For a little unprofessional advice in these uncertain times, send your questions to our anonymous portal. We want it all, from the epistemological to the inane. We’ll dig deep to find some answers in the next installment of BLARB’s advice column, Asking for a Friend.
How do I break up with a friend without creating more suffering for both of us? I know how to break up with a boyfriend, but I don’t know how to step away from a friendship that has started to feel one-sided and short on good will. I would prefer to do this without a confrontation of any kind.
More than a year ago, I initiated a conversation about some of the things that weren’t working for me (namely, her tendency to come to me with her woes and worries, and to talk about herself the entire time, without showing much reciprocal interest in me, or even my ideas for how to have a less miserable life). The results of that attempt at communication were mixed. Tempers flared, tears were shed, and honesty prevailed…for a while. It seemed to bring us closer, and led to some necessary emotional catharsis, but in the end, I find myself faced with the same issues and lack of faith that things will change any time soon. In other words, until she gets through some of the persistent personal challenges (unhappy marriage, unhappy work life, too much financial stress, a first book published) that are exacerbating the dynamic that has become so frustrating for me, I don’t think this relationship will be a healthy one for me.
As much as I love this friend, and have cherished her place in my life, I’m tired of feeling the way I feel. I’m tired of being a repository for all of her negativity, and I’m tired of being treated like I don’t have any insights to offer as she tries to solve her problems (although I work in the field she is trying to enter, for example). I am tired, most of all, of being talked “at,” rather than “with.” What would you do?
Is there anything that makes us throw our hands to the heavens with more baffled indignation than something sweet suddenly and inexplicably turning sour? Even when it is prolonged and logical, no more surprising than milk turning in the fridge, the shift stings. The past offered consistency, reliability. Your friendship had legs. And now the opened carton offers nothing but curdled lumps and nothing to drink with your cookies.
What you describe does not sound like a good friendship anymore. It sounds exhausting. It sounds like you’re filling in for a therapist, or maybe a coffee-stained notebook that no one but the writer should ever see the inside of — and maybe not her either. (This comes from someone who made the poor choice to re-read her college journals after ten years in storage; trust me when I say I’d rather have left my agonized mental churning in its own time instead of dragging it into this decade.) There is a time and a place and a receptacle for venting, and sometimes friends are at that intersection. But if that’s where you’re finding yourself every time you’re with this person, something needs to change.
You know this. You wrote a letter about breaking up with this person, so it sounds like your mind is made up — and if a breakup is what you want, if you believe this friendship has nothing left to save it, then I’d write her a letter and stop making plans together. Write it on paper to slow down your thinking and feel the pen press under your fingers; tell her what you told me about what you love and what you lack; send it by old-fashioned post and don’t text about it after. Use “I” statements. Confrontation of some kind is inevitable here, I’m sorry to say; I believe ghosting should stay strictly in Scooby Doo. But it doesn’t have to be dramatic or drawn out: take her phone call, if it comes, and don’t bargain away your boundaries. “I’ve told you how I feel, and I need you to respect that” leaves little room for misunderstanding and doesn’t require you to temper it with “sorry.” If you’re looking for the cleanest way out of a messy situation, clarity and repetition are your friends.
But I wonder if there’s a different opportunity here.
You say that you’ve cherished this friend’s place in your life, that you love her. Whatever else may happen next, this is a good thing to remember. Was she a generous listener before her challenges got the better of her attention? Was she a raucous co-adventurer, a thoughtful gift-giver, a hilarious movie companion? Did she rescue you from despair?
The loss of your friendship is all the more painful because you know it was good once, and that might mean it could be again. The potential may be past, or it might not be. Either way, the bond you shared is worth remembering. Not because it should guide your future with this friend, but because it’s a reminder of what good friendship looks like. If it ends, good, true friendship is worth eulogizing properly. And if it sours, it’s worth examining.
You write about all the things your friend does and fails to do: complain and listen, respectively. You write about your frustration that she won’t take your advice, about being a sponge for her negativity. It all sounds pretty passive. What do you do in these moments? How do you reject that negativity, or remind her that she’s repeating herself, or even try to get your own stories in edgewise? You said you told her how you felt a year ago, but I wonder how much, in your regular interactions, you remind her of how to treat you. I don’t mean weekly come-to-Jesus showdowns to air out every snag in your relationship. I mean the mundane: do you let your frustration show when you’re together, or do you save it up to stew over alone?
This can be hard if you’re not used to it. Not everybody thrives on friendly friction. But sometimes, making just enough of a fuss can be enough to remind a pal who’s used to taking up all the air in the room that you need to breathe too.
How clearly do you tell your friend what your own boundaries are? (How well do you know them yourself?) How often do you ask her for support instead of offering yours with open hands? Maybe this reanimated conflict between you is a chance to practice being just a little more difficult. Show her — and remind yourself — that friendship is a mutual endeavor. Take the breaths you need without anybody’s permission.
You are allowed to have big, messy feelings even when your friends don’t ask to see them. You are even allowed to show them. If you are tired of hearing the same complaint about her unhappy marriage and offering the same ignored advice, you can tell her so — not just in a heavy heart-to-heart, but while draining pasta or crossing the street or waiting for your whiskey ginger. You can make room for yourself, even in these small moments. If this person is your friend — if she wants to be — she’ll respond to your consternation. If all she wants is a sponge to mop up her emotional overflow, she’ll make that clear too, even if she doesn’t use so many words.
I bring this up not to blame you for your faltering friendship — it’s never your fault when someone else treats you badly — but to remind you of how much unclaimed oomph you have in these ordinary power struggles, if you want it.
Your friend is consumed by the struggles her life has heaped upon her, and maybe she really doesn’t have the capacity, in her unhappiness, to be a friend to anyone else. But maybe she just needs a couple of nudges out of her habitual self-involvement to return to being the friend you miss. It might even lighten her load to think about someone else’s needs (selflessness, not Schadenfreude). And I’d bet that you might feel less like a passively pummeled observer if you made a habit out of defending your boundaries.
Maybe she’s forgotten how to be a good friend, and she’ll be grateful for the reminder. Maybe she doesn’t care to be one, and you can bury your friendship and chalk it up to growing up and apart. Or maybe she’s happy being miserable the way some people are, and she doesn’t want solutions from you, but miserable company. No matter what, you don’t have to wait for her to make room for you. Write a letter or don’t, eulogize the friendship or resurrect it — but either way, take up the space you need and deserve. A friendship worth fighting for won’t squeeze you out of it.