How can I broach this subject without being clingy? SHOULD I even try?
September 20, 2007 7:15 PM   Subscribe

A longtime friend with whom I'd been in near-daily contact (via phone calls, emails, online chats - she's out of state) for ages now has suddenly become incredibly scarce. Nowadays we talk maybe once every week or so, and then only for an hour or so at most. I don't know what to do or say without being clingy, and given that she MAY also be clinically depressed, I'm afraid of saying anything that'll make things worse for her.

Now of course with anybody else I’d take this new silence as a glaringly-obvious sign that they just didn't want much to do with me anymore – as I’m guessing most of you are already thinking – but complicating things is the fact that she’s got massive self-esteem issues and often seems depressed (though on an untreated level – and no, I'm not trying to "diagnose" her, I'm simply saying that's what it SEEMS like and what she herself has said (yes, I HAVE urged her to seek help) so I'm taking it as one potential variable to consider). When we do talk she sometimes says she's sorry for not being around, that it's not me, but that she can't ever "work up the energy" to do anything besides work anymore (and even work, she's feeling listless about). This has been going on for ~2 months now.

When she apologizes I say that of course I miss her but that it's okay (FWIW she's the one who always brings it up, not me) ... but it does hurt. I miss my friend. And I don't understand what's going on, I just don't know what to think or if I've done something or what. Thus far, in dread of being clingy I've simply left her alone unless SHE calls or emails, but then when she does, things feel just as good as they ever had and that makes it hard for me to broach the subject. Her self-esteem issues make me wonder if she thinks it just doesn't "matter" if she's not around, but OTOH if she IS depressed I'm terrified of speaking up and making her feel worse (and I just can't come up with a way of asking what’s "really" going on without saying something she could interpret as "Oh woe is me, you terrible person how could you ABANDON me like this??") On the OTHER other hand I've always had a problem with neglecting my own feelings in favor of others' and really want to look out for myself a little better nowadays ... I just don't know if this is the right situation for that. I suppose an obvious time to raise the subject would be the next time we talk and she apologizes for not being around much, but - well, I don't know WHEN she might be in touch again and frankly I don't want to wait any longer if there's a better approach. Furthermore, I'm not entirely sure she doesn't interpret my silence as me not caring rather than me trying to give her what space she needs, so I'm not certain that remaining quiet is a good thing anyway.

Finally, compounding everything else (oy vey) is the fact that I absolutely cannot figure out what a good outcome to this would be even if I WERE to say anything. Of course I don't want to "guilt" her into re-connecting, but how can I avoid doing so if I speak up and she really IS just plain tired of me? And even if that isn’t the case, would any semblance of "reassurance" I might get from airing my feelings be worth the risk of harming her if she is depressed? If there is a way of stating things in a healthy, fair, non-accusatory manner, does anybody have ANY idea what that might be? Thanks in advance to anybody who can offer any advice (if you'd like, you can email me at, I just don't want to be that needy pest who insists on clinging like so many dingleberries long after her usefulness has passed ...
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (15 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've been this friend. Depressed, which made me think "oh, I could call tonight, but sigh.. maybe I'll just go lie down on the floor over there instead". So no phone calls, even to people I like and want to be in touch with -- for months at a stretch.

My friends now know this about me - that I'm awful at keeping in touch, even though I love them dearly and am always glad when they call me.

What if this were her situation? Would you feel like that was an acceptable friendship?
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:24 PM on September 20, 2007

I speak with my closest friends once or twice a week, fifteen minutes at the most, and e-mail more often than that. And these are the friends who live in-state. We get together for coffee, lunch, or a walk perhaps two or three times a month.

I think, and I say this with all due compassion and understanding, that you and your friend may need to redefine the boundaries of your relationship. It's not uncommon at all for friends to simply know they are friends without needing daily contact. Indeed, if I talked or saw my friends every day, I'd feel a little smothered, frankly. And I say this as someone with a history of depression.

Perhaps you need to take a look at your expectations of your friend. You are friends. You don't need to see each other every day to reinforce that. I suggest you lay off your friend, invest in other activities and relationships that fulfill you, and try to allow things to take a more natural course rather than assuming, supposing or predicting any outcome.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 7:33 PM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

I think, and I say this with all due compassion and understanding, that you and your friend may need to redefine the boundaries of your relationship. It's not uncommon at all for friends to simply know they are friends without needing daily contact. Indeed, if I talked or saw my friends every day, I'd feel a little smothered, frankly. And I say this as someone with a history of depression.

Weelllll... I think that really depends. For really close women friends? Talking every day is not weird or clingy or odd. And, like LobsterMitten, when I went from being the friend you talked to every day to the friend who was out of touch for months, it was because I couldn't bear to deal with anyone, not because I was trying to create some distance.

You know your friend. If this seems out of character, I think it probably is.

What helped me was when someone I was really close to said "Listen, it seems like you're feeling withdrawn right now. That's cool. I just want you to know that I'll keep reaching out to you every few days, and if you want to talk, we'll talk, and if you can't get out of bed, I understand. I'll still be here."

