How do I end (or seriously curtail) a friendship with a coworker?
March 3, 2012 4:00 AM   Subscribe

How do I end (or seriously curtail) a friendship with a coworker?

I work for a small company in a small office. My friend's desk is just across from mine and our jobs force us to interact quite a bit.

My reasons for wanting to end the friendship: I have put forth effort to be friends with this woman for the 2 years that I have worked at this company. She says we're 'best friends' but her actions say otherwise. She hasn't done anything vicious but she only seems interested in my friendship on her terms and at her convenience.

We talk at work and text outside of work often, but she never seems to want to hang out with me unless it's to go out drinking. She was widowed 2.5 years ago and I'm single as well. I'm one of only two single friends that she has and I feel she's using me in hopes of meeting men. At the moment I don't care whether I meet men or not as my focus is elsewhere, and going out drinking all the time really isn't my thing anyway. But because it's what *she* wants to do and I want to be a friend to her, I will usually go with her when asked.

I have tried to suggest other things I would like to do with her sometime that don't involve drinking, but she shows no interest in doing these things with me. (She does some of these very things with her son, her sister and her sister's partner but won't invite me. Her sister also works with us and I get along great with her.)

In fact, she had suggested last Saturday that we go drinking this weekend. I agreed to go, but then her sister reminded her this week that they had made plans to go a festival on Sunday morning. So she broke her plans with me and acted like it was no big deal (not the first time it's happened), saying that if she stays out late Saturday she won't be able to wake up Sunday morning to go with her sister and the others mentioned above. This festival is something I'd like to go to and my 'friend' probably knows this as we've talked about it in the past. However she didn't invite me even though she broke our plans.

I don't expect to be invited everywhere she goes, and many people like to spend time with 'just family' sometimes, but would it have killed her to invite me after she broke our plans? And like I said, she frequently does things she knows I would enjoy and won't invite me.

I also get the sense that she thinks her time is more important than mine because she has a child and I don't. I suspect that this is why she has no problem breaking plans with me and acting like it's no big deal. I'm sure single parenthood is more difficult than I can even imagine, but does that mean her time is valuable and mine doesn't matter?

She also gets plenty of babysitting help from her mom and sister, and she certainly finds time to date and basically hang out with anyone but me. Oh, and a couple of times that I've tried to make plans with her she's declined, saying "I have a lot going on this weekend and I don't like to have my weekends 'planned out for me'."

So yeah. Perhaps I'm unreasonable but this isn't my idea of a friendship and I'd rather not continue it any longer. The thing is, we work together in close quarters and a job change is not an option for me right now. How can I end our 'friendship' while minimizing the awkwardness that will ensue afterwards? I have a feeling in a couple of weeks (when she has nothing better to do), she's going to ask me to go out, so I need to be prepared with a response.

Thank you so much for any thoughts.
posted by mhm407 to Human Relations (22 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
She's not your friend. She's your drinking buddy. You're right, she very clearly is using you as a wingwoman, or at least as an excuse to go out drinking. Stop taking it personally. She's shown you who she is, and you can take it or leave it. If you ever feel like drinking, accept her invitations. If you'd rather be doing something else, make plans alone or with other friends. It's that simple. No dramatic bridge-burning necessary.
posted by stockpuppet at 4:06 AM on March 3, 2012 [21 favorites]

Well, you're clearly not "best friends" but it seems to me that if you dial back your expectations of this friendship, it is perfectly workable. You have a work friend who invites you out for drinks sometimes, but does not invite you to more intimate social events because you're work friends, not social friends.

It's completely possible to be super friendly in that context as long as you get the parameters. And you are completely okay to say "I can do drinks after work but I like to keep my weekends open for group plans" as often as necessary. And you should, of course, make the effort to be sure you do in fact have a large and active group of other friends.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:08 AM on March 3, 2012 [11 favorites]

I don't understand why you need to "end "or "curtail" anything as such. You just need to stop thinking of this person as a friend because she's not. She's a co-worker who wants you to be her drinking buddy when she needs one. So all you need to do is say No to activities you don't want to engage in.
posted by koahiatamadl at 4:21 AM on March 3, 2012 [7 favorites]

I think you're asking the wrong question. You just need to find someone who wants the sort of friendship you're looking for, so you can stop wishing this relationship were something it isn't.
posted by jon1270 at 4:24 AM on March 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

Yeah, I don't think you really have to do anything drastic here. I think this situation will resolve itself for you if you just tell her, the next few times she invites you out, that going out drinking isn't really appealing to you these days. You could suggest doing something else instead, or just say no thanks. I bet this will revert back to a work-only friendship right quick.
posted by DestinationUnknown at 4:41 AM on March 3, 2012 [3 favorites]

I read that you're expecting way too much of a work friendship. Plenty of people have work friends who are drinking buddies and nothing more.

