Friends are the new family – or ‘framily’, as we like to call them. We are fiercely loyal, mop up each other’s tears, share advice, bicker and, frankly, love each other deeply. So it’s no surprise that friendships have proved crucial in helping us through the coronavirus pandemic (thank goodness for virtual catch-ups). Strong relationships have also been shown to reduce stress and anxiety, and even make us less likely to develop illnesses later in life.
But some friendships simply won’t – and shouldn’t – go the distance. The ones you’ve grown out of, and the unsupportive, unequal, or just plain draining ones. Yet working out which need to be ended, and how, is like looking for a flattering bikini – fraught with anxiety and indecision. We asked Sam Owen*, psychologist and author of Happy Relationships, for help with some of your conundrums…
You feel: ‘Probably left behind and resentful of her new friendship group,’ says Sam. ‘She’s on a journey you’re not, and it feels like she’s completely consumed by her new life. Every time she mentions her new friends, you feel jealousy rearing its head.’
How to deal: ‘First, don’t make assumptions. Ask, “Why don’t we spend time together any more?” The answer might be something you’d overlooked. Sometimes, a friendship drifts apart, but that doesn’t mean it has permanently diminished. Try giving her a free pass; when she starts craving aspects of her old life again, it’s likely you’ll reconnect and be closer than ever. Or, you could try immersing yourself in her new friendship group. Say, “I appreciate we’re on different paths at the moment, but I’d still like to be part of your journey, and vice versa.”
‘Also, think about what you could do to make yourself feel happier – is there a group, activity or goal you could focus on to fill the void your friend has (temporarily) left?’
You feel: ‘Tense, flat or “bad” when you’re with them,’ says Sam. ‘If this happens most of the time, the friendship is likely to be unhealthy. You might be feeling tempted to “ghost” them (aka remove yourself without explanation) to avoid an awkward discussion.’
How to deal: ‘Ghosting is disrespectful and runs the risk of creating further issues. When deciding whether to nurture, pause or prune a friendship, think about whether their behaviour consistently makes you unhappy.
‘If you decide to nurture, put in time and energy. Aim to find the fun you once shared with activities that take you out of your comfort zones. If you want to pause, it might not be necessary to be explicit: you could say you don’t have time to talk now, but you’ll be in touch. And if you want to prune, the length of the friendship and shared intimacy will dictate whether you should tell them in person or on the phone (if we’re still in lockdown).
Think about how to end things in a respectful way. You could say, “I found it hurtful when X happened, so it might be better for both of us if we don’t hang out right now.” If the synergy isn’t there between you, it’s not about your worth or theirs – you’re just not meant to be in each other’s circle. And that’s OK.’
You feel: ‘Disappointed not to see your friend one-on-one, because you miss the relationship you had,’ Sam says. ‘It can feel like they’re not appreciating the friendship. A third party changes the dynamic, however nice they are.’
How to deal: ‘It’s best to tell your friend directly – chances are, it’s not something they’ve considered. Keep to the point, saying something like, “Can it be just the two of us next time?” If pressed, you could say, “I’ve missed our chats.
I can’t talk as openly when there’s someone there who doesn’t know my personal life like you do.”
‘Be mindful of their feelings (and aware it’ll probably get back to their other half), and make it clear it’s not because you don’t like their partner. It’s just that having someone there who doesn’t share your intimacy means tailoring conversations to include them – and three-way conversations don’t tend to be as immersive or free-flowing.
‘If your friend’s partner seems wary or suspicious of you catching up alone, do something to alleviate their anxieties. That could be chatting to them one-on-one, to build a connection for when the three of you hang out. Oxytocin plays a role in human trust and is released during touch, so it may be worth being (respectfully) tactile with him or her – if it doesn’t feel awkward.’ (Once we’re not socially distancing, of course!)
You feel: ‘Guilty about keeping this from your friend – but you also don’t know if it’s true,’ says Sam. ‘You want to support your buddy and have their back, yet you’re unsure whether it’s better to keep quiet in case the rumours are false.’
How to deal: ‘Listen to your intuition. Ask yourself if it makes you feel tense, anxious, guilty or nauseous keeping this information from your friend – or do you feel that way when you consider telling them? And think, “Would I want to be told if I were in their shoes?” Also keep in mind that they could react badly and turn on you. Decide whether that’s something you’re willing to risk before speaking up.
‘If you decide to fill them in, let them know what you’ve heard and who from, without adding your own interpretation or emotions. Then you’re just sharing the information. Your job is to support them in making a decision that’s right for them (remember: it might not be the one you’d make). Keep yourself out of the story and make it clear you haven’t talked to anyone else – they’ll feel vulnerable and upset at the thought of gossip. Their reaction is out of your control. If they respond badly, give them time to process before explaining your rationale. Dramatic reactions might feel hurtful, but don’t necessarily mean the end of a friendship.’
You feel: ‘As though there’s an awkwardness that wasn’t there before, along with an element of competition,’ says Sam. ‘But what if you’re being over-sensitive, or irrational and imagining it?’
How to deal: ‘Trust the sensations you have – often it’s a physiological reaction to information your subconscious is still processing. One way of tackling the issue is with the theory of “like attracts like”: give them the sorts of compliments, feedback and attention you’d like to receive. If you let them know you’re proud and happy for them and that you want to celebrate their successes, they’re much more likely to reciprocate.
‘If you don’t get the reaction you’re hoping for, it’s worth talking about it. Research suggests using negative words can put people into fight or flight mode, so choose your language carefully. Focus on the goal, not the problem (“I really appreciate our working relationship and I want to focus on supporting each other as much as possible”) to ensure you’re working towards resolving the issue instead of feeding it. Be careful about involving a third party for a second opinion – they might not see or understand the dynamic occurring between the two of you in the first place.’