I would (and I have since been in this position) back off, but let my friend know why I was backing off, and that I was still there for her. And then be light and silly, and not "Tell me what's going on with you!!!!" which can feel like a lot of pressure when you're gloomy.
posted by thehmsbeagle at 7:52 PM on September 20, 2007

Wow...I would be wondering of one of my friends wrote this if it weren't for the online chatting part.

As someone who has been dealing with chronic depression for far too long now, here's what I'd say if I were your (depressed?) friend:

. . . . .

I'm really, truly sorry that I haven't been in touch lately. I think about you a lot, and feel immensely guilty that I've been avoiding your calls. I know you don't know what this kind of depression feels like, so it might be hard for you to imagine how I can value your friendship at the same time that I'm avoiding contact with friends. I hope you can believe that that's the case, though.

I'll get back in touch with you when I'm feeling better, but it might not be for a really long time - weeks or even months. I'm really sorry, and I know I'm not the easiest person to have a friendship with, but know that I realize how lucky I am to have friends that stick by me even when I'm not that great a friend myself.

. . . . .

Or something like that. It's probably okay to go ahead and call her, but I wouldn't do it "every few days". Your friend might be different, but if someone does that to me I always end up avoiding them even more. I need to feel like I'm not being guilted into contacting someone, even though I'm in the midst of a depressive episode.

That said, if you're truly worried about the wellbeing/safety of your friend, you might want to see if you can get someone who lives near her (family or friend) to check in on her.
posted by splendid animal at 8:30 PM on September 20, 2007

I know this sounds impossible - but let her be, and if she is meant to come back to you in the former capacity, she will, but know she may not. Sometimes depression and life circumstances causes friends to drift away. If you probe too much, or check in constantly, you'll just push her away more quickly.
posted by pinky at 8:45 PM on September 20, 2007

For really close women friends? Talking every day is not weird or clingy or odd. And, like LobsterMitten, when I went from being the friend you talked to every day to the friend who was out of touch for months, it was because I couldn't bear to deal with anyone, not because I was trying to create some distance.

I'm a woman and I have really close women friends. And "odd" is your choice of words; "clingy" is how the OP phrased her fear of her own behavior.

I also have had close women friend's in the past who assumed that it was their job to "fix" my depression. This is not healthy, necessary, or good for either person. In my experience, they have needed to "fix" me more than I have needed to be fixed by them. They have needed to point up to me how to better live my life, how to conduct my affairs, how to be more like them. This was all well-meaning and intended to do good; the reality is that it merely serves to perpetuate a one-up/one-down dynamic in the relationship which doesn't allow a depressed person to focus on improving their own state of mind, and the well-meaning but over-involved friend to focus on their own needs.

To the OP - what is it that you miss by not being in contact with your friend? What is it that you get out of the relationship? What is it that you need? You talk alot about your friends illness or what you perceive her self-confidence issues to be. I'm suggesting that perhaps you need more from her than she's able or willing to give and you might be well-served to back off for the time being. Take your cues from her without assuming she's doing something unnatural, crazy or out of line by not talking with you every single day. Maybe she just wants to do something else. Like eat a sandwich or go for a walk or invest in her work or cry in front of the television for an hour without having to talk about it. Perhaps instead of analyzing her, you might do well to look at why you need to talk to her every day. That, in and of itself, is not "odd". Assuming, though, that there's a huge problem in your relationship and that your friend is "done with you" because you only talk once a week for an hour instead of every day may very well be something you should address.
posted by TryTheTilapia at 8:46 PM on September 20, 2007

"Thus far, in dread of being clingy I've simply left her alone unless SHE calls or emails"

So, from her point of view, you suddenly stopped calling and she has to initiate all of the contact? Maybe you need to be more honest and open with your friend instead of having private fits of agony.

How about "This friendship is really important to me. I want it to work for both of us. It seemed like you wanted to ease back a little bit so I stopped calling you because I wanted to respect your space. Now I'm wondering if you like it this way or if you would prefer that I call you sometimes" If she wants you to call sometimes, let her know that if it is a bad time or she's feeling a little crowded, just tell you - your friendship is strong enough to take it. With some people, I have actually made them promise to tell me because if I know that I can count on them to be truthful instead of polite then I don't have to constantly worry if I'm getting it right. From a good friend, it won't hurt my feelings and it makes me much more relaxed about the friendship because I can count on them to tell me what they need to make the friendship work instead of anxiously trying to read their minds.
posted by metahawk at 9:06 PM on September 20, 2007

I think I'm more or less your friend, since *my* friends would probably say I've been MIA for oh, about... three months now.

My best advice would be to simply let her know you're willing to pick up guilt-free contact whenever she's ready, and to send low-key, amusing, chatty, UN-NEEDY emails once every two weeks - emails that don't *require* a reply she may not be up to.

