How Satisfied Are You With Your Friendships?
December 23, 2019 8:47 AM   Subscribe

Do you have good, supportive friendships in your life? What does that look like to you? How do you know when a friendship isn't working? I often find myself resentful of the way my friends treat me. I wonder what exactly it is that needs to change. Details inside.

Me - A woman in my mid 50's in the USA. Find myself struggling with the friendships I have. I realize I am the common denominator here so its me that needs to change, but what I need to change is unclear to me.

Growing up my parents and siblings were abusive to me. I had poor self esteem and was just grateful to have any friends at all. In other words, I did not pick my friends, I just took up with whoever came along. As a consequence I have let most of my old friendships go, for various reasons, mainly its because the people I hung out with in my early life turned out to have significantly different values than I do (racism, dishonesty etc.).

I've made a lot of changes, have much more self esteem now, and more financial resources. I have a stable and loving marriage. The problem is that I still don't have people in my life that I think treat me well. But maybe that's not really the case? Maybe I expect too much? I'm not sure I know what a good friendship actually looks like.

Some of the issues that keep coming up are below.

First, while I've made numerous trips across states and across country to be a part of important events in my friends lives (visiting new babies, graduations, funerals, retirements, and just plain friendly catching up visits) only one person has ever come to visit me.

Second, even with friends located in the same town, I often feel that people ask too much of me. One set of friends wants me to pay for everything and drive everywhere we go, despite the fact they have two cars of their own. When we all went on a trip across several states in my car, they never offered to pay for gas and actually made me feel badly for asking them to pay for their own food. Another set of friends do routine BIG asks that make me uncomfortable. An example would be when they invited me out to their property in the woods. They made it seem like it was going to be a fun camping vacation and waited until the day before we were supposed to go to bring up the fact that they expected me to help build a porch and clear out a cattle wade on the property. The only reason they brought that up at all, was because they needed me to bring tools for the work. Otherwise I think they would have just sprung it on me once we arrived.

Me feeling taken advantage of has been a consistent thing in all my friendships over the past twenty years, so its a problem, and obviously its a problem with me. I just can't work out if I'm oversensitive, not asserting myself well, not as generous as I think I am, or maybe I'm doing something else that causes this to happen. Or maybe friendships are routinely lopsided...

This is not to say people haven't helped me enormously over the course of my life, but if I were summing it up I would say that when times were tough, I've had more support, kindness, and help from total strangers over the years, than from anyone I ever considered a friend. Is that normal?

Meta Filter often talks about focusing your time on the relationships that make you feel supported and loved, but I don't really have any relationships like that. The best friendship I have is about 30 % supportive and 70% big effort on my part. What does a good friendship look like to you? What percentage of the time would you say you feel happy with the relationship, and what percentage of the time do you feel uncomfortable/unhappy?

I'm grateful for everyone who takes the time to answer.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (12 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Trips: This can depend on where you are, vs. where they are. Since you're in your 50s, I would expect this to get more reciprocal as people's own children age and presumably they can be away for longer. For some of what you've listed (new babies, graduations, retirements), I'm not sure I would expect a friend to come into town for that, and in the case of new baby, personally might rather not actually.

Second: Neither situation you've described is normal to me.

I am guessing that when people hit your radar as moving from "acquaintance" to "friend," that's where for quote-unquote normal people, that's where their radar moves from "potential friend" to "person who is potentially a user."

In other words, if you define your friendships by who calls you up and says "hey I need a ride, want to come to XYZ event," you may mostly get friends who want rides, if that makes sense.

Whereas if you are doing some of the early reaching out to people, in a relatively neutral way ("I'm going to this event, and I thought you might be interested - let me know if you're there and we can meet up after!") or are willing to take a longer series of twists and turns from acquaintance to potential friend to friend, you may end up with a different breed of friend.

