In terms of offering friends positive regard, it really is as essential a condition as the presence of trust between friends. If you do not feel a sense of affection or fondness for a person, a key indicator of positive regard, it is doubtful a friendship will take root. But what if your friend changes or you change and the mutual affection is no longer what it used to be?
With some friends, a healthy dose of positive regard — even tempered with an “I like everything about her, but . . .” limitation — can keep the friendship alive. But when your assessment of the relationship turns into something more along the lines of “Everything she does drives me crazy, but at least she . . ." the friendship bond may become too frayed to maintain.
As studies show, empathy varies among individuals — some people develop it early and are able to “walk a mile in a friend’s moccasins” almost as early as they are able to walk. Some people have developed lesser levels or maybe had poor parental role models, so they are on the low side of “average.” Not surprisingly, everyone’s need for empathy from others varies, too. Some of us don’t like to show our vulnerable, needy side to people and some of us may not even care if a friend is really super empathetic as long as they keep their promises. Others of us may have highly developed levels of empathy and tenderness and desperately need our friends to meet us where we are in terms of empathetic understanding. What happens, though, if a friend just can’t be the kind of friend you want?
There are times in life when “situational friends” are every bit as valuable as close friends might be in other circumstances. For instance, if a high school girl needs someone to sit with during lunch period, sitting with someone who is even halfway kind can be better than sitting alone. Some women are willing to hang out with moms of their children’s friends, even if they don’t particularly like them all that much, just so that they can help facilitate the development of friendships for their children. Sometimes you just need a running buddy, a shared ride, or someone to buy the extra ticket for the concert that you’re stuck holding. In situations such as these, perhaps being satisfied with less than a friend but more than a stranger might be the best attitude to take. Just like kids need someone to be their “swim buddy” at camp, just having someone present beats hanging out alone on the sidelines.
There is a difference, of course, when the relative stranger you are hanging out with is someone who was once a close friend. Remember, people do outgrow — or phase out of — some friendships. This can happen for many different reasons, some of them related to personal or developmental reasons and some due to external circumstances.
Some of us have friends we have known for years, through a million different incarnations of identity. You may have the type of friend who chose to “run with the wolves” one year and the next, she was running with the wolves of Wall Street. Even if you just can’t fully empathize with what drives a friend or understand where she is coming from, if you feel genuine affection for her, a friendship can endure. On the other hand, if you have a friend whose values or core beliefs or basic priorities are shifting, the friendship may be on its way out.
When there is nothing resembling mutual admiration or affection between a pair of former friends, there is little motivation to continue to invest energy into the relationship. If you are consistently left feeling as if your friendship is no longer of value to a formerly close friend, the relationship may not be worth pursuing any further. When a friend only seems to “like you” when she is in need, red flags should go up and you should step back to see your relationship more objectively. Is the occasional feeling of appreciation or concern she gives you worth the periods of time in which you and your feelings are ignored or disregarded?
If you feel the relationship is growing cold, but you want to see if it should be revived, initiate a discussion to share your concern about the imbalance in relationship investment. Unfortunately, however, the friend who has the greatest need to continue the relationship generally has the least amount of influence to change the relationship. As a client once summed it up, “The hardest thing I’ve had to do in a friendship is be the one that cares more. It leaves you being more vulnerable than the other.”
In terms of healthy friendships, the ability to empathize with a person and the feeling of mutual affection are really essential building blocks of the relationship. Maintaining friendships can be challenging enough without the added burden of wondering if your friend even likes you or if you even like your friend. When a friend no longer provides you with a sense of being understood or if hanging out with a friend is more like hanging out with a stranger . . . that you don’t even seem to like all that much . . . those are probably signals that the relationship has run its course and opening yourself up to new potential friends may be more productive than trying to resuscitate a dying relationship.
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