Our relationships with friends are among the most meaningful we will ever have; more and more research shows that keeping them in good working order contributes significantly to our physical and emotional health. Often, though, people put so much pressure on themselves to keep mediocre friendships going—out of a sense of loyalty, fear, or guilt—that they experience more stress in the long run than if they just pulled the plug.
In fact, any friendship, at its core, is two people's connection at a moment—or string of moments—in time. (Modern science has not yet figured out a way to have two people exist simultaneously in different time periods.) So it's unrealistic to expect that a person you were close to at one point in your life will also be the person you want by your side at every subsequent stage. It's also important to remember that if you have a wonderful relationship that eventually becomes less wonderful, the ending of the friendship does not negate the positive experiences that came before it. Sometimes friendship simply withers or fades as two people grow and change—it doesn't have to be someone's fault.
That said, sometimes friendships end with a much more sour—or even rotten—flavor. It can be confusing and hard when the two parties aren't exactly on the same page. And there's no cultural narrative or officially recognized rituals for the breakup of a friendship, no Divorce Court for BFFs.
So, friendships don't always go softly to pasture. Often, the breakup is replete with all kinds of gastrointestinal distress, and you might be confused about whether, why, and how to end it. There are no hard and fast guidelines, but there are a few clear signs that a friendship may be in jeopardy:
- You do not like who you are when you're around him or her. Perhaps whenever you're around your friend, you feel particularly catty, passive-aggressive, or just aggressive. Or maybe you feel competitive, resentful, or overly envious—and you don't tend to be this way around other people. Maybe, when all is said and done, you have to admit that you don't really want the best for your friend. If this is the case, what's the real foundation of the friendship?
- Your friend is bringing out bad behaviors in you. There are many ways that a friend can be a bad influence, long past the days of smoking cigarettes after homeroom. Maybe as you continue to spend time with this person, you're drinking too much, lying more, being less patient with your kids, or feeling your creativity stifled or your integrity tested. Perhaps your job or grades are in jeopardy or you start to doubt your marriage in a way that you didn't before. If so, it's time to start rethinking the connection.
- The friendship feels significantly unbalanced. Reciprocity? What reciprocity? Perhaps she or he constantly borrows your things and doesn't return them, or you've made a thankless dinner for her so many times that you're starting to feel like a short-order cook. Maybe the scales are tipped in the other direction: she or he constantly tries to do so much for you but you must admit you're just not as interested in returning the favor. Either way, the equilibrium needed at the heart of a deep friendship has been shot.
- The words you'd use to describe your friend are not flattering. Maybe you're constantly making fun of this friend in your head, and not in a loving way. Or you feel so superior to them that they annoy you. You're not laughing with them; you're laughing at them—and let's face it, you just don't seem to like them anymore.
- Your friend doesn't seem to get who you are. Maybe he or she constantly misunderstands you, or makes you feel embarrassed for how late you sleep, or how you dress or cook. You've started to feel so underappreciated and put down that you censor yourself with the friend—or maybe, in a fit of annoyance, you start flaunting your alleged "flaws" just to get on his or her nerves. Either way, this is the opposite of unconditional love.
Can a friendship that's reached any of these points be saved? Possibly, but only if it feels like a phase, rather than a long-standing pattern. Think hard about whether there's a true foundation of a healthy relationship to try to get back to. You might also ask yourself whether you've been feeling this way with a lot of your friends, or with just one in particular. If the answers aren't encouraging, take heart: Not all friendships last forever. And even though Facebook now keeps many of them on life support, all you ever owe a friend is kindness and respect—not a vow 'til death do you part.
copyright Andrea Bonior, Ph.D. Adapted from The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With Your Friends.
Andrea Bonior is the host of "On Our Minds," and a licensed clinical psychologist, media commentator, professor, and author of The Friendship Fix and the Washington Post Express's longtime advice column Baggage Check. Follow her on twitter @drandreabonior or Facebook or YouTube.