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Fredric Neuman M.D.

How Come My Best Friend Doesn't Call Me Back?

She has other things to think about besides you.

I find it hard to figure out why people do the things they do; figuring out why they don’t do certain things is usually impossible.

A middle-aged lady complained to me that her friend of 20 years standing had not called her in 6 months. She had not answered her e-mails (2 or 3) and had not initiated any other contact.

My patient had a theory: “ I think she finds it uncomfortable talking to me since I got a divorce.” It turned out, when her friend finally did call, that her friend’s mother had been dying from a particularly wretched disease, and she had been staying with her in the hospital for most of that time. Could she have taken out just a few moments to stay in touch? Yes, but she didn’t want to. She was distressed and did not feel like talking to anyone.

I think women are more concerned than men about the possibility of close friendships breaking up. Or, possibly, men may think it unseemly to express such concerns. Young girls, especially, are always anxious to feel that they belong to a close group of friends, and, in particular, that their best friends regard them as best friends too. When there are only two of them, they are probably right. If there are 7 or 8 girls in the group, it becomes unlikely that such feelings are reciprocated entirely. One teenager told me bitterly that her best friend only liked her “80 percent” as much she liked her friend.

These alliances shift quickly anyway. Someone’s best friend may become an enemy and then, a week later, best friends again. Much of the anguish of adolescence grows out of coping with the fact that kids that age feel left out too readily. If they are not invited to go along with someone else to a concert, or to a weekend at someone’s house, or to a party; they may feel crushed. Often they ask the same questions: “What did I do wrong?” and/or “Why doesn’t she like me anymore?”

Of course, it is impossible to answer such questions. And it may well be that the reason for being left alone on a particular occasion has nothing to do with being liked or disliked. Friends have to answer to other people. They have other responsibilities and priorities and cannot be relied on always to be there just at the right time. And yet they can be good friends.

And these concerns may not fade with age. Usually, women are more or less content knowing that their families value them; but there are particular times—divorce being one of them—when the attendance of friends is very important.

To a large extent, we value ourselves—and judge ourselves—by what others think of us. Everyone says it is desirable to think well of oneself no matter what others think. Certainly, what relative strangers think should not matter very much; but everyone cares about what certain very close friends think. Even people who are very self-confident will feel shaken if a close friend turns away.

Another time when women—and men, too—feel especially vulnerable is when they are widowed.

An elderly patient of mine—an 88-year-old woman—who had been twice widowed, experienced the further trauma of her friends dying. She became depressed. I told her she should make younger friends, and she did! She fell in with a group of 70-year-old women who remained friends with her until she died at the age of 93.

So, friends are important. For that reason I think an effort should be made to maintain friendships, even if it seems the other person has been thoughtless or inconsiderate in some way—or rejecting. Some people are too sensitive to slights. They are too proud. They get their feelings hurt too easily. If someone seems cold to them, they are likely to pull away.

I finally persuaded a married woman with two children to move out of her parents' house. Besides the usual reasons, I was concerned that her mother was encouraging her to avoid coping with certain social anxieties. Flora moved to a nearby house on a cul-de-sac. She settled in quickly and became best friends with a neighbor.

One day, there was a block party at a nearby school. Flora and her husband walked into the building. She saw her friend right away; but her friend looked away from her! Flora continued walking to the back of the party where she remained, talking to other people. Her friend did not even come back to say hello! And her friend, who had previously spoken with her every day, did not call over the course of the following two weeks. Flora was distraught. She could hardly talk to me about anything else. Why did her friend come to dislike her, she asked me over and over again.

“Listen,” I told her finally, “I know you don’t want to call her, but I think you should. You need to find out what happened.”

When Flora finally risked whatever she thought she was risking by calling up her friend, this is what her friend told her:

“What do you mean, I avoided you! You came in, you didn’t say hello, and you went right back to the other side of the building. You avoided me!”

This is what can happen when two people are proud.

So, if you wonder why a very close friend you have had for years is not responding to you anymore, you can imagine that it was because she is jealous of the fact that your new boyfriend is so successful, or because you scolded her over not voting, or because your daughter is getting better marks than her daughter, or for any number of things you might have said or done wrong; but consider these possibilities also:

  1. Her mother is seriously ill. Or, her daughter or husband is seriously ill. Or she may be ill.
  2. Her husband has lost his job (she is embarrassed to tell you) and she has been spending all her time writing up his resume.
  3. She is embarrassed by not being able to afford to go out together with you for dinner.
  4. She is having an affair with the contractor and does not want to talk to you about it.
  5. She has been arrested.
  6. She is going to move away, and the prospect of talking to you about it is very upsetting.
  7. Her husband is having an affair, and the prospect of talking to you about it is very upsetting.

I have heard of all these things complicating a friendship, and many others.

It is important to have friends; but you will not have any friends if you expect too much of them. Sometimes they will be preoccupied and not responsive to, or interested in, you. Sometimes they have real limitations as a friend. I have seen a woman who would not visit her best friend in the hospital when she was very sick because she was afraid of hospitals. Some friends will not do what you would do to help a friend. You can count on some friends to do some things, but nothing more. Such a person may not be a really good friend, but she can be a friend nevertheless. If a number of friends have disappointed you, go out of your way to make new friends.

(c) Fredric Neuman 2013.

Follow Dr. Neuman's blog here.

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About the Author

Fredric Neuman, M.D., is the Director of the Anxiety and Phobia Center at White Plains Hospital.