What you need to consider before breaking it off

How to know when a friendship is worth saving.

Your phone rings.  You grab it to answer but as the caller’s number flashes on the screen, you hesitate.  It is someone you’re not sure you want to continue being friends with.  Maybe the person has broken promises to you, cancelling get-togethers at the last minute, or perhaps – as entertaining as they can be – this person only seems to care about themselves. Or maybe you met the person when you were in a bad place, needing someone to lean on? Now that your life is back on track, you notice the person continues to play therapist, critic, and advice-giver – even when you don’t want help.  Then there are those friends that are always depressed.  Of course, you are happy to cheer up a friend at times, but when you come away from each encounter feeling drained, dark, and hopeless, it could be time to re-evaluate.    Before you take drastic un-friending action, however, there are a few things you may wish to consider.

Needs, growth and change

We all have needs, physical and emotional.  We go into relationships to meet those needs.  What are you each getting out of this friendship?  The quality of the relating determines our experiences, which trigger more needs, which motivates more relating, and so on.  If you experience a friendship as more frustrating than fulfilling, then ask yourself ‘what needs are not being met?’  Some of the main threats to friendship include blame, jealousy, judgment, neglect, and non-reciprocation. 

These friend frustrations cannot be avoided entirely, even in the most “perfect” friendship. After all, you both are human, with needs.  But we can deal with out-of-synch friendships much better if we accept that, because we have needs, we probably also have expectations, spoken or not.  When we take a hard look at what our friend is doing “wrong”, it may well be that he or she is simply not meeting our current expectations (and thus, needs).  In fact, you might not be meeting your friend’s needs right now, either!
What has worked for many years in a friendship may be less of a priority now if you have changed.  Growth patterns that ambled along parallel paths for many years might now be diverging.  Becoming aware of changed needs doesn’t mean you need to jettison the entire friendship though.  

Questions to ask before you break things off

  1. What do you actually want from the person?  If it’s a question of non-reciprocation and you need more quality time with the person, you can let the person know you miss him or her.  But perhaps you have just taken on a new job or other responsibility and can’t give as much time to your friend; and you might need space and understanding instead.  Or someone to go stand-up-paddle boarding with (it’s significant if your friend never wants to go do what you do).
  2. Have you already tried asking your friend for what you need?  Especially in cases where you may have changed, your friend just might not know what your needs are now.  If you are getting passive-aggressive behaviour because the person is jealous, why not ask if you have upset your friend, letting it be known that you’re quite open to talking about it?
  3. Have you asked your friend what he or she needs to make the friendship more meaningful?  Sometimes we may be upset about expectations we think another person is putting on us when in fact we may be over-giving because we have unconsciously placed those expectations on ourselves.  Talking things out can reveal much.
  4. How long have you been friends? History isn’t everything, but it counts for something.  It can be valuable to have friends who have known you a long time.
  5. Does the friendship energise or drain you? Do you go away from time with the person inspired or in need of a nap?
  6. What will any breakup mean for your friend? If your friend hasn’t been acting “normal” because of ill health, recent bereavement, financial strain or relational woes, you may wish to consider whether you need to break things off just now.  Perhaps “The Conversation” about how the friendship isn’t meeting your needs could wait till your friend is in a better place.
  7. Have you outgrown each other? This has to be asked. Especially if you have been growing into a fuller version of yourself, you will be attracting people into your life who are resonating at that new wavelength.  Friends from before you changed no longer “fit” you.  That doesn’t mean you can’t be friends anymore, but you might not seek as deep or intense a friendship with them now as what seemed right before.
  8. Is the friendship repairable? Can the issues be fixed? Time apart, new boundaries set, apologies offered, or forgiveness extended can rejuvenate a flagging friendship, but be warned that foundational issues (such as conflicting values or a sense of having been betrayed) may not leave much scope for re-negotiation.

Moving on when a friendship is no longer satisfying may be sensible or could even be the only option in unhealthy relationships. However, be sure to give yourself and your friend the gift of review first.  A long-standing and close relationship may still be worth maintaining in some form if sources of frustration can be addressed.

Dr. Meg Carbonatto

Meg completed her B.S., M.A., and Ph.D. degrees in the United States before moving to New Zealand. In Auckland, Meg gained her counselling and psychotherapy diplomas and worked in private practice. She has written two books, the more recent one, published in 2009 and entitled Back From the Edge, is a collection of stories celebrating resilience in adversity. Meg started at the Australian Institute of Professional Counsellors in 2011, where she has been happily writing counselling and psychotherapy courses.  She also sees therapy clients privately. Meg brings to all her professional activities a commitment to helping people manifest their full potential, creating lives infused with meaning and joy.

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