Failing or Ending Friendships
September 16, 2011 11:31 PM   Subscribe

Perhaps a particularly female problem - when/should one ever "dump" friendships or just downgrade people to "associate"? How is this done? Reference to female because of so many articles similar to:

I have an ever sad dwindling number of friends. As of now only one will be invited to my wedding. I made them all in school (and even then I only liked having 1-2 really close friends). I'm not great at keeping in touch. But I am persnickety and sensitive about whether they respond to my emails, etc. Obviously, there are some friends that mutually just drift apart and it doesn't bother anybody. But sometimes I sense a truly rude snub or brush off that, in that female way, is never brought to the surface. Last week, I found out that an old college friend blocked me from seeing her Facebook wall after I'd written something (not offensive) on it. Instead of calling or messaging me to say, "Hey don't write on my wall" or "I didn't like what you wrote," she just blocked me from seeing it. So I messaged her, unfriended her and basically dumped her. I don't really do lukewarm, superficial, just-cordial friendships.

Another example: One of my truly decent female friends (friend A) and I have a mutual friend. When friend A went through a divorce and miscarriage, she sent out an email to us. We don't live in the same city. But I recently found out our mutual fund didn't even reply to that email or call her to offer support/talk/etc. If that happened to me, I would have dumped her immediately. Are there reasons why a person on the receiving end of total neglect should try to even keep that person as a friend? I mean how do you complain about someone ignoring you or brushing you off after something like that? It sounds so whiny. And being female, most women will just say "Ohhh gosh I'm sorry I meant to call. I'm a horrible person." But then it will just happen again. It didn't happen to me (although this person hasn't exactly been responsive to me either) but I think no matter how busy you are, how many babies you have, if a really good friend from your past tells you "I got divorced and my fetus died" - you do something. You take 5 minutes out of your day to write back or call or jot down a reminder. Friend A is far more forgiving than me, and even paid airfare to attend this person's wedding. Personally I think this kind of behavior clearly says, "You are just a footnote in my past and you and your problems aren't exactly on my radar." Why pretend anything else?

I have a third female friend from college who writes me letters and emails every so often and sometimes takes forever to write back. But she actually had brain surgery twice and had a tough time generally with a divorce. So...I give her a wide berth.

There's a lot of detail I'm leaving out. But I'd just like to hear different stories or opinions on when old friends should be kept (especially if they brush you off or are just plain rude in not responding to attempts to chat). Or when friendships are worth trying to salvage. And if they should not be kept, how should these things be ended or "downgraded"? I think the quiet brush off is much worse than just saying, "Ok it was fun, but now let's both have a nice life. Although if you ever get cancer please tell me because I'll still be sad and want to send you flowers."
posted by KimikoPi to Human Relations (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I'm not great at keeping in touch. But I am persnickety and sensitive about whether they respond to my emails, etc.

So you're not great at keeping in touch but you expect other people to be?
posted by crankylex at 11:53 PM on September 16, 2011 [27 favorites]

IANAS (I am not a sister)

I think this may be an issue with compassion and understanding.

Compassion is a two-way street for relationships that requires me to acknowledge the other may not respond in exactly the same way that I would, and I must respect that difference.

You may be a little short on the compassion side.

This is based on my own experiences of growing older and realizing that friends of any kind get harder to come by, we are all fucked up, and love is not something that comes naturally - we have to work at giving, learning and teaching it. You are trying the hardass method. In my experience that does not work very well, and it looks like you are learning that lesson.
posted by roboton666 at 11:58 PM on September 16, 2011 [6 favorites]

Sorry this is a bit long... the summary is basically give people more chances, try making it clear when your friends upset you (they're not mind-readers), and don't tell people that they're unfriended.

I don't entirely understand what the kind of situation is that you're saying needs explicit unfriending. If someone doesn't contact you at all after a crisis in your life, I'd imagine they probably aren't contacting you often otherwise... they probably already don't consider you that close of a friend, so nothing needs saying (similarly someone who blocks you on facebook, assuming you checked and she did block you individually and didn't just shut down her wall altogether). It's just an opportunity for you to recalibrate your own understanding of the friendship - I know that can be painful. BUT I think it's good to give people second chances; if they DO consider you that good of a friend, then you should be able to tell them that you were really upset. Maybe something big was going on in their life that you don't know about.

