Reading the New York Times on Sunday, I came across the article, It’s not me, it’s you, written by Alex Williams. Williams explores what I think is a very interesting topic, the delicate task of ending friendships, particularly female friendships.
So much is written about the importance and the gift of great girlfriends. And I couldn’t agree more. Most women would agree that their friends make up a huge part of their emotional lives. We give each other advice on everything from shoes to birth control, and confess our inner most obsessions, neuroses and ideas. We‘ve turned to our friends long before our partners came along and even when you have the most loving partner around, well, some things, are just better shared with “the girls”. Hmmm, think I will just leave it at that. I wrote a column last year on what I think makes friendships successful and had lots of agreement from readers. But this New York Times article looks at the dark side of friendship. The other side. What happens when things change? When the friendship just isn’t feeling so successful anymore? Or in some cases, actually turns toxic.
Friends come in all shapes and sizes. That is their beauty because each friend, whether you are exactly alike or not, adds texture to our lives. The friends you grew up with that know you from way back when, work friends, gym friends, “mommy friends”, and of course the large group of people that fall into the “acquaintance” category. Each different, but together make up our unique social circle.
However, according to the New York Times article, research shows that it is “natural, and perhaps inevitable, for people to prune the weeds from their social groups as they move through adulthood”, but it can be complicated leaving fractured social circles and lots of hurt feelings and ill will.
Williams even points out this “winnowing process” actually has a clinical name: socioemotional selectivity theory, a term coined by Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor who is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California. Dr. Carstensen’s data show that the number of interactions with acquaintances starts to decline after age 17 (after the socially aggressive world of high school) and then picks up again between 30 and 40 before starting to decline sharply from 40 to 50.
While Carstensen’s research is certainly reasonable, and I absolutely agree with her theory, the hard part is knowing IF the friendship has come to the end of the line and if so, HOW do you get out of it? So, in addition to the article, I did some research of my own when it comes to ending a friendship. I asked the women in my life (none of whom I wanted to end my friendship with!) The overall feeling was that where a friend falls in your “circle” matters. For instance, acquaintances are easy to shed, just avoid. They probably won’t notice. But the closer the friend, the far more complicated it is… The other level of complication comes from what turned the friendship on its side in the first place. According to my group, the Top 5 reasons they would end a friendship would include the following: (Listed from mild to toxic)
Circumstance: You move, you switch jobs, or even your kids are no longer at the same school. What tied you together is no longer there.
Different Age and Stage: You were friends when you were both hitting the clubs on Saturday nights but now you’re married with kids and Saturday nights involve getting the kids to bed early and falling asleep watching a movie with your partner. Not the same things in common anymore.
Different Values: Doesn’t matter who has what value but they are opposed and often end up causing disagreement, friction and other bad kharma.
The 1-way friendship: Seems to be always about her, her issues, her successes, her life. “How are you?” is not part of her vocabulary or interests.
Pure Scorn: Something bad, really bad. Enough said.
All of the women agreed that learning to shed a friend is an important skill. We all get to a point where we realize we have limited time and energy to give and unfortunately those friendships that become more of a drain than one that gives you joy and nurturing sometimes have to go. So how?
“Its not me, its you” talked about two approaches; the passive and the direct. The passive option included lots of invitation declines, un-returned email and phone calls and “physical space” so that the “defriended” hopefully gets the point over time. The direct approach would include tactics like an email outlining why this person no longer fits into your life or why the friendship must end, “the talk” (similar to the break up of a romantic relationship), an overt “defriend” on Facebook or neglecting to invite a close friend to an important event. Ouch. The value of the direct approach was to have closure, not leave the other person wondering what happened.
Truth be told, the reason I found the article interesting is that personally, I am terrible at ending friendships. Thankfully I have only really done it twice in my 45 years and they both fell into the “scorned” category so my actions were pretty obvious. Didn’t have to do much. But reading about the direct approach cited in the article, I was in awe that some people could have that much courage. I don’t. Probably why I had boy friends that went way past their expiry dates too. I can’t hurt someone. But looking back, there are many times where I probably should have had more courage and confidence to make a break. Thankfully all the friends I have in my life right now, I want to keep. But it is certainly food for thought. Not all friendships are successful, and part of our own success lies in knowing when it is time to cull. Think about it.
What about you? Have you had friendships that you have chosen to end? If so, why? How did you do it?