Is she one of your only friends? I feel like you wouldn't be so hung up on her if you had a lot of other people to do things with. Go make some more friends.
posted by DoubleLune at 4:42 AM on March 3, 2012 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Those of you who figured I don't have many other friends are right. I live in a *tiny* town and moved here to take the job I am currently working. Everyone here who is not a senior citizen or a teenager is married with kids living at home. Not a great environment for a single 20-something woman looking to make friends.

I feel like some of you think I'm a little...nutty for thinking my 'friendship' with her matters much since we're coworkers after all. I probably wasn't clear enough in my original post. She has had a big hand in building up my expectations of our friendship; they didn't just stem from baseless assumptions or wishful thinking on my part. She has referred to me as a 'best friend' as I said, confides some really private stuff in me, talks to me about her problems, etc etc.

My social skills could probably use some honing, I'll admit, and I have limited opportunities to make friends as things stand right now, but I'm not so out of touch that I would be trying to latch onto her if she had never given me any indication that we were supposed to be close friends. I assure you, she has.

Thank you for the advice so far.
posted by mhm407 at 6:06 AM on March 3, 2012

Make plans, not friends. Friendship is an outgrowth of doing the things you like to do, things that fulfill you and your expectations of life. Because this woman likes to go out drinking with you, your relationship to her is a friendship. But if you make plans to do other things—on your own or whatever—not only will you have an honest excuse to turn down her next invitation (Oh, I made plans, sorry!) but you'll be opening yourself up to other friendship opportunities by doing the things you like to do.
posted by carsonb at 6:19 AM on March 3, 2012 [9 favorites]

How do you curtail it? You do it in exactly the way she's curtailed her friendship with you. She's let you know you're her drinking buddy, as everyone's said, with her actions. It's not a mean thing, you know - it's just what people do. You're not nutty - you're finally reading between the lines. Turn it around and think about it this way:

She could just as well have written a question here asking "How can I let my work friend/drinking buddy who is new to our small down and doesn't have many other friends know that I'm just not available to her for more than nights out now and then? She thinks I'm her "best friend", and I don't want to say something that will hurt her feelings, but I have a lot going on. My sister is my real 'best friend' - after all, we've spent practically our entire lives together and we work together too. With a kid and other demands on my life that she doesn't have, I often have to break plans, and she doesn't understand. I also like to spend time with my family and my wider circle of friends, date, keep my weekends free, and I don't want to abuse the amount of free babysitting my mom and sister offer me - and don't want to have to justify that. What can I do that will get her to back off a bit, without having to come right out and tell her "We're not as close as you think we are?"

And she probably would have received responses along the lines of "If you're not up to spending time with her, tell her something like 'I have a lot going on this weekend and I don't like to have my weekends planned out for me'. If you do have some time ask her out for what you'd like to do with her specifically, like 'Let's go out for drinks on Saturday night.' Perhaps she'll eventually learn to take what she can get without your having to come right out and define your friendship. Your time is your own, and friendships of convenience happen, but in life, most adults eventually figure this out without having to draw up a contract for the duties and obligations and terms of the relationship. Hopefully soon she'll make the best of it without a big confrontation."

Further, well - different people confide differently. Sure, she's shared personal stuff and problems with you. Some people confide incredibly intimate details with their hairdressers whom they barely know otherwise and see only once every six weeks. That doesn't mean you're the only one that knows it; or even if you are, that being the holder of that information gives you the right to more face time. You can redirect the conversations, and not indulge in that if you're feeling like her dumping grounds for that kind of thing.