It's also important to start as you mean to go on. Don't pick up the cheque the first time you're out, make sure you split it. When you're making plans involving serious gas money, ask "how shall we handle splitting the cost of gas?" My sort of mental line is around $5-10. I'll pick up a coffee, but not a meal, until we have years of history. It's much less awkward to say "hey this is how I would like to do it" before you've done it differently.

For me a good friendship is pretty equal (although I have a really, like friendship-ruining, hard time asking for help or even letting people know what's really going on with me). For me an early friendship mostly has to be held up by a regular event, otherwise I tend to assume the person is not interested in having more friends. And the biggest sign for me that a friendship is good for me is that I'm happy to see the person and don't start to feel put-upon.
posted by warriorqueen at 9:07 AM on December 23, 2019 [15 favorites]

I wonder how you have formed these friendships, because the level of using you are describing seems over the top.

Like, I have friends who might ask me to come help them do work on their house, but they wouldn't try to trick me into it. Likewise, I have friends who I might ask to come help me do work on my house, but I wouldn't try to trick them into it. I have a friend I have paid for at times when they made much less money than me and it was important to me that we be able to do a certain thing than that they couldn't otherwise afford, but that same friend now sometimes pays for me to do things because our incomes were reversed for awhile. And it was always my offer / choice, not them asking for expensive favours and certainly never them getting mad because I wouldn't pay their way for something.

How did you meet these people and what allowed them to become more than just acquaintances? Was there a pattern of escalating requests for help/assistance on their part? Would they have become your friend if you hadn't helped them out with something right at the start of knowing them /

Asking someone for help with something can be a way to really cement a friendship -- people like to be friendly with people they have helped because it makes them feel like they made the right decision to help in the first place -- but there has to be some give and take to it or one side is just using the other side.

My uncle has a "friend" who sounds like your "friends". As long as my uncle is able to buy him stuff and loan him money that will never, ever be paid back, then he hangs around and is friendly and sociable. But when there are reasons why my uncle doesn't have money to give to this "friend", the "friend" slowly stops coming by and won't see him for months at a time. Every once in awhile, he pops back up to see if the money tap has been turned back on, and if it has, then suddenly he's right back into my uncle's life and if it hasn't then he disappears for another couple of months. The pattern is completely clear from the outside, but my Uncle doesn't see it because he doesn't want to see it.

Reading this, it feels like you see it, you just need to decide what to do. If you stop doing these favours or even ask for some of your own, will these people disappear from your life? And will your life be richer or poorer for their loss? (The effect on your wallet doesn't seem like it is in question.)
posted by jacquilynne at 9:10 AM on December 23, 2019 [8 favorites]

So I have a lot of friends who make big asks but I also know that I can make big asks of them and they've always come through. I think what has let me kind of settle into this is: Go big first, but then ask big in return when you need it. Don't be afraid to ask for things. Don't be afraid that they'll leave if you do.

So: I randomly drove an acquaintance to the hospital, who is now a dear friend, but also I was like 'hey I'm freaking out can I talk to you' when I needed it, or 'dear god help me understand this thing' and she was happy to do so.

I think if you don't make any asks of a friendship, people start treating you more like a benefactor than a friend, and that's one thing that pushes a lot of the "using".

Joining a club also helps - if people feel that they're all part of the same tribe, it's easier to build reciprocal friendships.
posted by corb at 9:35 AM on December 23, 2019 [6 favorites]

Do you have good, supportive friendships in your life? What does that look like to you? How do you know when a friendship isn't working?

I have learned to adjust my definition of supportive friendships as I have aged. I am 36 now and the expectations I have for people were based off of the friendships I had in my 20s unrealistic now that people are busy with their families or careers or what not. So now healthy and supportive looks a lot like this:

We see each other for lunch or coffee or what not every so often, exchange texts/memes/generally talk on a weekly if not daily basis and when either of us is doing poorly we take the time to discuss it and listen. I have maybe two friends like this and one is an ex. They do their best to understand me and lift me up and I do the same. We watch over/protect each other from others and our own bad choices. We offer help/resources if needed (house sitting, moving, etc.) and that reciprocal care is understood even if we don't see each other in person daily. It also isn't a situation where either feels used, although I have definitely had those in the past.

