Dear Therapist..."My Friendships Are All Changing"
I’m feeling really sad and resentful that my best friend since childhood doesn’t seem to be treating me like much of a friend recently. She cancels regularly on plans we have made and often doesn’t even return my calls. I know she is struggling to juggle all that is going on in her life – she has a big job that includes seemingly endless social engagements plus a husband and toddler at home – but I have juggling of my own I’m doing and I still make time to prioritise her. If anything, I’ve stepped up efforts to make time for her because I miss her and our friendship means so much to me.
I’ve tried to communicate how I’m feeling in a non-accusatory way and have even asked if I’ve done anything to upset her. I just get blasé responses about how time poor she is and she’ll try to do better but then nothing changes. I love my friend but don’t love how her inattention leaves me feeling.
Like all relationships, friendships go through seasons. There are times – particularly when we are younger – they are the primary focus. A school friend can be thought of as our second half ('We’re a package deal' one 18 year-old client tells me of her BFF); in our 20s they can become our emotional support system, the ‘families we choose.’ We assume this intense closeness is for life. Then life changes.
Particularly once friends start partnering up and having families of their own, there is an adjustment period. Regular meals and outings together become less frequent, and with the thinning glue of ongoing shared experiences we find we are no longer in step with our friends’ thoughts, feelings and developments the way we once were. This transition can be difficult, particularly if we haven’t embarked on the journey to creating a new family life as well. If our professional paths have taken us in different directions, this, too, can make us feel further estranged from our friends’ lives.
The sadness you feel at this ‘necessary loss’ (as author Judith Viorst calls the losses that are an inevitable and necessary part of life) is understandable and shared by many. The universality of these losses is important to underscore because I sense you are taking the development personally which will only compound your pain and all but ensure you interact with your friend from that injured – and so defensive – place. Is there a way to feel your current sadness, but view it in the broader context of the ebbs and flows of relationship?
You also mention resentment in your letter. Resentment arises when we feel we’ve been treated unfairly. And fairness is a pretty important – our human brains are wired for it. It doesn’t feel fair to you, the amount of thought and effort you are putting into the friendship, because these aren’t reciprocated. Indeed, you note you have increased your efforts when she has done the opposite, exacerbating the imbalance. I would imagine your friend picks up on your resentment in your interactions as it has a tendency to make itself known if not rectified. This can aggravate an already strained situation.
There are two ways to balance things out – either your friend changes her ways, or you change yours. It sounds like you are focused on affecting the former when the only thing you can truly control is the latter. I’m not suggesting that you go ‘tit for tat’ with her or create a mental ledger of friendship debits and credits (such relationship accounting rarely works!) Rather, recognising the imbalance, you can step back from trying quite so hard to connect with your friend and redirect your energy where you feel it is – or could be – reciprocated. Instead of chasing who isn’t currently present and available, note who - or what - is and organise more attention in that direction. Prioritise connections that nourish you: people, places, work, hobbies that make you come alive.
Pulling back some from your attempts to connect with your friend may feel scary, like putting a nail in the friendship coffin. I would encourage a reframe. One that honours the importance of the relationship but accepts it has moved into a different season for the time being, gives it a bit more space to see what emerges. Look at nature for inspiration: the autumn leaves falling are making way for new life when the seasons change. As they will, as they always do.
We gain something in being open to change as we can’t fully be present and love today if we are tense and resisting what may be coming tomorrow. But in order to remain open, we need to look after ourselves along the way as navigating change and loss leaves us feeling vulnerable. Depersonalising your friend’s actions, rebalancing things in the relationship to alleviate your resentment and engaging with other connections that support you feel sensible steps to take.
Do you have a question for Dear Therapist? Send it to [email protected] with Dear Therapist in the subject line and Charlotte Fox Weber or Kelly Hearn will get back to you.