The Friendship Doctor

Send in your friendship questions and quandaries and get expert answers and solutions

How to Keep an Online Friendship Online

Online friendships need to be managed just like those offline~

QUESTION 

Hi Irene,

I am often caught off guard by the recurring incidence of online "friends" (emailing, blogging, and/or Facebook) who want to take the friendship to the "face to face" level. The Internet has destroyed some important boundaries.

Three years ago, for instance, I "met" a colleague through a professional group online. We live in the same county and share common professional goals and interests. I have enjoyed our emails and Facebook connections. However, this woman not only relies on my professional advice and contacts, but she wants us to be social friends as well.  She often asks me to get together for lunch and has even invited me to her home for dinner for "girls' night out," and so on. (We've had lunch early on, but I have declined the parties and dinner invitations.)

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She is, at times, rather pushy and demanding -- which has been a red flag to me. She emails me for my professional help even when she knows I am going through a busy period and don't have much free time -- always in need of special attention.

I am not interested in taking this friendship to another level. I have several close friends with whom I get together often, and I have a close family. I am protective of my time.

I sense this woman thinks we're closer than we really are. I don't want to cut off the online relationship we have professionally, but want to find a way to tell her that I am not available for the in-person friendship she wants. I miss the old days when I worked in an office and it was easier to separate office or business friendship from social friendship. Is it wrong to want to limit certain online friendships to "online only??"

Signed,

Hayley

ANSWER

Hi Hayley,

I used to live in the Washington, D.C. area. Shortly after I moved away, a close friend was moving from New Jersey to the same neighborhood I had lived in. I eagerly called my friend in Washington and asked if she would like me to introduce the two of them to each other. She responded, “Irene, I barely have enough time for my own friends, let alone yours.”

Her response was a bit blunt but I appreciated her candor. Friends are voluntary relationships and she didn’t need or want any more, which I had to respect.

Perhaps, you can tell your online friend something similar: “I enjoy our online friendship but just don’t have time for any more friendships right now given my existing involvements with family and friends.”

Unfortunately, it sounds like this woman is also a bit pushy and demanding. If that is the case, the only thing you can do is be firm about setting boundaries for your online friendship that work for you. If she asks for help when you don’t have time, let her know that you’re busy (or on deadline) right now and can’t get back to her until the evening or the next morning. If you acquiesce to every one of her demands, you will find yourself frustrated and resentful.

Online friendships need to be made and tended with the same honesty and grace as in-person ones.

Hope this helps.

Best, Irene

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., is a psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the NYU School of Medicine. Her latest book is Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.

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