Another important thing to remember is that not everyone knows how to respond to tragedy, however good their intentions, and it's easy to be paralyzed by not knowing what to say. This is especially true if someone's overwhelmed by other things - not a 'good' excuse but still a true explanation other than 'oh, I secretly hate you'.

Speaking as a woman with many friends, both male and female, I've usually found that "Oh no, I meant to call!" is entirely true. Flakiness and forgetfulness - or stress about what to say and how - are not all that uncommon. I do not have the same experience/attitude you have of 'female friendship' being deceitful. Certainly the men I'm friends with would be at least as likely to do the same thing, forgetting or being paralyzed but feeling guilty. Just, no one would be surprised by it, because there's this idea that women are all supposed to be psychic selfless empathy-masters.

You're allowed to have high standards, and to say that you only want the kind of friendship where you're a top priority in their minds at all times even when you live far apart (I have... one friend like that. And my partner). But if you find that you're wanting more friends, you might try giving people a bit more understanding and a chance to improve, especially if you're close enough to give them honest feedback. Hey - you're 'unfriending' them anyway, can't hurt to try and salvage the friendship first.

At any rate, your example of the message you'd want to send ("have a nice life, tell me if anything awful happens") is pretty much how I think of my more distant friends and how I've always thought people treat it when they 'drift apart'. So I don't think you need to spell that out particularly.
posted by Lady Li at 12:11 AM on September 17, 2011 [6 favorites]

Over the course of my relatively short life, I've lived in six cities around the world. I'm good now at making friends, and at keeping them, even when we aren't in each other's lives the way we used to be. Facebook is a godsend for this, because you can manage the "everyday" feeling where you aren't responding to just the big things in peoples' lives, but the quotidian.

Sometimes people just don't have the time, and they really just don't have the time. Do not take this personally. I'm pretty sure that you would have dumped me as a friend ages ago, because sometimes I take *weeks* and *months* to get back to friends. It is absolutely not personal at all, life does get in the way.

I just met up with a friend of mine that I've known from the very first day of high school (I'm 31 now). We have managed to stay in touch despite being on different continents and time zones. We meet up, oh, every few years. Sometimes we'll both be guilty of taking forever to get back. I wasn't able to go to her wedding because I was abroad--I've missed out on a lot of weddings for this reason. She's never held that against me, or the fact that I can be an infrequent correspondent. Yet, how awesome was it that despite this, we've still managed to be friends, and close ones at that?

It's pretty great to have friends that, even when you are infrequent correspondents, you can still pick up right where you left off. We're all pretty forgiving of that from each other.

It sounds like you are taking it personally when people don't respond to *your* schedule for responses. How are they to know? Maybe your friends are going through something just as traumatic as what you outlined about a in your post: brain surgery, divorce, etc. There was something I read on here that has really stuck with me: "Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle." Extend that kindness to your friends when they are not as responsive as you would like.
posted by so much modern time at 12:17 AM on September 17, 2011 [10 favorites]

But she actually had brain surgery twice and had a tough time generally with a divorce. So...I give her a wide berth.

Did you mean that you gave her a lot of slack -- that is, you called, wrote, didn't worry as much whether she reciprocated in a timely way or at all? Or did you really mean that you gave her a wide berth -- that you stayed fa-a-ar away from her? No, right?

I have myself gone through times when I felt stressed by friends' needs -- and haven't wanted to talk on the phone, or email, because I thought I didn't have time -- and then looked up, later, feeling lonely and wondering where everybody went. So I feel you.

It's hard to treat people really the way we want to be treated -- I think we mostly treat people the way we think they'd treat us, or according to some general principle that we think puts us in the clear, or according to how we feel. We judge others by their actions, but ourselves by our intentions.

For example, I hate confronting people about stuff -- but I know I definitely prefer it when people confront me if they are upset with me, instead of making me wonder -- so I try. Recently I had a weird little bit of Facebook drama, where the girlfriend of my ex-husband (father of my kids) got butthurt over some banter between my ex, another old friend, and me. It seemed like my ex had then hidden his posts from me. So I got butthurt myself -- I've known him since I was 17! We have kids together! WTF! -- and then... took a deep breath and just called him and asked him. He had not. He was fine, I was fine, the girlfriend will be fine in time, whatever... and scene.

