Friends til the end?
February 19, 2017 2:41 PM   Subscribe

I feel like one of my oldest friends is not empathetic and I am annoyed at her lack of compassion towards me. I don't know how to proceed.

My friend Sarah and I are both 30 years old and married. We met in college, became very close friends, and lived together for several years before she moved to her home city. I wound up following suit and moving to the same city about 5 years later.

My problem with Sarah is that I feel that she does not consider other people's feelings. For example, I asked this question when I first moved to our shared city about how I was feeling insecure at her lack of contact. Since then we have seen each other once every 3 or 4 months, usually initiated by both us of, and I enjoy these gatherings. Also since that question was posted I have made lots of new friends and gotten married and am very socially happy. However, two separate friends moved to my city and I made certain to invite them over and make plans with them as I could tell that they were a little lonely. Now I am even closer to those two, and I feel like that is a big difference between me and Sarah.

Now, I haven't talked to Sarah since last September. In that time I've gotten pregnant and had a miscarriage in December. I didn't want to tell my close friends right away so I figured I'd wait until I saw her. A few weeks ago she texted me a question about antidepressant use while pregnant (I'm a nurse) and since I am on the specific medication she asked about I shared that I had had a miscarriage in December, over text. Her response was, "huh, I guess we need to catch up." I said "I know, how about this Sunday?" And got no response.

Then our mutual friend emailed all of us plus another friend a general life update. I took that opportunity to inform my friends about the miscarriage. A few days later, Sarah responded to the email chain with questions directed to the first friend but nothing acknowledging me.

I feel like a total lame-ass but I am hurt. When I first moved here I was worried that maybe I was putting too much pressure on her to be friends with me, but now I am friends with a variety of women who have been empathetic and supportive and fun, and I have been there for them in turn. I am turned off that Sarah does not seem to care about a shitty experience I went through.

And yes, I know it is not her responsibility to read my mind and make me feel better. But I really don't know if I should bring this up or how to either stay friends with her or stop being friends. I don't like sharing those private struggles with someone who does not acknowledge them.
posted by pintapicasso to Human Relations (23 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have no idea what's going on with Sarah. Maybe she's just not very empathetic at all, maybe she feels things and doesn't know how to show it, maybe she's super uncomfortable with intimacy, maybe she's overwhelmed by other emotional demands in her life, maybe she had a miscarriage and she can't handle hearing about yours, I could speculate more. But the key thing here is that YOU don't like how it goes when you share your private struggles with her.

It sounds like you have other friends who give you the kind of warmth and support you want, so maybe focus more on those. Maybe Sarah's a friend you see at group outings and get coffee with now and then and don't tell her anything too sensitive, especially in that raw early stage where a warm and empathetic response is important to you.

I'm sorry to hear of your miscarriage. Good luck to you.
posted by bunderful at 3:08 PM on February 19, 2017 [8 favorites]

Given that your original question about her was from several years ago, it seems like this is a very clear case of "when a person shows you who they are, believe them." This is Sarah's style. You're not going to change her. You can say something really explicit to her, like, "Sarah, if our friendship is going to continue, you need to contact me more often, make plans with me, return my calls, and show interest in my important life events." But don't be surprised if that doesn't do anything.

So really the question is what do you want to do now? It doesn't seem like she's bringing you joy. You don't need any big conversation or catharsis about being friends or not being friends, if you don't want to. You can just...stop contacting her. Write her off, or don't, but it's really all about you and your desires.
posted by BlahLaLa at 3:09 PM on February 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

I'm so sorry about your miscarriage.

Before this it sounded like she was very busy. And maybe she still is: I'm assuming she's recently had a kid (based on her nursing question). Depending on what's going on with her she may not have the bandwidth to be there for you, or maybe she sucks at texting. If she'd generally been awesome and supportive, it may be worth waiting this out and being open to her coming back (and offering her support as you're able to), but it sounds like you don't feel she's really matched your level of support even before this. That's a perfectly reasonable reason to back away from a friendship.