You actually don't need to be prepared with a response for when it's time to make plans again. If you want to go for drinks, go for drinks. There is no sense in giving up something that is likely just fine the way it is, if you let it be. You can make the best of it, and redefine it, without ever having a conversation about it. Actions speak louder than words.
posted by peagood at 6:36 AM on March 3, 2012 [6 favorites]

Invite yourself along. "Oh, you're going to that festival? Mind if I join you?" This will either have you going with them or putting her in a spot of ending the friendship for you.
posted by AugustWest at 6:40 AM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I think you should cut this woman some slack. She's a young widow, has a minor child young enough to need child care, and it's only been 2.5 years. She's probably frequently still a hot mess on the inside.

If I'm reading this right, you met her AFTER she had been widowed for 6 months. It's possible (probably) that part of your appeal as a friend is that you didn't know her when she was married and you didn't go through her widowing with her. You know the post-tragedy her. She can shape her post-tragedy identity a lot more easily with you than with others. It's probably really healthy for her. While I think it is sort-of weird to expect to be invited along with someone's family to do stuff, and that that's a line an awful lot of people draw, I think she may draw it even more strongly because there's probably a lot of emotional STUFF in a family that suffered a loss that young and she probably wants to keep you separate from all that STUFF. She doesn't WANT you to be part of her family because she needs some separation, you know? (Also, and as someone who gets along great with her family, I don't want my good friends as part of my family either ... one thing at a time, man!)

"I'm sure single parenthood is more difficult than I can even imagine, but does that mean her time is valuable and mine doesn't matter?"

Her time isn't more valuable, but her plans are way more subject to change, and that's the reality of being friends with parents with young children, let alone single parents with a child who lost his father within the last three years. I had to cancel just about every social event I had planned in February because my little snot-balls kept getting alternating ear infections. That's part of being a parent. I feel bad about it, but not that bad. That's just life. A child with one parent who suffered a parental loss is likely to have a lot of emotional needs.

You don't have to be friends with anyone you don't want to be, and if this relationship doesn't make you happy, you're not required to stay in it any more than you'd be required to keep dating a jerk. But. Have you said to her, compassionately but directly, "You know, I love hanging out with you at work and getting a beer, but I just don't feel as drinky lately and I'd love to do some other things with you too so we can keep hanging out, but maybe with slightly less beer/slightly more pedicures/whatever."
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:41 AM on March 3, 2012 [23 favorites]

Some additional perspectives:

I've been a single parent, and yes, babysitting time is precious. So you often try to use it only for things you absolutely cannot possibly do with your child. Drinking and dating are two of the big ones.

At the time when I was a single solo parent, it would have seemed incomprehensible to use scarce babysitting time for something that wasn't specifically adults only. Activity based things could be done with the kid.

So I'd see things like a cool festival and say: "Awesome! Something nifty, that I can take the kid to as well!"

Another key thing to keep in mind is that some people separate their social lives from their children. Have you met the kid? I suspect not from context. If you haven't, she may be one of these-thus, she cannot invite you along to things that involve the kid.

Some things to think about: would you want to see her if her kid was along? Are you good with kids? Is your behavior the type that would be a good role model for kids?

This doesn't mean she doesn't like you. You may even be her best post-widowhood friend. But maybe you're her single, wild, crazy friend, rather than her family-oriented settled friend.

A question: if you get along great with the sister, why not invite her to hang out sometime?
posted by corb at 7:00 AM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

I feel like some of you think I'm a little...nutty for thinking my 'friendship' with her matters much since we're coworkers after all. I probably wasn't clear enough in my original post. She has had a big hand in building up my expectations of our friendship; they didn't just stem from baseless assumptions or wishful thinking on my part. She has referred to me as a 'best friend' as I said, confides some really private stuff in me, talks to me about her problems, etc etc.

Be that as it may she does not sound like the sort of person you want to be friends with in that you seem to define friendship as a relationship where people give and receive in fairly equal measures. So if you want to think of her as a friend you have to think of her as somebody who will not accommodate your needs and preferences in the same way as she expects hers to be accommodated and who probably won't be as supportive as you are. Or you could stop focusing your energy on making this 'friendship' work and find things to do you enjoy. If she comes along that's great, if not then she doesn't but you still have done something you enjoy...and you may just meet people enjoying the same thing locally, whatever their demographic.
posted by koahiatamadl at 7:20 AM on March 3, 2012

Have you told her that you don' t like to go out drinking? If you always accept her invitations, maybe she thinks you like it. Maybe she even values you the time she puts aside to go out drinking with you.