Try it. Try to be the friend that you want your friends to be to you, without worrying for the time being whether they are.
posted by pH Indicating Socks at 12:35 AM on September 17, 2011 [4 favorites]

Assuming for the moment that there's not actually a strong gender component to this, because I have with some friends observed what I think of as slights, snubs, and unexcused blow-offs and simply reacted to them differently, I can report that as I ease into my forties I've been surprised by which old friends turned out to be true and probably lifelong friends.

I can think of several people with whom I experienced periods of social awkwardness or distance who nevertheless turned out to be awesome much later. And I have a long list of people who might still turn out awesome. There's no real cost, for me, to letting their silences slide, so explicitly dumping or downgrading a friendship would be for dire circumstances only. I'd have to want someone out of my life so much that I'm OK with making them happy I'm out of theirs (of course, if it gets to that point, go for it).

On the other hand, I don't put a lot of effort into phatic communion / social grooming, and perhaps that's a gendered element of this. If I were big into writing personal letters or calling someone just to talk, I'm sure I'd take being ignored a bit harder--at least hard enough to resolve firmly not to bother with particular people.

Still, my advice is to treat all communication as a dead letter. Send just what feels right, whether it's to satisfy your own moral sense or to fulfill your own need for expression just because you want to, with no demands or definite expectations--just a hope for a decent average return overall. And otherwise, don't worry about what other people choose to do. Assume they're reasonable, and show them you are too.
posted by Monsieur Caution at 12:40 AM on September 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Assuming for the moment that there's not actually a strong gender component to this, because I have with some friends observed what I think of as slights, snubs, and unexcused blow-offs and simply reacted to them differently, I can report that as I ease into my forties I've been surprised by which old friends turned out to be true and probably lifelong friends.

A million times this. Stop gendering this behaviour. A lot of what appears to be happening to you are not snubs, per se, but simply bad communication. I mean, do you think that if you had more male friends they would be better at sending timely replies or more likely to tell you when you hurt their feelings?

Friends should be kept until you no longer care for them or like them. While I think you've been unduly judgemental of the friends you cite here - and hypocritical considering your own bad communication habits - it is apparent that you don't wish to be their friend anymore, so it's best that you 'dropped' them.

However, if you value a friendship and you want to enjoy time with someone again then call them and take them out. Listen to their problems, they listen to yours, you both giggle and friendship resumes. Call, text or email instead of putting a message on their facebook wall. I don't know the nature of your message to the friend you mentioned in your post, but if it was at all passive-aggressive then she simply reacted in kind by blocking you.

You never have to actively downgrade your friends. If you find that you haven't kept in touch, regularly forget birthdays, don't catch up when you're in the same town - then you're already downgraded. Doesn't mean you're bad people.
posted by dumdidumdum at 1:36 AM on September 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

I had a friend who sounds a lot like you. She is smart, quick, quirky and interesting. But she'd drop people for a huge range of perceived slights. She never gave anyone a chance to explain. Just, boom, you're outta here. I knew it would eventually happen to me and sure enough it did. She heard from a mutual friend that I was pregnant and thought she should have heard it from me first.

It's too bad because she is pretty lonely. I've tried to keep her in my life but she's not really interested. She takes the easy way out, and pushes people away, rather than do the sometimes uncomfortable and difficult work of talking things out, speaking up when necessary and giving the people you care about a chance to explain. Instead, she's appointed herself judge and jury and there is no appeal.

I don't necessarily hold my friends to the same standards that I have for myself. We're all different, and I can appreciate that someone has qualities that I value even if I don't love every single thing about them. For me, it makes for a richer life. If you see everything in black and white, you'll miss out on a lot of the beautiful colors in between. Not every single friend has to be someone you can call in the middle of the night, who will drop everything for you.

Why not just be the kind of friend you want to be, and accept that others are doing the same? You're asking for advice, so mine is: Drop the judgmental attitude. Look for the best in people and you'll usually find it. Accept that most people are actually doing the best they can, and remember there's a whole lot you really just don't know even about those closest to you. And really, don't have a plan on how to "downgrade" friends. Start working on upgrading your own friendship skills.
posted by Kangaroo at 5:51 AM on September 17, 2011 [22 favorites]

Your longest paragraph is about your judgment of the communication that occurred between two other people. It isn't even about you. Are you looking for reasons to be offended?