Would I prefer to do more in terms of spending time/activities with these people so I wouldn't have to have a romantic relationship just to not feel lonely? Sure. Is it realistic? Not really. And that's ok. I know they're my friends and that is key.
posted by Young Kullervo at 9:46 AM on December 23, 2019 [5 favorites]

As a 50-yr old woman in the U.S. I get you. Not having children is a LOT of it. People my age are really, really tied up with family stuff, leading to the loss of even the minimal contact I had with a few. And as we know, it is also hard to form new friendships as an adult. People always suggest local groups/classes for hobbies you enjoy or have some interest in. Sometimes you may get lucky.

I would not keep friends who were using me like those two scenarios you have described. That is terrible and not normal, and I'm sorry you were taken advantage of that way. warriorqueen makes an excellent point about starting as you want to go on. If you pick up the first lunch tab without talking about expectations, you may be forced into an awkward conversation later (or just build resentment). It is not wrong to expect from friends the most basic understanding about splitting costs, or to avoid people who never learned (or ignore) these basic social skills.

If you would like a penpal of a similar age, feel free to drop me a msg. :-)
posted by Glinn at 10:21 AM on December 23, 2019 [4 favorites]

Okay, first of all, screw the cabin in the woods bait-and-switch friend, but one thing that occurred to me is a possibility for the rest of them but also might be totally off base: are you sure your friends have the same kind of financial means as you?

Like, I think it's wonderful that you are able to fly cross country to visit friends for their important life events but for many people (even MOST people) visits like that are prohibitively costly in terms of both money and time.

IME, people tend not to give much thought to their friends' financial circumstances and well-to-do friends will often suggest a fun shared activity that is no big financial deal to them but would be a major outlay for a friend of more modest means. And for that person, it's usually not fun to admit to your fancy friend that you're, well, poorer than them, so the other person may never know. That could have been the case with the road trip - friends agreed to something they really couldn't afford and then weren't able to chip in when they should have.

However, if that's not the case (it can be hard to truly tell though, honestly)- your friends were acting like jerks. Obviously, a 50/50 mix of effort/reward is ideal but sometimes otherwise nice people do thoughtless things and don't realize it unless you communicate it to them, which is hard and scary, but I think can also deepen the relationship because it shows that you care enough about the friendship to try to make it better.
posted by Brain Sturgeon at 11:09 AM on December 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

These people do sound like they're taking more than they're giving, unfortunately. You sound really nice, so I'm sorry many of your friendships have felt unfulfilling (and I agree from what you describe that they do seem more one-sided unfortunately).

I think doing cottage chores can be fun, cottage visits often involve sweat equity, and manual labour can actually be a great bonding experience, so that one instance with the cattle wade (what's a cattle wade) I'd maybe be ok with- but the other examples you mentioned do seem to have a user dynamic.

In my own life I try to nip that dynamic in the bud when it first arises, by doing things like paying dutch right off the bat, and saying "sorry I don't think that will work" to overbearing requests, and withdrawing from people when I get a whiff that I'm being used or not supported in a reciprocal way.

There have been a few other questions on here about what a good friendship looks like- here is an answer I wrote for one, and here is another- one of those is both for friends and romantic partners so some of the points won't apply to you, but still linking it in case anything helps.

It can be hard for people who are really involved w their extended families to make friends at all, so maybe look for friends who are demographically more like you? Another person approximately your age with approximately the same amount of family commitments might be a good fit.
posted by pseudostrabismus at 11:11 AM on December 23, 2019 [1 favorite]

Hmm. I'm thinking about it and realizing that while I'm often doing stuff for people, the people whom I consider to be real friends are those whom, when I've asked them for something, they've done it, and been happy to do it.