I see that you have suggested other things to do. But maybe you should just tell her you don't want to do drinking anymore. If she realizes you really don't like it, she may find other ways to spend time with you.

I don't necessarily agree with others that she doesn't consider you a friend. Maybe she does value your friendship, and the drinking dates are the times she spends with you, and perhaps even considers quality time. Most people wouldn't call someone who is just a casual friend a "best friend" (some people do throw those words around, but is she the type to? If not, then your friendship probably is meaningful for her.)
posted by bearette at 7:20 AM on March 3, 2012

Yep, I agree, you have two separate things going on. This work friend is fine, you work in close proximity, get along at work great, talk about 'life' and occasionally go out for drinks. This is good. In fact, most people would love to have a good work friend.

However, this is not the same thing as a 'regular life' friend. I know your circumstances sound a bit dire on the friend making front but you have to do whatever you can to make more outside of work friends.

These are cliches, but cliches for a reason- volunteer, join a gym, go to the library (well, that's probably not great for making friends) but do whatever you can to meet more people. In fact maybe even tell her you are trying to find some other pals...ask her if she knows anyone. Not in a weird 'i'm lonely way' (even if you are) but in a ...'i want to go to all these awesome things...hmm.' kind of way.

Good luck. Making friends once we leave school is tough, but worth it. And remember, don't blame her for your dissatisfactions on the friend front, she is doing what she can. Her circumstances are different from yours. Time to expand the circle AND be grateful for a good work friend at the same time.
posted by bquarters at 7:22 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: @corb - I actually have met and hung around her son quite a bit so I don't think it's that she doesn't want me around him. He's really sweet and she always tells me how much he likes me. I'm good with kids, and wouldn't say or do anything inappropriate in front of them. I really do like her sister, and I think she likes me, but I don't feel comfortable enough to invite her to hang out :( But maybe in time that will change. Thank you for the feedback/suggestions.
posted by mhm407 at 7:23 AM on March 3, 2012

I think, honestly, that you really are interpreting her behavior in a negative way because you're hurt. You're building up things like her thinking her time is more valuable than yours, and she never said that, you know? I know that sometimes when I feel rejected I try to reject the other person so that it doesn't hurt as much. If that's what you're doing, I understand and sympathize.

Depending on the region you're living in and the culture, you might need to invite yourself along. It can be hard to read these situations when you're new to a place.

Good luck!
posted by the young rope-rider at 7:34 AM on March 3, 2012

Why do you need her to invite you to go somewhere you've already talked about going? My thinking is that she probably doesn't consider inviting you because she's assuming that you're going to go anyway. Your response could have been "oh I'm going to that too, maybe I'll see you there," and then see where that would have gone. I'm wondering if you are unintentionally and unconsciously making her feel responsible for your social life.

I'm also wondering if any of it has to do with the sister. She might look you but not want to /not feel comfortable hanging out with you, and it sounds like her sister and son are the people she spends most of her time with.

Making friends is hard as an adult, even in a big city -- trust me, I know. I don't think that she doesn't consider you a friend, nor do I think you need to end the friendship - what purpose would that serve, really, unless you feel used by her wanting a drinking buddy only. If you want to stay friends with her you will need to dial down your expectations to match her actions. If you don't, just simply stop making yourself available. No explanation required if you don't wish.
posted by sm1tten at 7:51 AM on March 3, 2012 [1 favorite]

I usually don't answer these type of questions because I struggle with this as much as you do, OP, but a few people in my life have mentioned things that have changd my perspective a bit, which is why I'm answering this. Also, I do think this person does enjoy spending time with you and looks to you as a friend,even if it is mainly around drinking activities.

Anywho, it seems like you are viewing this as a black and white situation (ie. either she is a friend who you drink with or not a friend at all). I would try to find an inbetween ground/compromise before you decide it is all or nothing. Alternately, because it sounds like you don't have a lot of friends in your life right now, you can taper it off but keep her as a sometimes friend. Is there something inbetween that you would settle for?

I think if you to straight declining invites that it will create underlying hostilities (if someone enjoys spending time with you and it is suddenly-nothing at all-they will feel dropped/upset. Do you want this at work?). If you do want to try to negotiate this and send the message that you enjoy spending time with her, the next time that she sends a drinking invite (and whether you want to be honest or throw a little lie in there is up to you), you could respon, "I'm cutting back on drinking because ____(preparing for a run, trying to lose weight, doctor said X, want to save$) so I will rarely go out anymore.However, I really enjoy hanging out with you. Do you want to go to Festival X instead?" Then throw another email or text a few weeks later inviting her to another event. It sends the message that you enjoy her time/her is what you like to do/and if it doesn't work, you tried.