But sometimes I sense a truly rude snub or brush off that, in that female way, is never brought to the surface. ........ And being female, most women will just say "Ohhh gosh I'm sorry I meant to call. I'm a horrible person."

You seem to have a problem with women in general.
posted by headnsouth at 5:59 AM on September 17, 2011 [6 favorites]

I had a friend who's a lot like you (and Kangaroo's friend!). Like you, she was "persnickety and sensitive" about everyone's interactions with her and, like you, she routinely dumped friends for perceived snubs.

What it looks like on the receiving end is that you've got someone extremely self-centered, ungenerous, and uncharitable, with impossibly high standards (and often secret standards you were unaware you violated) who loved to bring the drama when her high standards weren't met. She couldn't let anything GO, couldn't forgive anything, and basically, the spectacularly dramatic way she was constantly exiling people from her life eventually made being friends with her not worthwhile.

Once she stopped speaking to me for several months because when I found out I was pregnant I kept it secret for 12 weeks -- first to ensure I wouldn't miscarry, having had some difficulty getting and staying pregnant, and second to tell my MOTHER first. She was FURIOUS that I slighted her by not communicating on HER time schedule and telling HER before my mother. She was double furious because she asked me when I was about five weeks pregnant and had just found out I was, and I said something like, "well, we're hopeful. We'll wait and see." Which she considered lying to her.

She eventually dumped her best friend because her best friend failed to respond to her e-mails quickly enough and that's when the rest of us in that "group" had basically had enough. she was also, like you, big on alerting people to when they were no longer her friend instead of letting it fade gracefully. She sent a terrifically nasty e-mail about how they were no longer friends to a mutual friend of ours -- actually, a lot of stuff you said in your post, about how we should be up front and not just pretend and it was a snub and a brush-off -- and it made the women in question CRY. The dumpee is one of the nicest people in the world and she'd just been BUSY. I mean, the dumper was frankly CRUEL.

Also, if you said this to me: "I think the quiet brush off is much worse than just saying, "Ok it was fun, but now let's both have a nice life. Although if you ever get cancer please tell me because I'll still be sad and want to send you flowers."" I would seriously make sure not to tell you if I was dying of a horrible disease. It's just mean.

If you don't like women, because there's sure a lot of complaining and generalizing about women in your post, you don't have to be friends with them. It's not a rule.

Cut people some slack. The older you get the more often people's lives are going to get in the way of their friendships, btw, as work gets more demanding and children have things going on and elderly parents get ill. You can be a generous and charitable friend who thinks the best of your friends, your you can be "persnickety and sensitive" about everything and find yourself without very many friends, because not too many people are willing to put up with someone so high maintenance for very long.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:27 AM on September 17, 2011 [18 favorites]

I used to feel a lot more like you -- I was very sensitive and constantly thought "that person emails our other friend more, they don't value me the right way and aren't my best friend!" or something like that. I had very definite expectations of what people should do.

Then I realized, over many years, that people can't read my mind (shocker!) and may want to make a general positive motion or have general positive thoughts in my direction without exactly matching up to whatever weird ideal was in my head. I still have a problem with that, where people don't act or respond exactly how I want them to so I don't see what else is positive in the interaction. And I bet your friends are doing helpful and positive things for which you aren't giving them credit.

Overly sensitive perfectionists represent!
posted by lillygog at 7:47 AM on September 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

Also, as I get older, I just value the fact that people try. You say you're not good at keeping in touch, but you probably have positive thoughts towards all those people. You mean to try, so probably a lot of others mean well towards you, too. Give them credit for that.
posted by lillygog at 7:50 AM on September 17, 2011 [3 favorites]

It sounds like you are having a hard time seeing how other people might perceive you, and of putting yourself in other people's positions. Just because you have a certain set of standards for friendship, doesn't mean everyone will share those standards.

There generally doesn't need to be a "dumping" or "downgrading" of friendships in any formal manner (unless, I guess, you're talking about close friends with whom you've attempted to salvage a friendship but which can't be saved for whatever reasons). It's completely graceless to "inform" someone that you've unfriended them.

You don't do "lukewarm, superficial, just-cordial" friendships, but it may do you well to consider that you find yourself in relationships like that because people sense that you are difficult, demanding, and unforgiving as a friend. There are people I like very much who are like that, and I just can't get that close to them or invest as much into them as I would other friends who are easier and gentler and more relaxed. Friendships with people who have a strong sense of the right and wrong ways to Have A Friendship are strained and difficult and stressful.