I love my friends. I rely on them to be there when I get back into the swing of things. But speaking for myself, when I am in life-boat mode, I simply have zero capacity for dealing with anything except the most critical essentials of day to day living. Email, dishes, telephone calls and laundry just do not make the cut.
posted by DarlingBri at 10:36 PM on September 20, 2007 [1 favorite]

Sometimes when one is depressed one kinda holes up and personal contact takes too much energy-energy that one doesn't have.

Been there, done that, betting that is what is going on here.
posted by konolia at 6:04 AM on September 21, 2007

When I'm depressed, I don't contact my friends as often because I have nothing of interest to say, because I've likely been lying in bed or watching TV all day. When I'm depressed, I've already had the same loop of negative thoughts running through my head all day, and the last thing I want to do is think about that more by talking about it.
posted by desjardins at 6:42 AM on September 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

So, it sounds like you haven't even broached it? I'd get it out in the open. "Hey, I'm concerned about you. And I miss you. How are you doing? Is anything going on?" or "Is there anything I can do to help?"

This "but maybe she's avoiding me" second-guessing of yourself is likely pointless. I suspect it's draining energy from you and making the situation hurt worse than it needs to. It sounds like you've been pretty good friends and that you know what's going on. I doubt that there was two months of incipient depression, then coincidentally, she suddenly decided she doesn't like you. I'd try not to worry about it.

Don't put too much pressure on her, but at the same time, don't worry about bothering her. Just let her know you're there, though don't expect much back. I have one friend who'll send me an email that just says "you okay?" (no text inside) when I don't call or email her back for over a week (and I'm not depressed). There's something nice about her wording ("hey, you okay? I'm worried, I haven't heard back from you"), because it's not saying anything about me, like "it's weird you're not calling" or "I think you're depressed." And it's really reassuring. It's nice to know that if I fell into a well, she'd figure it out. In fact, at various times in my life, I've felt like I was in a well for one reason or another, and I really appreciated the people who would notice I'd disappeared and peek their head over to say "Hello, just checking in. How's the weather down in the well? Can I lower you a jacket or some water or something? Okay, talk to you later!"

I think the only harmful thing you could do is announce an ultimatum or insist she get better soon. You might also check with your college (?), health insurance hotline (?), or the internet for resources about "my friend is depressed."
posted by salvia at 8:21 AM on September 21, 2007

I would send her a friendly e-mail, letting her know that you're there for her if she needs anything. Then, check back in every month or so. Odds are, if you keep contact and she needs you, she'll get back in contact soon enough.

You also might want to face the fact that perhaps she's maturing. I know that a lot of my friends from high school and early college have gotten left behind. It's not that they did anything. I just felt like we didn't have all that much in common anymore.
posted by reenum at 8:41 AM on September 21, 2007 [1 favorite]

Please, please, please don't make too big a deal of it. Aside from mentioning her history of depression, you don't mention anything about her family life. I go through periods where there's so much going on in my life, I just don't have the time to even send a quick email to my dear friends, though I do compose them in my head in those few seconds before sleep, hoping that I'll have time to actually send them the next day. And the days turn into weeks. Then by that point, I'm so overwhelmed that I've had no contact with my friends, depression starts to kick in and next thing you know, it's a month or two.

When somebody who I talk to frequently disappears off the radar, I'll wait about a week or so & then drop a quick email or phone message to say that they must have a lot going on, and if there's anything I can do to help them, I'd be happy to do so. If I don't hear anything back, I'll send a card or a letter through the mail after a "long" while - like 2 months or so - just to say I miss them & they're in my thoughts. There's less obligation to respond to a card than to an email or phone call, so it doesn't put any pressure on the friend - just hopefully brings a smile. I've never had a friend not get back in touch & pick up right where we left off, even though in one case it was after 5 years!

True friendship doesn't have time limits. I know it must hurt, but if she dropped off the radar, she's probably dealing with a lot of things and simply doesn't have more than an hour a week to devote to communicating with each friend she has. The worst thing you could do is make a big deal out of it and add to any stress she might be having. Just let her know that you miss her, and would love to hear from her whenver she's ready - be it tomorrow or next year. If depression is keeping her away, knowing that somebody is there for her without expectation will help her more than anything in the world.
posted by Iamtherealme at 9:30 AM on September 21, 2007

Oh - and mentioning to a depressed person that you've noticed they aren't themselves and are concerned is never a bad idea. My friends pick up on changes in my behavior long before I realize I'm in the midst of depression, and I'm always grateful for them noticing, and caring enough to mention it. Just don't harp on it, or focus on the fact she isn't doing as good a job of being a friend as she used to. That would be make things worse, if it is depression related.
posted by Iamtherealme at 9:34 AM on September 21, 2007

Nth the "I've been your friend". It can be so hard to talk on the phone when you're depressed. I would keep calling, just have short conversations, and if it seems appropriate,you can have a conversation about all of it.
posted by Packy_1962 at 11:05 AM on September 21, 2007

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