The other things that struck me when I read your email, OP, is why not do these things on your own? What things do you enjoy doing and what do you want to say that you did a few years from now? It could be 1) you wanted to go to festivals and do X but never did it because no one would do it with you (lots of people do this) or 2) do the things that want to do. Then, later, tell people about how you went to festival X and why you enjoyed it (sometimes people hear this and invite you to similar things). Do this at work too and maybe the other coworker will invite you too (or not).But just live your life doing the things that you enjoy and similar pple sometimes come into your life, too.

You also don't say where you located OP but if they have in your area or craigslist activities - see if you can find people who want to do the same thing.
posted by Wolfster at 8:59 AM on March 3, 2012

This person you work with can not remain your only social outlet. If your tiny town doesn't offer you adequate opportunities to have a fulfilling Quality of Life outside of work, then you are in the wrong job in the wrong town.

Life is short. Go live someplace with more to offer.

I get the feeling you think you're stuck somehow. The truth is that the only thing holding you back is your belief that whatever it is you want can't be attained by you. This is bullshit. Stop talking yourself out of having what you want if that's what you've been doing.

If I read too much into this, sorry. It's just that you obviously are employable, so I think you deserve to live somewhere you have opportunities to have fun.

Good luck.
posted by jbenben at 9:39 AM on March 3, 2012 [4 favorites]

I read this as a situation (like so many others on the green) where the change that will help you is in your thinking rather than in your actions.

I don't think you've fully given yourself permission to set limits. Your question contains a lot of "defense" work to explain your reasoning, but in reality, the fact that you don't FEEL the way you want to around this person is enough to justify ending the friendship. It's the only thing that matters.

So, I now present to you three games that other people play with us, and which we play with ourselves, that get us trapped in bad patterns with people, and how to get out of them.

They're all really variations on the same game, and the way out of them is basically to assume that It's The Other Person's Problemâ„¢ and keep that as the theme of the discussion.

(1) What's the big deal? In "What's the big deal?," your coworker proposes that you go drinking. You don't want to, and either your coworker asks "what's the big deal?" explicitly or implicitly, or you ask it of yourself, and go along, since you reason that it's not, after all, that big of a deal.

Or, your friend cancels on you, and you don't speak up, because "it's not a big deal."

The thing is, if it's not a big deal, then it's not a big deal for your coworker to find something else for you to do besides drinking, or for your coworker to deal with the fact that you don't want to go out with her, or for your coworker to get an earful from you if she bails on you at the last minute. Assume that what YOU want is the thing that's not the big deal, and don't budge, either for that nagging voice in your head, or for another person.

(2) Bad Assumptions In this game, somebody disagrees with something you're doing, and tries to peg you with a long list of horrible character traits. You don't want to go out drinking with your coworker? Well, that makes you a bad friend!

The thing is, there is a long list of more charitable explanations for your behavior, and the fact that someone is quick to go with the worst possible one shows that they are toxic and to be avoided, rather than that you are a bad person. You step out of this game by saying, "Coming up with a list of bad thoughts is the easiest thing in the world to do, but these don't reflect reality."

(3) You Play Defense! In You Play Defense!, you wind up explaining yourself in situations where nobody is entitled to an explanation, where you've already given an explanation, and/or in situations where they're the one who should be on defense. Your coworker asks you to explain why you don't want to go drinking, and you tell her, and she keeps needling you.

The way out of this game is to flip the burden of proof by coming back at someone who asks you "Why don't you?" with "Why would I?" You can also get out of it by disagreeing with the other person's implicit assumption that they're entitled to a conversation with you. So if a religious person comes to your door and asks you a question about your religious faith to lure you into a discussion, you say, "I'm sorry, but I don't discuss my religious faith with strangers."
posted by alphanerd at 11:54 AM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah, she's not your friend. Just say no when she asks you to go out. You can tell her you're cutting back on nights out if you want, but I wouldn't give her any further excuse than that.
posted by stoneandstar at 12:08 PM on March 3, 2012 [2 favorites]

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