an email back-and-forth, it's much easier for me to dash off an update every now and then. It takes less time, too. After a while, you can just CC them on big updates (new house pics, back from a trip, etc.) and they feel like you still think of them from time to time. [I have sometimes needed these old associates for info and phone numbers or networking, so it's good to have it drift apart as pleasantly as possible.]
posted by xo at 12:34 PM on May 15, 2005

If you don't want to talk to them, don't call them back. They will eventually get the hint. Some folks might confront you, at which point you have two options: Continue to ignore them or call/email and let them know that you're in a different place in your life now than you used to be and can't be the kind of friend that they are hoping you can be.

That way you will get the point across without having to get into a laundry list of their shortcomings. It's not them, it's you. And it sounds like it is you and not them so you won't even be lying.

I have been in your situation and have both ceased communications* and stated outright my reasons for suspending the friendship. The first way is definitely less ugly, but the second way allows for some closure. I guess which one I would do depends on the level of friendship. A very close, long-term friend deserves an explanation but a casual acquaintance, not so much.

*The downside of this is that I'm one poor correspondent to begin with, and my terrible email and phone call habits are usually NOT accurate reflections of my feelings for someone. A lack of understanding about this by one person led to the end of the friendship after a rather dramatic confrontation, so I guess the point is that no matter what you do, if the person in question wants to make a stink out of it, they will and you just kind of have to be ready to deal with it if it happens.
posted by jennyb at 12:35 PM on May 15, 2005

The need for you to say "I don't ever need to / want to talk to you again" sounds like you harbor anger for them.

Just let it trail off. when they call back a second itme for your inconsiderateness...say that y've been terribly busy, that you've met someone, and you know they'll understand. Ask them to try you back again in two weeks. Repeat.
posted by filmgeek at 2:31 PM on May 15, 2005

If you don't want to talk to them, don't call them back. They will eventually get the hint.

There is of course a downside to this. If somebody continually didn't return my calls, I'd probably think "This asshole thinks he's too good for me. Fuck him."

The "Fuck him," part is of course, your goal, but you will wind up with people who think you're an asshole. The question is whether that a snall price to pay for ridding yourself of them.

(disclaimer: I am not calling you or anyone else an asshole. merely extrapolating a reaction to a situation.)
posted by jonmc at 2:42 PM on May 15, 2005

Stop contacting them. Don't call back. Normal people will get the message. If you're unlucky enough to be saddled with one of these types who don't, only then will you need to say anything directly to them.

I estimate I've lost contact with something like 95% of all the friends I ever made. In every case simply ceasing communication did the trick. Of course, it might have helped that few of them liked me that much anyway. Probably.

Also, moving to a new town - or even better, country - is a great way of cutting ties.
posted by Decani at 3:03 PM on May 15, 2005

This rarely happens to me but when it does, it's important. Usually what I will do is a variant on what xo describes, except that I don't call back. I'll email a reply to a phone call, explain the reason for the long delay and move them to the "friendly update list." This was more of a big deal when I lived closer nearby my other friends so that I had to decline invitations occasionally, etc. Now that I live far away from everyone [on preview: Decani nails it] it's pretty easy to determine who I hang out with and who I don't.

I have only ever had to "break up" with a friend once and it was accomplished by explaining to our mutual friends my reasons for not returning his calls/invitations. This was after telling him directly, something along the lines of "I just don't enjoy the time we spend together and while I don't mind running into you socially, I'm not that interested in one-on-one hanging out." It was sort of terrible because he was still friends with my friends etc, but it did accomplish what I was looking for, which was not to spend any more time with him. If someone confronts you directly as to why you've been scarce, you can use this as well.

Sometimes partners can be a good foil in cases like these, answering the phone, giving you excuses to get off the phone and being an explanation for why you can't do more together.
posted by jessamyn at 3:08 PM on May 15, 2005

I think it would seriously depend upon the depth of friendship you had with the person before you decided there was no reason to stay friends anymore.

If it's someone you only occasionally ever hung out with, and don't have a 'history' with, there's probably nothing wrong with not returning calls, emails, etc., and the other person will probably get the hint. These things happen, and maybe you're being overly sensitive about how your absence in their life might affect them.

