Letting Go: The Ups and Downs of Friendship
“I am not a perfect friend, and it is impossible not to rebuff or be rebuffed if you move about the world.” —Anne Roiphe
In our last lesson, we talked about the nature of friendship in its early stages and how to navigate conversations with friends you are getting to know better. For our next few lessons, we will consider when and how to let go of friendships, as well as the possibility of reigniting a dormant friendship.
Helping Friends through a Rough Patch
Every friendship, like every person, has ups and downs. During tough times, it is important for friends to be supportive. Being a good friend often means helping out and caring for others, especially if one friend is struggling and the other is in a position to relieve that suffering.
Helping out can take many forms. It might be lending a hand with moving, studying, or finishing a project. It might be giving moral support by being a listening ear, a sounding board, an advisor, or a shoulder to cry on. You might find yourself taking food and medicine to a friend who’s sick and cannot go to the store themselves.
Should you find yourself in a rough patch, you want to be able to count on the same kind of help from your close friends.
Know Your Boundaries and Be Prepared to Assert Them
However, you and your friends may not always be on the same page about what “helping out” actually means in a given situation.
For instance, suppose that your friend wants to break the bad news to his or her significant other. Unwilling to do this in person, they want to do it through a third party: you!
Are you willing to be the go-between in a case like that? While some might find it right up their alley, others would find it extremely distasteful. As such, it is helpful to think through your own boundaries from time to time and to establish them as tactfully as possible if the need arises.
Another scenario: if your friend needed to borrow money, would you feel comfortable lending it to them? Or is money a boundary issue for you?
What about other sensitive topics, like religious beliefs, political convictions, and painful events from your past? If you would rather not discuss these topics, how will you assert that boundary if need be?
Note: you can learn more about the art of conversation, as well as why “debates” nearly always waste your time, in our Mastering Your Conversations course.
It’s good to remember that there is nothing wrong with having boundaries and saying “no.” That does not mean you’re a bad friend or an inauthentic one. It simply indicates that you are able to take a stand calmly and confidently when necessary, and not be persuaded to do things contrary to your beliefs or mores.
Saying “No” with Grace
If you have to say no, there are a few ways to make the process easier and less hurtful for both parties.
First, always strive for empathy. In the example involving money above, maybe you would find a financial request unacceptable. Maybe the way you were raised simply makes asking for that kind of favor unthinkable. That said, by setting aside your own convictions about the issue for a moment, you can empathetically consider that other people don’t share your feelings about financial matters. Or you might realize that your friend actually shares your convictions, and normally would never ask such a thing—indicating that the circumstances are especially dire or unusual. This kind of empathetic consideration will help alleviate any feelings of resentment or offense you might be experiencing.
Second, consider your reasons for refusing the request. While you have every right to say no for whatever reason you choose, it is good to weigh those reasons thoroughly before refusing. Ask yourself the following questions:
• Am I being fair?
• What is the worst that would happen if I said “yes”?
• Is this decision reversible or irreversible?
• How would that affect me and my friendship with this person?
• What is the likelihood that saying “yes” would turn out fine?
Consider how much of your reasoning you’re comfortable sharing. In some cases, it’s more tactful to keep most of your reasons and feelings about the situation to yourself. In other situations, being completely open might be the best policy. Be selective in what you share at any sensitive time.
Finally, if you refuse, try to offer an alternative. Maybe you aren’t open to discuss your personal political beliefs—and that’s okay! But rather than delivering a flat refusal, you could say, “Talking politics is uncomfortable for me, but I’d actually like to ask you for your opinion on something. What do you think about ___?” (a city recycling initiative, the local paper’s shift to digital-only, a campus policy that’s under review, etc).
In the case of a friend who wants you to help with that awkward breakup, maybe you could refuse to make the call, but offer to help them write out their thoughts and decide what to say.
In some cases, a friend may not be mature or caring enough to take “no” for an answer. Unfortunately, even the most charming people can act out when confronted by an unapologetic refusal.
In this case, it will likely be necessary for you to put distance between yourself and your friend. While this can be difficult, remaining close to a person who doesn’t respect your boundaries and desires to break them down can be much, much more problematic.
In order to put more distance between yourself and this person, you may be able to simply answer the phone less often or get together less frequently until the friendship fades away naturally if this is your desired outcome.
Alternatively, it may be necessary to confront the person, tell them why you won’t be taking their calls and meeting up anymore, and stick to it.
Either way, be prepared for questions, defensiveness, and maybe blame. These are common responses to a frank explanation of why the friendship is not working for one or both parties.
However, it is also possible that your friend will apologize! If that’s the case, you will need to decide how to proceed. Renewing a friendship that has gone through a disagreeable episode of disrespectful behavior can take some time, but it may be worth the effort!
In your journal, reflect on what your boundaries are and why you have them, and what it might take to change your mind.
Now that we have begun to explore rough patches and boundaries in friendship, we will move in a rather unusual direction: complaining. See you next lesson!
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