Conversely, I had an acquaintance whom I asked for a favor (not a big one! I asked if I could chat with her on the phone to get some information from her about planning a kind of community event I knew she'd done,) and she said she was too busy and didn't reschedule. That's someone who has never, and will probably never, progress beyond acquaintanceship. I didn't mean it as a test, but it was a correct indicator.

The people I'm thinking of, like made-as adults friends, have progressed from acquaintance to friend when I've asked them for some form of help and they've given it (NOT building me a porch, good lord! -- I mean stuff like, "meet with me to share some professional insight") and then I've reciprocated with something like an invitation to lunch or my home. OR, I've invited them to do something (extended some invitation), and they both accepted and then reciprocated in some way. This functions both as an exchange of courtesies but also as a way of ascertaining whether we enjoy the same ways of hanging out.
posted by fingersandtoes at 5:38 PM on December 23, 2019 [3 favorites]

First, what good friendship means to me (also a 50-something American woman): my closest friends are there for me emotionally. Two women (one straight and married, one "it's complicated" and "it's more complicated") and two men (one straight and married, one gay and single) -- all in different cities from one another and from me. Three, I've known for 30-35 years; one I've known about a dozen years.

One of the guys calls me almost every single day and offers constant emotional and practical support. (He'll listen and advise about emotional things re: work or life; he took time away from his Thanksgiving cooking to help my family figure out an electrical emergency by phone). The other guy has severe depression and is pretty insular, so he mainly just texts on occasion, but if I need him, he's there on the phone in a minute, and he's offered (and provided) financial support in emergencies.

When I was unexpectedly hospitalized, the woman in the city closest to me hung up the phone, drove 2+ hours to arrive in my city at the hospital and kept me company until bedtime and then drove home in the dark, well after her own bedtime. Without asking, without even telling me she was coming. The other woman, my BFF, took a day out of her vacation and drove to my mother's city to keep her company the day of her angiogram so my mom wouldn't be alone.

My point -- these are my best friends, the people I'd trust with my life and everything important to me. I have other friends -- colleagues around the country and some women friends here in my city. None can really pick up groceries if I'm sick, but they're there for my heart and head, which is more necessary to me.

I have another friend (also far away) whom I've known about as long as the others; she and I travel together, and as she out-earns me 20-1 (maybe 30-1), she often pays, and I show gratitude. I would never, ever presume she would pay for something without her saying so in advance. She's not one for offering emotional support, but we make each other laugh.

One woman friend locally knows I love her little boys to pieces (and they love me), so she's felt OK asking me to play with the little one while she had a doctor's appointment, or have me as the on-call person if neither she nor her husband could pick up her older boy from school. In an emergency, we know we can call one another. We're not as close as I am with the first four friends described above, but I've sat with her in the hospital when she had pre-eclampsia, and I've been there for her physically and emotionally whenever I could. We sometimes go months without seeing one another, but we touch base -- "hey, I'm here!" -- by text or phone.

These are all healthy, balanced, supportive friendships, and I recognize how difficult it is to maintain such relationships or even find people with whom one can try to maintain relationships.

I also have some casual friendships and acquaintances, people with whom I might have lunch or see a movie (though rarely), but would never expect that they owed me (or vice versa) in any way. I do not (and have never had) a relationship where a friend would EXPECT me to pay for them, even if I could, nor one that I would expect such a thing. I have never had a "friend" who would trick me into doing physical labor (though I've been jokingly invited to borrow a tiny human for a day or two).

A healthy relationship is not always equal, but it is balanced. Sometimes, friends hurt each other's feelings, sometimes they don't offer emotional support or pick up on your unspoken (or even lightly spoken) request for physical help or emotional support. My guy friend -- the one with severe depression -- often disappeared from my life for months or years at a time because his mental health required him to withdraw; until I understood better, I felt hurt, and I think he felt hurt that I couldn't understand he wasn't shutting me out to be a jerk. That was decades ago, and we've learned how to communicate our needs better.