But if it ever went deeper than that, an explaination is owed. Speaking from experience here -- someone who I had a close friendship with through highschool and then college (we went to separate colleges), and then for a few years after that - like 10 years, total - decided to 'dump' me via the non-communication route, and it really hurt because to me it was a pretty inexplicable turn of events. Even today (lo these 7 or 8 years later) I still feel as though I was owed a bit of an explaination that I never got. The explaination that I did eventually get was flimsy and specious. Had this person said to me, "I think our lives are going in totally different directions, and I'm not sure where you fit in my life anymore," I really could have had some closure, and it wouldn't have been as bad as not knowing (or feeling lied to) in the first place.
posted by contessa at 3:08 PM on May 15, 2005

If the person is friends with friends you want to keep, follow jessamyn and contessa.

If you rarely or never seen them, change your phone number and get a new Gmail account. Make it private / unlisted, only give it to people you do want to hear from, and make it clear that they're not to give it out. The people you want to lose contact with won't be able to get hold of you.

If you do see them, you can that explain that you had problems with a stalker / harrassing phone calls / violent ex / family problems / telemarketers / whatever and had your phone disconnected. No, you can't give out your cell number, you don't have one / it's a work number and they're touchy about that sort of thing. No, I never check my e-mail these days, I'm just too busy for teh Intarweb. No, I can't meet for coffee, I've got a lot on at the moment. Yeah, catch you round like a donut. Walk away.

Alternatively, make wild accusations of infidelity against their significant other and get into a public drunken brawl. Worked for two former colleagues who were best mates.
posted by obiwanwasabi at 6:42 PM on May 15, 2005

If you are pissed off at the person in question, go ahead and let 'em know. Otherwise, just let it go and don't go out of your way to make things dramatic. Later on in life, you are likely to feel like getting back in touch with some of these people, and that will be a whole lot more fun if you just drifted apart rather than had some big unnecessary blowout.
posted by spilon at 8:26 PM on May 15, 2005

I've done it both ways...not calling back, and telling them that I just didn't want to be friends anymore. I would agree that the first way is easier, and for casual friends, nicer. Most people will either take the hint or just lose motivation call again. But if someone is socially awkward and can't, or won't, take the hint, then just tell them; let them be the one to deal with the awkwardness, not you.

Not long ago, I realized that a 'friend' wanted to hang out with me mainly so I would help him with his latest computer problems. I didn't return maybe two of his calls, and when he reached me, after asking me his latest computer question, he mentioned as usual that we should go drinking again soon, to which I replied with a deeply sarcastic "Yeah, sure." This would not work with everyone, but I knew it would work with this guy: smart enough to get the tone loud and clear, and too proud to feel it was worth his time to find out why I was being that way. I haven't heard from him since, but if we ever run into each other, the level of awkwardness will be tolerable.
posted by bingo at 9:02 PM on May 15, 2005

Why not just tell them honestly, "I don't see us as friends anymore"?

Saves a lot of guessing and wondering and waiting for both you and your ex-friend, and allows everyone some dignity.
posted by orthogonality at 9:19 PM on May 15, 2005

(mentally ticking through list of people who may not be merely terrible correspondents but are actually trying to peel me off the bottom of their shoes...)

I have to admit I've always gone the never call back route with anyone I really didn't want to continue communicating with, though in all but a couple cases it has been more like attrition by mutual consent. If somebody doesn't return my calls I usually give them a couple of tries then figure the ball's in their court and drop it. Personally I'd rather NOT be on the "friendly updates" email list of somebody who won't even bother to return my calls, and I sure as hell wouldn't add someone I hoped never to speak to in person to any list of mine... Maybe that's just my personal relationship with email, dunno...

Unless a formerly close, serious friend for some reason wanted to end communications, getting some kind of Dear John message or talk seems ridiculous to me and would offend me. People who don't call me back or are always busy, I don't need further explanation, and as far as letting me down easy, get over yourself. But a close friend... actually, no matter how you run that one it's going to be screwed up. It's never happened to me in either direction.

One way of excusing my inability to keep up that has generally goes over pretty well for me is telling people that I'm even having a hard time keeping up with my family and closest friends these days. If only it was just an excuse.
posted by nanojath at 10:38 PM on May 15, 2005

alternately (and though I got a little bit crucified on this one in the "how do you make some guy get the point that you will never be interested in him romantically" thread, it DOES have the merit of being straightforward), make an email list of all these friends you'd rather not have and send them this thread's link. Ah, one fell swoop.
posted by nanojath at 10:45 PM on May 15, 2005

The trouble with the "let it drift" approach is that some people are just really bad at correspondence. I'm someone who travels and moves around a lot. Some of my friends are great about keeping in touch and hanging out regularly while I'm living in their town, but the moment I'm out of sight, I'm out of mind. I once had a friend send me nothing, zip, nada for over a year (while I continued to write with decreasing frequency and dropped increasingly stronger hints of my concern for the friendship); and then the moment I moved back to town, it was as if nothing had changed for him. Hey, squirrel, great to see you! We went right back to hanging out often, talking about close things, our friendship restored. Some people are just like that, I've come to believe. A footnote on this story is that I've since moved away again and, as before, one or two notes in the first few weeks and then, click, radio silence.