Do you have fun with her when you do hang out? If so, you could shift her back to acquaintance in your head and stop sharing those private struggles.njust enjoy the few times a year you meet up. I've done that with a couple of people who bailed on me (during way less traumatic times). Generally it involved a bit of a slow fade until we hit a level I was comfortable with. Most self-involved people tend to wander away if you don't feed their ego, so it wasn't hard to fade away.
posted by ghost phoneme at 3:13 PM on February 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

I think she is slow-fading you. I don't have enough information here to know why, but a general good guess is that there isn't a particular reason for that - she's just decided that she is ready to move on from the friendship. There's nothing you need to do or say to her; that's the way the slow fade works; maybe you'll get together from time to time but it sounds like she is no longer interested in the closeness you had before.

And, that being said, I'm really sorry this is happening. It does feel like a loss when a friendship ends, and you are in your rights to grieve this. If I were you, I would try not to be angry or to seek some kind of closure from her (as tough as that is), but just let yourself be sad about this friendship and happy about your new friendships.
posted by capricorn at 3:23 PM on February 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

Very sorry about your miscarriage.

It sounds like Sarah is either just a bit clueless and disconnected in general, or she's decided not to put much energy into your particular friendship. Either way, I'd take some time to mourn the loss of the connection you thought--or hoped--you had, and then focus on the relationships that are bringing you joy and nourishment.

It's entirely possible that, once you drop the rope, Sarah might wake up and try to re-establish the connection. When and if that happens, you can decide whether or not you want to keep her in your life. But, the bottom line is that someone who contacts you when she wants something (info about the antidepressants) and then doesn't reach out after learning news like yours really isn't much of a friend, either because they don't want to be, or they don't know how.

You're already doing better. Her loss.
posted by rpfields at 3:35 PM on February 19, 2017 [21 favorites]

I'm your age, also married, and have a married long-term friend with whom this was an issue. Like many other people have said above, it seems like cluelessness on her part.

Also, I wonder: why do you WANT to be friends with this person? It's a clear case of, "this person isn't being a friend the way I want her to be" -- you've got better friends, so focus on them. I know what it's like to have a long history with a friend. But remember that you were also a different person ten years ago than you are now, and that's probably feeding into a lot of what you're feeling. You can't fire her. She's already quit.

I'm very sorry to hear about your miscarriage, and I wish you peace going forward. Other than Sarah, you've got a pretty darn good support system going on for yourself.
posted by orangutan at 3:39 PM on February 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

I'm sorry to hear about your miscarriage and I'm sorry to hear that Sarah wasn't able to be supportive or even really, show some basic decency. I know its hard to move on, but that way lies peace of mind, while continuing to have contact with this person will just be repeat incidents of hurt feelings and bewilderment for you. Pull the plug.
posted by WalkerWestridge at 4:06 PM on February 19, 2017 [2 favorites]

I've had to break up with same-sex friends and it was every bit as painful as romantic breakups (I'm straight). It always took much longer to make the decision than it should have, because I kept telling myself I was being too sensitive, the person was just going through a phase, my verbal request for them to change would be accepted and followed, blah blah blah. Nope!

Sarah's not for you, not now. Maybe she was an awesome friend 10 years ago in college, but now she's being a jerk and I doubt that will change. You could tell a stranger on the bus about your miscarriage and get more sympathy.
posted by Guinevere at 4:17 PM on February 19, 2017 [13 favorites]

You're not a lame-ass, at all. I've gone through this with friendships, many times over the decades. For me, I just find that friendships almost always change over time. I have had to downgrade some close friends (in my mind) to more of acquaintance/casual friend expectations, when I feel let down too many times. Doing that helps me to accept what I see as their changing (or my changing) and/or their current limitations of what they can give me. And it doesn't require a conversation with them. You've done a great and very healthy thing by putting your time and attention into nurturing, supportive friendships. Go where the love is.
posted by soakimbo at 4:19 PM on February 19, 2017 [7 favorites]

There may be many things going on with Sarah, but my first thought was that she might be hurt that you didn't tell her sooner about a pretty major event in your life. If she feels you are closer friends than you feel you are, that could be where the disconnect is. Putting myself in her shoes, if someone that I thought was one of my best friends didn't tell me about a miscarriage until several months later, and kind of randomly over text at that, I would feel a bit weird.

