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How to Handle Fairweather Friends

When you aren't getting as much as you give.

Key points

  • People who were raised to be family caregivers may struggle to end friendships that are not working for them.
  • Matching the energy that a friend gives you is a good way to make sure you are not being misled or breadcrumbed.
  • It is not your fault if a friend does not have time for you.

Joyce, a 42-year-old client, came to therapy with poor self-esteem and feelings of loneliness. She reported that her best friend "never has time" for her, reporting that her friend does not respond to texts, calls, or messages for days or even a week, leaving her feeling unsupported, lonely, and resentful. Joyce assumed there was something wrong with her, and often dismissed and excused her friend's actions: "She's busy." "She doesn't always have her phone on her."

After working on improving her self-esteem and boundaries in therapy, Joyce was able to realize that her friend was not giving her what she needed and that it was okay to feel upset by this. She had been getting breadcrumbs for so long that it felt difficult to know when to move on. "But it feels so good when we can actually get together. It just rarely happens."

Raised in a family where her feelings were often dismissed, Joyce was often supposed to cater to her mother's feelings and moods, leading to a lifetime of struggles prior to her mother's passing. She was able to identify that she was afraid to speak up due to fears of losing her friend, and "a so-so friend seemed better than no friend." She was afraid of the abandonment she had experienced as a child.

 TréVoy Kelly/Pixabay
Put your energy into friendships that match the same effort.
Source: TréVoy Kelly/Pixabay

In time, Joyce was able to find other social supports in people who had as much time for her as she had for them. But, most importantly, she recognized that when friends were not there for her, it was not her fault and that it was okay to redirect her energy elsewhere without feeling guilty.

Here are three things we worked on in therapy to help Joyce decrease the amount of energy directed toward her inattentive friend.

1. Give as much energy as you receive

When you send more texts and place more calls than you receive, you might come across as needy. There is nothing inherently wrong with this. Friends should "need" each other, right? But the difficulty comes when this is one-sided. If two friends rely on each other, it's considered a good friendship. Yet, if one person relies on the other, who does not give this same energy back, resentment can build on both sides. In therapy, Joyce worked on how to give as much energy as she was getting back. If her friend only responded to texts once a month, or once every other week, Joyce was urged to match that effort. Likewise, she was encouraged to put her efforts into developing new friendships. She was given homework to suggest coffee or breakfast with two new women from her child's school who seemed interested in developing a friendship with her.

2. Try not to take it personally or assign blame

This is easier said than done, especially for people who were expected to be family caregivers. I often notice that women are more likely to be in this position, due to society's conditioning that women be emotional caregivers. Of course, it can happen to anyone.

Much like Joyce needed to realize, it is important to understand that it is not your fault that these people are not able to reciprocate a friendship. This does not mean they are malicious—perhaps something is going on in their lives, or perhaps they just need some space and are unable to articulate this. But this is not your responsibility to fix, nor is it your responsibility to wait around.

3. Open up your heart, and your social circle, to others

There is a lot of pain that comes from moving away from a friendship. You probably had high hopes for the longevity of the relationship, and the person made you feel good when you were actually able to talk or get together. You have a lot to give in your friendships; put this energy into learning more about others around you and developing new friendships.

More from Kaytee Gillis, LCSW-BACS
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