On the other hand, one problem with being direct with someone you want to let go is that you can really fuck up what had once been a good thing. (Both this and the previous scenario presumes that the friendship in question is a serious one). On another occasion, my once very close friend got embroiled with a girl who (in hindsight) systematically eliminated all of his previous friends. Two days after I returned from two years abroad, he guy sat me down and told me all these terrible things about myself--that I was a bad person who does bad things to people, etc--and said he wanted to break it off. This was totally out of the blue--we'd had an amicable e-mail correspondence the whole 2 years I was away!-- and it devastated me. Maybe that was his/her intention: to really scare me off. If it was, then that's a profoundly selfish mode of operation.

In both cases, I would have preferred my friend just say to me, "Look, we've been though a lot together, but I think I'm changing. Maybe it's a question of energy or time or reward, but it's just not working for me." That still would have stung, and it may not have been 100% honest, but it shows more respect than radio silence, and it's less selfish and abusive than throwing rocks.

Finally, if it's someone you met and hung out with casually a few times only, a casual friend, then just let it drift.

Thanks for asking the question. This issue comes up for me again and again. I guess that's part of a traveler's life.
posted by squirrel at 11:25 PM on May 15, 2005

To add an anecdote: I have a good friend from college who always confuses me. I think that we are no longer friends, since she rarely calls or emails me. However, she sends mixed signals, like when I call she's *so* glad to hear from me, and has all these stories to tell, etc, and she insists that she's just bad at email/phone. I truly can't tell if she's not my friend or if she's struggling (because she does have mental health issues). Eventually I've realized that if she is my friend, she's not a good one, so I've decided to contact her very infrequently, but to check in just in case maybe once a year (standard "friend-in-hiatus/potential networking person/ex-friend" practice for me).

I think letting it drift is a good idea, but please actually let it drift - don't act like you are just bad at correspondence. Actually say you're busy and that you'd like to keep in touch occasionally, but you don't have the time/interest to hang out anymore. And please don't act all enthused when they call. It may hurt them a little short-term, but is much better than confusing the hell out of them long-term.
posted by lorrer at 6:06 AM on May 16, 2005

What is the goal of this exercise?

Friends are assets, enemies are liabilities. Why reduce the former while increasing the latter?

And have no doubt, there's nothing more hurtful, and more certain to produce enmity, than actively breaking up a friendship simply out of lack of continuing affection. (It's quite another matter is someone has done you wrong, or is presuming on your friendship in some unseemly fashion.)

As for simply cutting off someone cold turkey, it's not as likely to make an enemy, but it's still pretty irrational. The investment required to maintain a friendship at some reasonably civil level is trivial, and you never know when it might pay off.

In a network of hundreds of typically intelligent and ambitious old friends, classmates, and colleagues, I can think of only a few people who seem to have taken this tack. And they did it not only with me but with any number of mutual acquaintences. Our reaction in every case is perplexion -- why would someone be so irrational? How did they come to so esteem their spare time that one e-mail every nine months, or a drink every other year when someone's in town, has become intolerable?
posted by MattD at 6:58 AM on May 16, 2005

MattD: haven't you ever been in a situation where a friend has ceased to be an asset and become a liability? Where they're annoying the hell out of you? Where you just want them out of your life, to get a break from a source of tension and stress? Tolerating a person like that can be way more tiresome than running the risk of making an enemy by cutting them out of your life. Life is too short and stressful as it is to keep an ever-increasing collection of millstones around our necks. I don't agree that cutting someone out of your life in those circumstances is at all irrational. On the contrary, not doing so would be.

For the record, I've been on the receiving end of the "cut-off" treatment as well as the giving, and more than once. In one case I was pretty saddened since I liked the guy in question quite a lot (obviously more than he did me!) First I realised that he never called me; I always called him. Next I realised that when I did call him there was almost always an excuse why he couldn't meet up. I got the message, took it on the chin, moved on. We can't demand that people like us or make time for us. And we can't demand that people who used to like us continue to do so. Life just isn't like that.
posted by Decani at 7:09 AM on May 16, 2005

I'm going through a similiar thing right now, with a previously quite close friend whom I turned out to feel was a semi-psychopathic condescending prick. We have mutual friends, and we're very likely going to have to continue to hang out together to some degree.

