Few things in life are more painful than when a friendship drifts away and we’re left unsure what happened or why. Of course, sometimes we’re the ones who outgrow the friendship and sometimes it’s the other way around. The reality is that we don’t always perceive our relationships the same way. You may feel very close to a friend, but they might consider you just an acquaintance. Friendships are tricky waters to navigate and we aren’t always on the same page at the same points in our lives.
Look back to your high school and college days. Remember the friends you partied and hung out with? Whether or not they were great influences, chances are you felt very close to them. You probably spent a great deal of time with them and shared your deepest secrets. They may know things about you that you haven’t even shared with your spouse. You bonded with them deeply and, at the time, would have done anything to keep them happy and your relationship strong.
But after ten or twenty years go by, those friendships no longer feel as relevant or vital to us. We may still keep in touch, maybe through social media or the occasional phone call, but often we simply drift apart. Your spouse, your kids and your family take priority.
Today, you may spend more time with your fellow moms and neighbors. Your social circle probably consists of people who share an office with you, go to your church, and have similar family structures. Your best friends come from your kid’s playgroup, your fellow PTO members, or your neighborhood Meetup group. Since your college days, maybe you’ve moved to a different city, started to attend a different church, or pursued a different career path. Your values and interests have changed.
Our lives are a work in progress, so we’re always changing. While there are certainly some universal qualities of a best friend, lifelong best friends are probably the exception, not the rule. Yes, it’s important to our key relationships strong when we can. But for most friendships, the rule holds true as we get older: things simply change.
Sometimes change happens slowly and we’re not really sure why. Sometimes it happens because of a falling out—a friend lets us down, we have a fight, or an off-handed comment goes awry. We say something we regret or they say something hurtful. Sometimes friendships feel like they drag us down and make us feel irritated, belittled, drained or frustrated.
And when that happens, it might be time to set some better boundaries in your friendships.
Emotionally Draining Friendships
Sometimes our friendships can become draining and drag us down. You know the drill. We’ve all had a friend who’s more of a drain than a support. Either they constantly need favors, which they never return (Babysitting? A ride? Help with house projects?), or they need constant emotional attention and the conversation is always one-sided. (When did she even ask how MY day was going?)
While it’s important to be there for friends when they’re struggling or going through a hard time, we’ve all been faced with those friends who ALWAYS seem to need as much as we can give and then some. True friendship is about reciprocity and give and take. It’s about doing things for each other and listening to each other. Sometimes you might find someone who talks at you, rather than to you.
Part of dealing with a one-sided friendship is to establish proper boundaries. We have to give ourselves permission to say no and learn to decline gracefully. We have to learn it’s okay to be there for a friend sometimes, but we don’t have to be there all the time or at our own expense.
These lessons can be challenging. Everyone is fighting a hard battle and if a friend is going through a particularly rough time—a death in the family or a divorce—of course we want to do everything we can to be there for them as much as possible.
You’ll know if a friend is simply going through a tough time right now and needs some extra support and patience, or if the tough time is constant. If your relationship is taking away from your time with your spouse or children, becoming emotionally draining, or making you depressed, anxious or overwhelmed, it may be time to step back.
For some, this might mean establishing a time limit on your check-ins or a regularly scheduled time when you can touch base. Offer a narrow window to prevent the conversation from spiraling endlessly. Let your friend know you’ll call them Wednesdays on your way to work (which keeps conversations limited to a set timeframe) or meet with them for a bi-weekly coffee where you can lend an ear over your lunchbreak. When they call you up outside of your set “session,” let them know you’re looking forward to lending your ear the next time you see them, but for now, you’ve got something else going on.
Give your friend time. If they need to talk through their feelings about their ex or loved one, listen and support them. If it sounds like a broken record or you suspect they need more than you’re able to give, it may be time to encourage them to talk to a professional.
When you have a friend who’s inspiring and naturally good at things, they can be just the thing you need to spur you on and help you strive to be even better. After all, a great friend can motivate us to get in better shape, get ourselves organized, or embrace healthy habits like gardening and other hobbies. Our friends can enlighten us spiritually and bring us joy. We all want friends we can look up to.