That's not to say she's reacting well at all, but that might be part of what's going on.
posted by Bresciabouvier at 4:29 PM on February 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

I'm so sorry about your miscarriage.

Given her question about medication use during pregnancy, is it possible she's either pregnant or trying to conceive? I still wince to remember how insufficiently I reacted to a friend's news of a miscarriage when I was pregnant. It was on me, my own anxieties about my pregnancy, but I took the news very hard and I didn't want to make my friend feel worse.

Still, I don't think there's much you can do here other than expect Sarah to be herself.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:33 PM on February 19, 2017 [5 favorites]

Honestly, it's normal to outgrow your college friends. This is someone you see quarterly. Can you not just mentally downgrade her from your inner circle to your broader general friends group and lower your expectations? Like, she's nice and you like her and she's fun to hang out with now and then but you're not close friends.
posted by DarlingBri at 4:38 PM on February 19, 2017 [6 favorites]

I'm a Gen-Xer, so maybe this comment really doesn't apply, but if I had big news to share with someone, I wouldn't choose text to do it or I would text and say something like "I have some news I'd like to share, when can we talk on the phone or in-person?" And if someone shared news with me over text, no matter the news, I might not think it was a big deal since text seems so casual to me.

So a charitable view of Sarah's behavior could be that since she got the news via text and then in a group email, maybe she felt like it the news wasn't that big a deal or that she was specifically being reached out to in a serious way.

But that's an interpretation that gives Sarah the benefit of the doubt and maybe she doesn't deserve that based on her recent history with you. Regardless of how the news is delivered a miscarriage is a big deal and if one of my friends shared that news to me (in any format), I would call them up and take them out for tea and sympathy.

This seems like a good time for a slow fade into acquaintanceship. You don't need to totally write her off (unless you want to) and can be polite to her in group gatherings, send her a holiday card, invite her to other large group gatherings, but I would just let her go.
posted by brookeb at 5:28 PM on February 19, 2017 [3 favorites]

This seems to be a relationship at its end. I'm so sorry!
posted by benadryl at 8:07 PM on February 19, 2017

Sarah is definitely not pregnant but will start trying to get pregnant in the next few years. Thanks for all the advice. My gut told me to slow fade her into a lighter friend category and I think I worried that would be mean as I think of slow fading as a passive aggressive thing. But here it sounds like it is kind and would meet my needs.
posted by pintapicasso at 8:36 PM on February 19, 2017 [4 favorites]

Firstly, let me say you don't have to share personal information with anyone. And I'm very sorry for your loss. But having said that, if it took one of my friends three months to tell me about their miscarriage, (by text as well) I would either think that this was something they were coping with fine on their own, or ours was one of a lower friendship priority, if I wasn't someone that they felt they could confide on or call on for support earlier.

By leaving it this long and telling her in a short text, you're not giving her any indication that you actually need her. She might feel like you've blown her off and is actually hurt that something which is generally a big deal for women didn't even warrant a conversation to her to let her know, so she could help you. I'm totally projecting here but it's another perspective. If you want support, it's on you to let people into your life and reach out. You didn't - which is fine! But that may be why you didn't receive it.
posted by Jubey at 10:37 PM on February 19, 2017 [10 favorites]

Her reaction to your text about your miscarriage was strange enough that I do think it might be worth bringing up with her. In that situation it seems like you would need to actively choose not to say what comes naturally - "I'm so sorry to hear that" or the like.

If that's just how she is, it sounds like you need more validation/emotional support from people you are friends with, so you're not a good match.
posted by sallybrown at 11:14 PM on February 19, 2017 [1 favorite]

I disagree with the people saying Sarah reacted the way she did because you told her about your miscarriage (my condolences) too late and over text. I have a best friend who is usually on the other side of the world from me, and we almost exclusively communicate via text. If I had a miscarriage, I am not sure I would tell her right away. There's not much she can do anyway, I feel like it's kind of between me and my partner, and I would feel weird burdening her with the news. Nonetheless, if I did tell her, I'm sure she would send me a very long and concerned text back, telling me how sorry she was, telling me not to give up, asking if my partner was being supportive enough, if I needed anything etc.