Ending this friendship wasn't going to happen just by letting it drift away, not returning calls etc. Also, since we were going to have to hang out together no matter what, it couldn't really end ugly either. So, for what its worth, my solution was first of all to tell our mutual friends how I felt. Then as he likely sensed that something was going on, I let him know in the nicest way I could that we likely weren't going to be as close as we had been anymore.

It's weird how two well-meaning people can develop into being totally incompatible. And especially when only one of the two feel like that, it can become quite a problem. I had to toughen up to end my friendship, but when the friendship really feels like a destructive factor in your life, it's an act of necessity that you shouldn't feel bad about doing.
posted by cheerleaders_to_your_funeral at 7:24 AM on May 16, 2005

Yeah, I hear you Decani. You and MattD are talking about apples and oranges. You refer to a former friend who now is a kind of consistent harm to you. Even if this person likes you, if this person drags you down, he's no longer even a casual friend. MattD is talking about people who don't grind away at you, but who just don't super-jazz you or make you feel the way a good friend does. Relaxed, for example. If you find yourself agitated and feeling attacked, it's time to reevaluate your earlier classification of this relationship. I'm still agreeing with you, but I'm distinguishing it from what I hear MattD saying.

On Preview: good story, cheerleaders. Fucking friendships, I tell ya. It's strange that there are all these universal structures in friendships. That they all begin and end in really 10 or 15 different ways. If that. King Lear and In the Company of Men pretty much covers half of them.
posted by squirrel at 7:32 AM on May 16, 2005

It's clear to me from reading through this thread - which gives me a cold, sinking feeling - that there's no nice way to dump a former friend.

I think it's best to be honest, as tactful as possible, and a little flexible. A former college roommate is the probably the most neurotic and irritating people I've ever met. She can't make friends and so clings to the ones she has with a desperate intensity. Any time I've tried to cut her off she simply would not give up. I've been fed up for years now, but she and her husband were trying to work through some infertility issues for three and a half years and she was just so miserable about that I hadn't the heart to cut her off. But now, happily, she has an adorable baby, so the time is ripe to taper off contact. So I only answer her emails very occasionally.

I'm hoping that the next year or two will see us going no contact. Maybe I'll get a new job and move. Maybe she'll force a confrontation. I feel impatient and frustrated because I just wish she would leave me alone, but it is a good idea for me to remember that I'm not the only person in this situation, and that if all I feel is a little irritated, I've gotten off quite easily compared to her.
posted by orange swan at 7:55 AM on May 16, 2005

doh. My long thoughtful response to this apparently got eaten by the elves. I guess my basic response to this is that it's kind of unfortunate that there aren't more regular social expectations for clarifying the status of a friendship, because a lot of people will see it as sort of neurotic or melodramatic to "break up" with a friend, but on the other hand, if one goes by hints alone, it can be tough on either side to work out what's going on. I mean, I have had friends that I've wondered about - are they actually just busy, or are they sending me signals? And likewise I've had friends misunderstand my actions - sometimes I really am busy. sometimes I'm just not that interested in staying in touch.

The trouble is that it's hard to find good friends, who you have a truly mutual relationship with. There often seems to be an imbalance; with certain friends, I feel like I'm usually the one to get in touch or put in real effort, whereas with others I feel like I'm kinda the passive one, willing to hang out if invited, but not that likely to put aside other things in order to make sure we keep in contact.

How did they come to so esteem their spare time that one e-mail every nine months, or a drink every other year when someone's in town, has become intolerable?

a) I doubt that level of acquaintanceship is what's at issue here;
b) if you had enough people even at so minor a level of interaction, it could end up being more trouble than it's worth.

