When I was a little girl, my best friend in the neighborhood and I engaged in what we called “enemy fights.” We’d pretend to be enemies with the understanding that at the end of the day we’d go back to being friends. Somehow, even though he was three years younger, he always seemed to have the upper hand. Until one day, I just ignored him. I stopped responding to his taunts, and he ran home in tears.
Today, I still feel the hollowness of that unexpected ‘victory,’ and wish that I could go back in time and enfold my five-year-old playmate into my arms. I know what it’s like to feel ignored by a treasured friend, and I understand the power friends have to hurt each other deeply — even if the wound was not intended.
That game taught me a valuable lesson: breaking ties with those you’ve been close to can be painful and might land you in a world of regret. On the other hand, there are times when we need to let go if we are to preserve our sanity.
As an adult, I’ve found that friendships, especially those with other women, sometimes feel more like minefields than safe havens.
What Kind of Friend Are You?
Understanding whom you gravitate toward might help you navigate that minefield. In her book, Toxic Friends: The Antidote for Women Stuck in Complicated Friendships, Susan Shapiro Barash provides a field guide for friendship. She defines 10 categories, divides them into three groups, and thereby allows us to evaluate ourselves, and the people in our lives to see what kind of friends we are.
Her categories include:
- Those we tolerate (the Leader, the Doormat, the Sacrificer, the Misery Lover)
- Those we ditch (the User, the Intimate Frenemy, the Trophy Friend)
- Those we keep (the Mirroring Friend, the Sharer, the Authentic Friend)
I’m not a big fan of classifying people – we humans are unique, after all – but there may be a mix of these in each of us, depending on our age and circumstances. I find Barash’s book more useful as a guide for self-analysis than as a way to compartmentalize my own varied friendships. Besides, the only behavior I can truly control is my own.
Yet, among the “truths” that the author notes, two in particular resonate:
- “Women’s friendships get ‘frozen’ and don’t move forward.”
- “Women confess to hanging on to difficult friendships even when they know they are destructive.”
When her name appears on the caller I.D., you let it ring. Get-togethers that you once looked forward to, you now dread. You used to tell her everything, but these days you hold back. Or, alternatively, you are doing all the heavy lifting to keep the friendship going, while her efforts to stay in touch are minimal at best.
When friendships make you feel bad more often than good, it’s time to take stock. Ask yourself, Are they worth it?
Letting go of a female friend is scarier than breaking up with a boyfriend. Close female friends are often an essential part of our history. They are the ones we call first in both good times and bad. Where would we be, who would we be without them?
As writer Francine Prose notes in the introduction to The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women’s True-Life Tales of Friendships That Blew Up, Burned Out, or Faded Away,
… we form youthful friendships at a time when we ourselves are only partly formed, and still see our friends as mirrors in which we desperately hope to glimpse a sharper and clearer, or simply more interesting, image of ourselves.
Even when they’ve been there all along — and sometimes because of that — what once felt good now feels toxic. How do you fix a relationship that, for example, is predicated on you being the admiring younger sister — a role you can no longer credibly play?
Letting Go of Friendships
“As we gain a stronger sense of self, what used to matter no longer does, and we’re bound to outgrow certain friendships,” Florence Falk, PhD, a New York City psychotherapist told O Magazine. “Once you’re aware of that, without being cruel or feeling guilt-ridden, you can begin to let go of relationships that no longer nourish your most authentic self.”
Yes, but how do you do it? It’s not easy to tell someone you don’t want to be their friend any more. Adult women rarely engage in “enemy fights,” and ignoring is usually the initial tactic.
As Barbara Graham writes in “Is It Time to End That Friendship?”,
“If nobody calls or makes a move, if you run into each other and say, ‘Let’s do lunch,’ but don’t, if one person is suddenly booked until 2013, sooner or later the message gets through.”
Sometimes, Graham notes, a friend forces your hand and you must take the direct approach. For example, a friend who is suffocating you with her neediness and not taking a hint may require a conversation or an email stating that the friendship is at an end.
While painful, the result can be a relief.
When a high school acquaintance reconnected with me on Facebook, and then started stopping by my house unannounced, I wish I’d had this break-up line from Sandy Sheehy, author of Connecting: The Enduring Power of Female Friendship. She told O that one interviewee named Martha extricated herself from a needy friend while also preserving the friend’s dignity. She said, ‘I can’t be the friend you want me to be.’ “Martha took the burden of inadequacy on herself,” Sheehy says.
The Friends We Keep
What if we want to keep the friendship?
When an old friend pushed every one of my buttons to the limit, I changed my own behavior. Instead of letting annoyances go by without comment as I had in the past, I’ve been speaking up when I disagree. The friendship, if it lasts, will feel more authentic as a result.
Another friend became increasingly difficult to reach. When I finally did hear from her, I learned that she’d been going through a major transition. While I still do most of the reaching out, I feel so close to her when we talk that I wouldn’t dream of letting her go.
And as for that old childhood friend? I see him on Facebook. I’d like more — even at age five he was an interesting person — but I’ll have to content myself with a few virtual glimpses into his life. Time and distance have made it impossible to go back and give him that hug.
© Judith A. Ross
Judith A. Ross is a freelance writer who has written about topics ranging from “spreadsheet safety,” to how to communicate with adult children. Her byline has appeared in Harvard Business Review and other publications at Harvard Business Publishing. Currently, she is a contributing writer at Talking Writing where her “Talking Art” column appears regularly. She also writes for Moms Clean Air Force, Women’s Voices for Change, and blogs at Shifting Gears.
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