A colleague I work with, someone I have considered a friend for years, has become almost unbearable to be around. He’s persistently negative about most aspects of our job, bitter about some personal failures, and almost entirely disinterested in other people. I don’t get much satisfaction from our relationship and often feel quite used by my colleague, who often summons me to long conversations about his professional life or to perform tasks for him. I’ve gently and repeatedly suggested that he give some thought to visiting with a counselor because I think his attitude is doing damage to his relationships with other people, including his family, to no avail. So that leaves a series of questions. Is it okay, after these repeated efforts, to extricate myself from a friendship like this? If so, how? A clear statement of my frustration, or is this a moment when “ghosting” is the right choice? Help!
-Cornered in the Cubicle
The good news is that the answer to your main question is always yes. Yes, it is okay to extricate yourself from any friendship, for any reason, but especially from one that has devolved into something that resembles a butler-butlee relationship more than a friendship at all.
Unlike legal contracts, rental agreements, or mortgages, friendships — even long ones — do not come with a “do not quit” clause. You don’t have to stick it out for sunk costs or for fear of what’s on the other side. There’s no requirement that you put up with misery just for the company.
Often, of course, we prefer to. In friendships that once promised joy or offered solace, there’s a built-up goodwill that makes us want to see what might be possible once more once the tough going is gone. We want to see our friends succeed, to help them through the dips. We weather their necessary selfish patches during rough divorces, their forgetfulness during health scares, their inadequate replies when we bring up our deepest worries and they just don’t know what to say in return. In part, we do this because we trust they’ll have our backs, too. Gifts of time and care flow both ways, given enough time. History is often enough of a reason to keep trying. Without the stickiness of the past, the future would be a whole lot more slippery and less consequential.
It sounds like that sticky past is keeping you a little bit too stuck, though — to the point that your onetime friend regularly “summons” you for story hour and seems to be entirely indifferent to your discomfort. You write that he’s changed recently; perhaps some painful life event has tipped him from empathetic listener and thoughtful colleague to grouch with a handy audience. But what you don’t write is what you’ve done about your workplace worries aside from gently hinting at counseling.
It’s no secret to regular readers of this column (or anyone I know in person) that I’m a big fan of therapy — huge. It’s by far my top most favorite item on my health insurance menu. I wish everyone could go. But as we’ve recently discussed, pushing therapy on your loved ones typically goes over about as well as dragging them to ice-dancing lessons or concerts of Gregorian chanting: they have to be on board already.
Your relationship with your colleague, I’m sorry to say, is not one that can hold up to ice-dancing. Of the several things you should be saying to him, the appeals to get to therapy — let alone concerns about his relationship with his family — are not even in the top five.
You mention your repeated hints at counseling but not what else you’ve hinted at; namely, have you told him, in words either obvious or oblique, to knock off his workplace whining at you? Have you declined to carry out the tasks he’s delegated to you or turned back to your work after polite hums instead of listening to his soliloquizing? There are many ways to make it known that your attention is unavailable; they don’t all require nerves of steel. Ghosting is, of course, one of them — but ghosting, I believe, works best for either strangers or ghosts. He’s neither. And, unless you’ve endured his harassment without the barest hint of a grimace, it sounds like he’s not very perceptive, either. That means you will, sooner or later, have to be direct.
The first step is to stop allowing this person to use you as a confessional and/or personal assistant. Cease responding to summons. Turn off the tap of polite follow-up questions. You sound in your letter like an empathetic person, so responding with blank disinterest rather than compassion may feel stark and unpleasant — but do it anyway. Unless you’re ready to commit to an intense and involved soul spelunking with your maybe-friend — in which case you’ll have to have a long overdue honest conversation with him anyway — it’s not going to do you any good to feign interest when you can barely stand to be around this guy.
The next step is to be as clear in your words to your colleague as you are to me. This doesn’t mean you have to end a friendship on your lunch break; just that you have to make clear that his behavior can’t continue. (The friendship may crumble swiftly after that, but a friendship that crumbles because you’ve made your needs known is not much of a friendship to begin with.) If he asks you for help you’re not willing to give, say so. “I can’t help you” is a complete sentence, even if you can’t bear to say it without adding “I’m sorry.” If his complaints drag on, cut him off. “I wish I could stay and chat, but I have to go.” Then do. It’s much harder to talk over a closed door.
I know this sounds harsh, and it may feel like you’re abandoning a friend who needs you, instead of a coworker who’s been walking all over you. That’s okay. Ending patterns is rarely comfortable, but as you know, it doesn’t mean it’s not necessary. Getting more involved is always an option, of course — but your letter suggests that you’re looking for distance in this relationship, not depth.
Be as blatant or as nonchalant about your step back as you’d like; fading into the office background is a perfectly adequate way to go (as long as you don’t start ignoring this person completely, which is more likely to make a splash than a clear statement). Draw your boundaries, hold your ground, pull away from his personal life and the tangles he’s weaving. If you’re done with this friendship, be done with it. And remember to invite only close loved ones to go ice dancing.
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