Maybe Sarah really doesn't know how to react. I'm not sure I and most other people would have a perfect reaction to most sad news. But she didn't even ask if you were okay. If I were you, I'd do what some other people suggested and stop contacting her for a while. If she comes back with an explanation, great. If not, you have other friends.

Maybe, if you wanted to, you could send one text saying "hey, we haven't met in ages and I was wondering if you were okay? How about we have a low-key brunch at my place next Saturday?" (or whatever works for you) If there really is something going on in her life that you are not aware of, maybe you can find out. If she doesn't reply to that text either, I'm afraid your friendship with Sarah is more or less non-existent for now.
posted by LoonyLovegood at 1:18 AM on February 20, 2017 [6 favorites]

Is it possible that you are an obligation-friend? In your two examples it sounds like another person initiated light contact with something about them, and your response was to make it about you and seek more contact. With an obligation-friend, every contact becomes an opening to generate more contact. In Sarah's case her neutral question became news about your serious life event; her noncommittal response to that became an attempt to secure more time/attention. The group email with a life update became your news about your miscarriage. Even aside from your Sarah-question that seems odd to me. There was even a non-friend-group person on the email; why would you reply with your news at all, much less such serious news? I would think a group email with life-news should garner only "great news! You rock!"-type responses to the sender.

If you are the kind of friend who makes all conversations about them, and/or who wants to escalate even the casual-est encounter into dinner-and-drinks-and-catching-up, then you are an obligation-friend and Sarah's slow fade and impassive responses may be a learned behavior. I have had friends like that and no matter how much I might care for them, their never-ending need for more time/attention/plans/sharing/me was taxing.

I don't mean to be unkind; I have been friend-dumped and it is harder in many ways than a relationship breakup. But just as in a relationship breakup it is worth examining our own role in the dynamic to see if there isn't room for growth ourselves.
posted by headnsouth at 4:12 AM on February 20, 2017 [7 favorites]

I worried that would be mean as I think of slow fading as a passive aggressive thing.

To me a slow-fade is something that naturally happens when a friendship has run its course, and it frequently happens unconsciously. Direct communication is great when you can trust the other person to respect your vulnerabilities; if you don't have that, the slow fade is a tactic that allows everyone some distance to figure out how much contact they'd like to maintain. For me it gives me a chance to evaluate why I'm upset: is it the one specific incident, or is it the general pattern of behavior and I've finally reached a breaking point. From there I can decide if it's something to forgive and forget, discuss, or continue the fade.

It can become problematic when the fadee notices and asks the fader if anything is wrong, and the fader denies that there is any problem at all. That's when it starts to strike me as passive aggressive, although in some cases it may still be the appropriate course of action. It may be worth thinking through how you'd like to answer that question if Sarah does notice* and make a comment. A generic "We've both been so busy," could suffice, especially if Sarah seems to be making polite small talk rather than trying to figure out why you guys are growing apart. If you think she's genuinely trying to make amends, it's up to you to determine how much you feel safe and comfortable sharing.

*I've never had a person directly ask (granted, I've only consciously slow-faded three people, and I'm pretty sure with at least one it was mutual). One person made a remark about how we hadn't seen each a lot since the previous summer and that's such a shame we should fix that. I mistakenly thought she was trying to figure out if something was wrong. It sucked way more than I thought it would to have her change her story to displace any guilt. I'm actually glad it happened in the end, because it clarified a few things and reinforced my decision. But you may want to think through how much extra hurt you're willing to endure if you suspect an honest answer will get dismissed.
posted by ghost phoneme at 5:57 AM on February 20, 2017

Perhaps instead of thinking of this as a slow fade, think of it as choosing not to put a lot of energy into a relationship where the other party hasn't been meeting you halfway. If you feel that you're putting more into it than they are, stepping back a little isn't a slow fade, it's just a decision to stop putting in 75% to their 25%. That's completely reasonable - even respectful of their nonverbal communication.
posted by bunderful at 9:00 AM on February 20, 2017 [2 favorites]