A healthy relationship isn't perfect; but it makes a person feel safe. You know you can trust someone with your secrets, if not always to come to your physical aid. Some people have kids or work or anxiety and can't always physically be who and what you need. But they are NEVER manipulative, they are never demanding (of your money or your time).

Finally, I think it's important to recognize the difference between keeping score ("I went to your wedding and your grandma's funeral and your kid's graduation and you've never visited me!") vs. noting times someone has taken advantage of you. We all bring different things to relationships. Of those four people I talked about at the beginning, two are really good at emotional support and moderate at practical support; the other two are fairly stoic and are sometimes reduced to patting a shoulder and saying, "there, there" but they'll rebook a flight for me while I'm talking to surgeons or upgrade my computer while I'm having a tech-meltdown.

There are best friends, close friends, colleagues, acquaintances, and strangers. At any given moment, any of these can excel at kindness. But none should break you, hurt you, or make demands of you. Friends can absolutely ask you for your help with something (though asking for money when no precedent has been set is rude); and they should absolutely make it clear that you are not required to say yes. If their friendship or kindness is dependent upon your "service" to them, they are not friends. They are leeches. Don't let them make you anemic.

Making friends in mid-adulthood, especially if you don't have kids, is really hard, and that's a whole other subject. But these people absolutely are taking advantage of you. I'm not a therapist (though I recommend one -- for everyone!) and I suspect that your background with your parents made you hungry for kind attention and that anything short of abuse seemed like friendship. Compared to an abusive boyfriend, a non-abusive one who cheats might seem like a winner, but of course, he's not. When you approach new acquaintances, build a friendship based on similar interests and equal input. Split meals, pay for your own movie tickets, do activities that don't cost anything or that you both find reasonably priced to pay your own way.

At heart, a friendship is not transactional but collaborative. Hugs.
posted by The Wrong Kind of Cheese at 6:59 PM on December 23, 2019 [14 favorites]

If it's any help, I recently stumbled upon this book, which I'm only halfway through but is a nice sort of overview of making friends as an adult.

To answer your questions, I feel like I'm still figuring out the whole being an adult and friending thing, but it seems like something that, in particular, A) Takes time and B) Is not the same as the friendships you have when you are younger. Most of my friends are folks I see once or twice a month, or sometimes once every few months. Most of them the past couple years have come into being through shared activities or meetup groups, and in some cases through work. I struggle a bit with finding/developing deeper friendships but maybe that's partly because I'm so self sufficient and used to managing things largely by myself? That said, I tend to enjoy catching up with friends and filling them in on what is going on in my life, often problem solving about personal or work issues together. We find fun things together and are happy to help each other out as needed. I don't generally pay for them unless it's as a nice gesture (eg buying a beer at the bar, donating to a go fund me for something), so that sounds a bit weird to me, especially having that as an expectation, and I wouldn't be ok with it as a prime component of a friendship. Hope that's helpful in some way - I wish you luck in finding some people who make you feel valued and cared for!
posted by knownfossils at 9:09 PM on December 23, 2019

I don't have relationships like that either. I have also made poor choices and I feel much happier alone. I tend to not choose people I have to go out of my way for, though. I am friends with "organizers" - people who bring others together and who will call me up to arrange things but I'm very socially lazy. If I want to go see a film I won't call anyone, I'll just go and see it. It depends on what your needs are. I think I want people around and then I think "imagine if x was here" and realise I wouldn't enjoy it as much.

I have changed the way I view people. Nobody will get you 100%. No one. If you need people then choose those who see the parts that you think are important. Also if you feel those things you mentioned are a problem then they are a problem. Own your needs. Imagine if everyone said "their behaviour is fine" but you weren't happy. If it's a violation yo you then that's enough. Sounds like you have done a lot of work around creating boundaries so continue with that because it's a lifelong thing.