Your cost/benefit metaphor for friendship isn't one I'd naturally use, but if you want to think of it that way, it can be perfectly rational to cut off a relationship which you feel has greater cost than benefit. It can be draining to make social efforts with people you honestly would rather not spend time with. If you're naturally gregarious and just like people in general, maybe you don't experience this, but if you have a touch of misanthropy in you, it can be enjoyable to spend time with only certain people, and spending time with those you don't really like can be more trouble than it's worth.
posted by mdn at 8:29 AM on May 16, 2005

I think the kindest thing is to email and say you're busy and unable to be in touch. As others have said, contact the person only with very generic items. Over a few months, only reply to @ 1 out of 4 or 5 contact attempts, by email, and then only vaguely, again with the "too busy to be in touch" message. It helped that I haven't given one person my new phone #. The rambling, barely coherent calls where I could hear the ice clinking in the glass of vodka were a big timesink. Even before I changed phones, I had started getting off the line promptly, just saying I had no time to chat.
posted by theora55 at 8:31 AM on May 16, 2005

I've been on both sides of this, and I'm at the point where I don't really try to make new friends, either because I get too intense or it's too much work or the dynamics of finding two adult couples that get along are too complicated. It doesn't help that my spouse is not a real friend maker.

I actually found a former high school buddy via email, then realized that I don't care to be dragged back into one of the dorkiest periods of my life, so I'm doing the drift thing.

A friend is someone who gives you the benefit of a doubt, enjoys your company, and doesn't treat you as a project. By that count, in my late thirties, I don't think I actually have any real friends. [searches memory...] Nope, not really. A handful of semi-friends who I don't mind all that much, and my family.

Why am I telling complete strangers this? Oh yeah . . .
posted by mecran01 at 8:37 AM on May 16, 2005

Just don't call them back or answer their emails. Chances are that if you're the sort of person who finds friends expendable, they aren't going to mind all that much when you stop calling them back.
posted by anapestic at 1:01 PM on May 16, 2005

After a couple years, I'm still letting a friendship drift.
About two and a half years ago, I quit taking drugs. A major problem was that during the time that I was using, I selected my friends based on their drug use. In order to quit, I had to stop seeing these people socially in order to reduce the temptations. However, I had become very close with one of these people. We hung out constantly and even went on vacation together. We got along really quite well. During that time, he was possibly my best friend.
While sober, I tried to see this person socially and it was really difficult to not partake in my old habits. Also, I found that I was doing more interesting things with my time and becoming more of the person that I wanted to be while I watched my old friend just sort of wallow. I contacted him less and less and he eventually stopped contacting me. That's just fine, considering that I wouldn't know what we could possibly talk about nowadays. But I still run into him. It's really awkward and I feel bad about the whole thing. I feel like I kind of let him down but there was really no other way to get my life in order.

Evade and avoid. It's the easiest way and it really cuts back on the confrontations. Aside from having to break it off with someone who was close to me, I still get calls from people that I went to highschool with. I was never really that close to them and they're not doing anything interesting with themselves. I just can't bring myself to hang out and be completely un-stimulated by these people. A little small talk and not returning their calls works pretty well. It's difficult to shut people out entirely but it's easy to keep them at an avoidable arms-length. It's hard to blame someone for being "busy."

This sort of decision always tends to make me feel kind of cold and selfish. Then I realize, it's not the same as wasting food in front of starving children. If someone's getting a lot out of you and you're getting nothing from them, it's not really a friendship. There's a certain amount of personal exchange that goes into any relationship. It's not something of guilt or obligation. Any (personal, not business) relationship should be based on liking and respecting the other party enough that you care about them and being happy that this person whom you respect cares equally about you. Any imbalance is an unhealthy relationship and neither party should feel any guilt about ending it.
posted by Jon-o at 2:45 PM on May 16, 2005

[I have sometimes needed these old associates for info and phone numbers or networking, so it's good to have it drift apart as pleasantly as possible.]

This is key, because even though you want to end the friendship, you never know when you will need to use network with the person.
posted by mlis at 4:32 PM on May 16, 2005

For advice on friends and enemies, always look to Henry Rollins...

You tell me you're my friend
You say I know you
I'll trust you just as far
As I can throw you
Now I don't know you
I know my enemies
They show themselves to me with honest eyes
They hate my guts but at least it's the truth
I'll trust them just as far as I can throw them off a roof
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah

(Don't forget the "Yeah, yeah, yeah" part... It's crucial!)
posted by raster at 4:46 PM on May 16, 2005

Upon reflection, I think that this question was poorly worded in a way that resulted in confusion. The idea of "getting rid of a friend" seems odd and counter-intuitive. This left people split between giving advise about abandoning a deep, long-term friendship and abandoning an irritating schlub who thinks he's your friend because you hung out at the same parties a few times. These situations are galaxies apart, and the thread author should have made a point to clarify once people began expressing confusion.

But, what do I know? We ended up having a great conversation about it, didn't we? Can I consider you all my friends now? Who wants donuts?
posted by squirrel at 5:55 PM on May 16, 2005

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