Thanks again everyone. Just to clarify the group email only included people that I share deep connections with. Another friend shared that she and her husband are separating,for example. This is been our primary mode of communication for years. BUT it could be that I am overstepping my neediness bounds with this one friend when she is reaching out for low stakes communication or favors.
posted by pintapicasso at 10:52 AM on February 20, 2017

It is definitely not overstepping neediness bounds to share that you had a miscarriage and hope for support. But you might be onto something, that by sharing it in the ways that you did, she didn't realize you needed support. I agree with Jubey above -- if someone brought it up by text in a matter-of-fact way, I might think that it had become a matter-of-fact thing to them. Then again, your email might have corrected that impression.

[Disclaimer: the following comment makes a couple of assumptions about her and where she might be coming from. But she's really a black box in this question and the last one, so this might be off base!]

I think that maybe something is going on with her that is more than just her slow-fading you. The complete silence both by text and by email is a tip off that maybe this is a charged situation -- something that makes her anxious or angry or sad, and that she's reacting by avoiding the situation. I mean, to not even throw out an "oh man, I'm sorry to hear that" -- that's not just "not being empathetic" -- that's "refusing to carry out important basic rules of social etiquette."

But -- how much emotional labor do you want to do here? How much can you even do when her reaction is to go to silence and avoid contact? Is there any history that would explain any of this? (She had an unrequited crush on you? You're super-successful in the same professional field she's struggling in? For her, moving to this city was about leaving her past behind?)

And for it to build on a surprisingly low level of contact before, maybe there was something already starting to go on then? Or maybe not? Maybe the low level of contact before was just about her busy life, and she just realized the impact this was having? Her text does make me think that maybe she felt a little hurt that you hadn't told her. I know that might seem weird, but I personally have some friends whom I see less frequently because of life factors that make it really inconvenient, but I'd still turn to them if anything big happened, and if I found out that they didn't do the same, I'd probably feel hurt to realize that they didn't see our relationship the same way. So that puts me back to thinking that maybe there's some value to a conversation.

On the other, she's spent all this time being distant from you, and if she's feeling hurt because she's realizing that you're now more distant from her than she wants, I feel like it's mostly on her to bring that up. You bringing it up might be kinda, I don't want to say "pointless," but certainly you can't fix this relationship on your own if she doesn't step up at all.

The thing is, I don't see her initiating a serious conversation; it seems like she's been reacting to whatever's going on by seeking more and more distance. And in fairness, this might be a hard one for her to bring up. If she does have any empathy, she might feel weird saying "I was hurt you didn't tell me sooner about this super sensitive thing." In the land where everyone is a genius at emotional skills and caring communication, it's completely fine for her to feel hurt AND for you to have not told her sooner, but in Average Level of Emotional Skills-Land, a person might understandably fear that they shouldn't feel hurt or at least shouldn't express that hurt, because it could be misunderstood as pressuring the person in your shoes, and of COURSE the person going through a miscarriage shouldn't feel any pressure to tell anyone they don't want to at any time they don't want to (or get any retroactive guilt-tripping for not having done so). If she isn't great at communicating, she might have no idea where to start or if it's even okay to be having the feelings that she's having.

I also think that if you sort of drop the line, given her pattern of avoidance, then things might really ice over. And for that to happen at a time when people are feeling bad (you hurt at her reaction, her feeling ... whatever's been going on), I don't think leads to a nice clean "slow fade" where people just gradually get more busy and distant. So, that makes me think that a conversation could be helpful, even if later you guys go back to fading away from one another. If you do decide to chat about it, I'd probably be prepared to hear or even concede ahead of time that the text format might've made her think that you didn't need support. But that doesn't mean you couldn't also share that you really did feel hurt not to get a more caring reaction from her.

Ugh, I'm so sorry, both about the friendship and about your miscarriage. I feel like I kinda rambled on here, but I'll hit post in case there's anything in here that's useful. I don't mean to imply that it's your job to fix this; I'm just talking about what you can do since you're the one asking the question. I wish I could give her advice. :)
posted by salvia at 1:31 PM on February 21, 2017

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