Time Limited Friendships Can End Peacefully

Researchers say that friendship formation is a relatively quick process.

Posted Mar 01, 2017

By Rita Watson
Source: By Rita Watson

After taking a walk on Beacon Hill, I wandered into a coffee shop. There I saw the realtor who found my first home here some years ago. We exchanged pleasantries yet, because I have moved to a different neighborhood and began teaching, socializing with his family dwindled.  Nonetheless, I feel a friendship bond.

I remember when my children were playing sports in high school, we had many soccer friends, baseball parent friends, hockey friends. We enjoyed the camaraderie, yet these friendships faded as the boys went off to college.  

However, a move or a situational change does not always alter a friendship.  I treasure the relationship I have shared through the years with a college classmate who was in my wedding party.  Although she relocated to Hawaii, she is still a part of my life.  When I was moving, she flew here to help me downsize.  When we first met, we knew that we would be friends for life.

As the Social Science Journal pointed out in a February 2015 article “Researchers propose that friendship formation is a process that occurs relatively quickly.”  They further noted that “initial moments of an interpersonal encounter, individuals are already making decisions about which relationship type--friend or acquaintance--to pursue.”

Friend or acquaintance?

This decision for friend or acquaintance can be tricky.  You may spend many hours with people at the gym, at the faculty club, at a child’s school, the dog park.  You might even exchange some private and personal information because you are thinking that you would like to get to know the person better.  But your time is limited.

Keep in mind that situations change. Our lives can become complicated by such unexpected factors as a family crisis, a move, a new love, or a divorce.  What happens then with the newly forming friendship?  This may be the relationship that drifts away. Whereas those who develop deep emotional ties through the years will often remain friends. How you handle the time-limited situation is important.  

Some people with continue texting and emailing you asking, “When are we going to get together?”  How you handle this will affect how you will feel about yourself and also how the other person will feel.

Three ways to say "good-bye" to a fading friendship

  • Brutal honesty -- You can take the Jerry Seinfield approach to Ramon the pool guy: “I actually only have three friends; I really can’t have anymore!”
  • Ghosting -- This is really a coward’s way out in which one person simply ignores the other person; deletes emails and texts; then fades away. We will perhaps all become affected by ghosters in this fast-paced social media world. We may even become a ghoster.  But for all of us who have dealt with the disappointment of being ghosted or were disappointed in ourselves for ghosting -- we can still take the risk of reaching out.
  • Gratitude and Kindness -- Author and Professor George Saunders, a MacArthur Fellow teaching at the Syracuse University MFA program, addressed the 2013 graduating class.  His eleven minute speech went viral before becoming a book. Congratulations, by the way: Some Thoughts on Kindness. 

The advice Saunders gave to graduates is also fitting for fading friendships --  be kind. He tells us of a seventh-grader at his school who was often ignored or teased by others. And while he says he was moderately kind, one day the young girl’s family moved away.  If he could have been kinder in the future, he suddenly lost his chance.

What about time-limited friendships?  Think about sending a hand written note or an email if you must. Express gratitude for the friendship and the situation that put the two of you together. Then be honest in a gentle way, such as saying: “My circumstances have changed and getting together is just not possible. But please know that I am grateful for the time we shared.”

Copyright 2017 Rita Watson


Campbell, K., Holderness, N., Riggs, M., Friendship Chemistry: An examination of underlying factors. Soc Sci J. 2015 Jun; 52(2): 239–247.