Rather than figuring out how/when to break-up with your friends, maybe you need to ask yourself what you can do to be the kind of friend people want to contact, what you can do to be supportive of others even when it feels difficult (and sometimes this just means backing off), and what you can do to give people the benefit of the doubt when you are feeling slighted. I can guarantee you, most of the time you are being "slighted" in friendship, it probably has nothing to do with you, but instead with things happening in the life of your friend that you know nothing about (and may have no right to know about, even if you are a friend). And if you keep making it out to be about you, eventually the slighting will be because people are distancing themselves from you.
posted by Felicity Rilke at 8:56 AM on September 17, 2011 [2 favorites]

This is hardly a female problem. I've known men to be just as "persnickety and sensitive" about how their friends are dealing with them. They are referred to as "nice guys," and are picked apart on a friendship-perspective here. I am a woman, but I have known several of hese gentlemen, who react to their male and female friends in similar ways.

And... well, I used to be like you. Except I think I went a step further, I would deliberately not call/text/IM/message my friends, to see if they would try to contact me. When they inevitably didn't, my resentment would build and build until I had thoroughly and truly poisoned my own mind against them, and had basically no chance of having a nice time talking or hanging out with these people.

With a few exceptions (my platonic lifemate and I have known each other since junior high, and we're 30 now), my friend-pool would dry up every six months or so, and I'd have to go find new ones. It took me awhile, but I eventually realized that god, I was absolutely no fun to be around. My friends were constantly paying for whatever sins they had unknowingly committed, as I would absolutely not not not let go of any perceived slights, and when they had paid sufficiently, I was still unable to let go of all that resentment, and at some point, I'd flame out of their lives with either a nasty email, IM, text, or call, and then I'd spend as much time as I could assassinating their character, until I'd moved on to my next target. I mean friend.

I used to think it was because I had "high standards" and I "deserved" to be treated "better" because I was "smart," "funny," a real "tell-it-like-it-is" person. Now I know that it was, in fact, because I was so terrified of rejection, that at the first perceived sign of it, I would lash out, to get them before they got me. I was so insecure about myself that I thought that my friends just being friends to me would give me confidence. And I was really just mean, bitter, and didn't really see the people around me as full people in their own right.

It took a long time to unpack all that mess and iron it out somewhat, and I still have resentment flares towards some of my friends, but I've learned to genuinely (and quietly!) forgive people. I've also learned that not every "slight" requires a long, drawn-out hashing-out of the entire friendship. I've learned how to reach out without fearing rejection. And I've somehow managed to hang on to the friends I've made while working on how to be a better person myself for years now. These friendships are so much better than they used to be... maybe I've been able to attract a better class of people? I don't know. The friendships that I ruined so spectacularly? I am so ashamed of my behavior now that I couldn't even begin to try and reconnect. It's likely best for me to stay away, because I question my own motives in attempting a reconnection. I think I might just be trying to assuage my own guilt rather than genuinely desiring a connection with these people. Maybe in time, I don't know. But, I am glad that I finally realized that this resentment cycle is absolutely no way to live, and I hope you will too.
posted by mornie_alantie at 4:05 PM on September 17, 2011 [5 favorites]

So I messaged her, unfriended her and basically dumped her. I don't really do lukewarm, superficial, just-cordial friendships.

I had a "friend" who got pointlessly upset over my non-response to a FB message and subsequently blew off my explanation in person and then unfriended me. And I was glad she unfriended me, because every time I interacted with her, she found a way to create drama by getting upset over something completely innocuous and then saying something that hurt my feelings and then expecting ME to apologize to her for the whole mess. I don't need the drama - I have other friends who are kind to me and never do that stuff. I'm just saying.

And.. if a "good friend" is someone from my past with whom I hadn't been in contact for quite a long time, she was already really no longer a good friend, right? I mean, divorce typically doesn't happen out of the blue. I have noticed that some people who are "good friends" disappear completely once they're in a relationship, and only when that relationship ends do they happen to get back in touch, looking for friendship and support and someone to spend time with. But when they had a partner they didn't seem to need me as a friend at all. So if I got that email I might not know what to say either.
posted by citron at 8:24 PM on September 17, 2011 [1 favorite]

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