However, some friends become too competitive, leaving us feeling belittled, put down or bad about ourselves when we hang out with them. Maybe they interrupt or correct things you say. Maybe they’re critical of your kids, your spouse, or your looks.
Understand when a friend is being critical of you, it may stem from a place of jealousy or insecurity. Why else would someone feel the need to tear you down? If they’re comparing themselves to you all the time or one-upping the things you say (“Oh, your daughter has a dance recital? Well our daughter is thinking of trying out for Julliard”), chances are, it’s because they want you to think they’re important or special.
Or there’s the friend who offers unsolicited advice (aka criticism). Maybe they helpfully suggest you lose weight, your hair looks better a different way, or your kids should behave in a certain manner. It’s one thing if you’ve asked, “How does this look on me?” and someone gently tells you to go with a different option. It’s quite another when you get to work and your coworker says, “Wow, that sweater looks really bad on you.” Somehow you “doing you” makes these unsolicited advisors feel uncomfortable and they want to “fix you” or tell you what to do.
If you have a friend who’s critical or competitive, you can either try to confront them and discuss it or simply distance yourself from them. If you feel it’s something building over time or it’s not in their normal nature, maybe it’s time to address the issue candidly. Let them know you’ve been feeling a strange vibe because they seem a little competitive or critical lately and you’re wondering if something’s bothering them or what you can do to work things out, because it’s making you feel bad.
In most cases, this direct approach will be enough to help your friend do a reality check. It may clear the air and redirect their approach. Maybe there’s something bothering them and they’re waiting for a chance to get it out, too.
On the other hand, some people are just critical. When you realize you’ve befriended a critic, you may want to reevaluate your situation. Are there positives of your friendship you’d like to hold on to? Are you willing to let their comments roll off your back and let it go?
If the answer is no, then it might be time to say goodbye to this critical friend. Put some healthy distance between you and your “buddy” and remind yourself their words come from an insecure place and shouldn’t be taken personally. Unfortunately, people aren’t always open to change and sometimes you may just be better off walking away.
Friends with Different Values and Priorities
Many friends show up at different times in our lives. Those college friends were probably great to hang out with at the bar, but as a mom of a five-year-old, your bar days might be well behind you. Maybe your friend hasn’t moved on yet.
Just because you’re in a different place in life doesn’t mean you can’t be friends. If your friend is still in the singles scene, but you have kids and you’re trying to save money and they want to go out, or you just bought a house and moved to the suburbs and your friend is a city girl through and through, you might feel like you have less and less in common and have drifted apart.
In some cases, this might be true, especially if you were simply casual acquaintances or friends because you worked in the same office or hung out in the same social circles. For true friends, though, it’s usually worth looking past the different life stages and remembering what your commonalities were that made you so close.
Take a pen and paper and write down all the things you appreciate about your friend. Does she make you laugh? Does she have great fashion advice? Is she a wonderful listener or someone you feel really keeps up with you intellectually? Focus on these qualities and ask yourself if it’s worth the extra effort, distance and time to keep your friendship strong.
You might look at the list and go, “Heck yeah it is!” In this case, call her, send her a little text message, or write her a note and let her know you’re thinking about her and miss her.
Or, you might look at the list and think, “Eh, we had some good times, but I just don’t miss the relationship that much.” In this case, it’s perfectly fine to let the friendship drift into the social media zone. Keep in contact occasionally and send a card, a note, or a message now and again, but it’s okay to move on. This is especially true if you feel your friend’s priorities might be damaging to you, or if you’re trying to move away from past behavior this friend encourages.
You don’t have to share the same views as your friends on everything. (How boring would it be if you were exactly alike?) Friends that make you think differently, stretch you to examine yourself and your worldview, and push you to be a better-rounded person are vital! However, friends who drag you back to places you’ve moved on from or who bring out negative aspects of your personality might be best kept at a distance. Sometimes it’s time to move on.
Friends are so important. They bring us joy. They’re there for us and they make us better people. Keep your friendships strong by knowing which friendships are worth pouring extra time and energy into and which are better left as Facebook contacts.