As far as your examples, I agree with you. I would not be happy in those situations at all. The woods one is fucking nuts. They should have told you. The expecting you to drive and pay for everything one is not cool either. As far as the road trip goes I would not "hope" that my friend contributed, I would outline that it's expected long before we even travel. I know you expect them to know but if people think it's taken care of then they won't consider it and you can't spring it on them because it's not fair and they might not have the money to pay for it. The food they should definitely know about. I would take a step back from them.

I think when you build friendships in future step back and observe. Don't just give. It's hard if you're a generous person but your generosity must be earned and it is earned through the other person meeting your requirements. It sounds cold but that's life.

I am glad you have found a partner. That's no easy feat.
posted by ihaveyourfoot at 8:39 AM on December 26, 2019

I can't speak for traveling since my close friends and I never left our hometown.

If you feel taken advantage of you might be in the habit of focusing too much on others and what they want (or what you think they want). I was a people-pleaser in my past life and felt "taken advantage of" because my interactions with people were not sincere. I had an agenda of pleasing them so I would be accepted. I didn't assert myself and I didn't know what I wanted. Your personality can't come out when you're only thinking about what other people want. I'm speaking for myself, you might know exactly what you want and behave accordingly. However, in my experience, once a people-pleaser, always a people-pleaser. People-pleasing always leads to resentment because often times you are doing things you don't want to do or don't get the desired outcome. This tendency is like an addiction -- it can crop up when you're not taking care of yourself -- body, mind, and spirit.

At this time, I'm mostly satisfied with my friendships. They could be better since I'm bad about reaching out or sending texts or calling. I have always been bad at reaching out. It's one of my flaws and it stems from my problems with vulnerability. I mostly don't want to "bother" people -- this is a people-pleasing tendency.

What does a good friendship look like to you?
As someone mentioned above -- someone I can feel safe around. Most of my close friendships were formed in childhood. I might not see these friends as often because of life. When we do see one another there is a feeling of safety because of our shared history and bond. We are loyal and supportive in the fact that we know and forgive our past foibles and strains and have great memories of shared experiences. And we are supportive in the literal sense in that we listen to one another and are there for one another and respond appropriately and with empathy.

With new and old friends a good friendship looks like having fun and enjoying one another's company with no pressure for anything else. Nowadays I'm not emotionally needy. (I was never "needy". I'm more avoidant but that's another story.) I don't need a friend to do anything but converse and share their time when they have it. I get a lot of my emotional "needs" met through being with my spouse and sibling. With my friends, my human need of connecting with others and socializing is met. We usually share an activity (exercise, movies, trivia) and have light and fun conversation. There are no big obligations.

What percentage of the time would you say you feel happy with the relationship, and what percentage of the time do you feel uncomfortable/unhappy?
I'm happy most of of the time because I think I choose my friends well. With new friendships if I see that something isn't going to work (drinks too much, no give only take, gossips too much, has an edge of mean-spiritedness) I'm not going to pursue the friendship.

I had a casual friend who planned and organized yearly getaways for a friend group that I've been a part of for several years. On each trip this friend overcharged and tacked extra money onto bills (house rental, groceries, and miscellaneous). At first I let it slide, but eventually decided I was done with this friend and these trips because this person was not acting in good faith. I can't hang out or form a real friendship with someone who is unprincipled. Time is precious. I let it die.

I think if your friends are kind and decent, it's always wise to manage expectations. I have a close friend who is very distracted in general and with her small children. She's rarely sitting still. I would love to hang out one-on-one more often but I know this about her and don't expect lengthy conversations. I have good memories of them in our youth.

Also, know that people are choosy with their time and you can be choosy with yours. I have a friend who invites me to bad movies I'm not interested in. Previously, I said yes. I now say no most of the time. The friendship might suffer a bit. It's a tradeoff for avoiding activities that I deem tortuous. With friendship there are times for obligations and duty and this isn't of these times.
posted by loveandhappiness at 10:17 AM on December 26, 2019 [2 favorites]

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