Is there an acceptable way to end friendships?

When I was in first grade, my teacher once called the class together and said, “Glen is feeling bad because no one will play with him. Will anyone here play with Glen?” Glen was new (I think he moved to the area mid-year) and awkward-looking, and I remember how bad I felt for him when she said that. So I raised my hand. “I’ll play with Glen,” I said. To this day, I still remember the abashed smile he gave in response.

So we arranged a play date, and I went over to Glen’s house. And I discovered that Glen was nice — but boring. I don’t remember if he ever asked me to play again, but I do remember how uncomfortable I felt with the idea. And how even more uncomfortable I felt with the idea of telling him how uncomfortable I was with the idea. I didn’t want to hurt his feelings.

Nor did I want to hurt the feelings of the other peers I befriended in the years that followed who were like Glen: at the outer edge of most social groups, hungry for admission to any one of them. I not only felt badly for unpopular kids (not that I was so popular myself) but also outraged that some kids were popular while others were not. So I always lent everyone a sympathetic ear, and many took this as a signal that I was open to a friendship with them.

In some cases, however, I wasn’t. Though my goal as a Buddhist has always been to develop myself into someone who has compassion for everyone — that is, someone who cares about everyone’s happiness — my goal has never been to have a personal relationship with everyone for whom I feel compassion. For one thing, strange as it may sound, you don’t actually need to like someone to feel compassion for them — that is, to recognize their basic humanity or care if they’re suffering or not. What’s more, as hard as having compassion for everyone is, I think it’s actually easier than liking everyone. Compassion can be consciously cultivated. Preferences, in general, cannot. I don’t like every book I read, every song I hear, or every painting I view. So why would I expect myself to like every person I meet?

But flat-out rejecting someone’s friendship feels to most people too difficult despite the resentment we may feel toward others for thrusting themselves upon us as well as toward ourselves for our inability to express to them how we really feel. To reject someone romantically is hard enough. But to reject someone’s friendship seems to carry with it a uniquely harsh judgment, calling into question, as it may seem to, their value as a person.

But we’re no more in control of our attraction to friends than we are our attraction to lovers. And to reject someone as a friend isn’t to declare them unworthy of friendship any more than to reject them as a lover is to declare them unworthy of love. What’s more, some people value friendship more than others do — and further, the degree to which we value friendship changes as we age. (In adolescence, nothing seems more important. Then in middle-age our focus on friendship tends to decline as the importance of work and family increases. In old age, then, the importance of friendship may increase again as both the importance of work and availability of family diminishes.). We are who we are and shouldn’t criticize ourselves if we find we want to end a friendship. We’re not evil because we no longer like someone, or because we never did. Or never liked them as much as they like us.

Whether or not you should end a friendship lies beyond the scope of this post. But if you’ve decided you do want to end one, how should you do it? The way it’s been done to me (and how I’ve done it myself once or twice) is with what I call passive rejection – returning phone calls and emails sluggishly or not at all; claiming to be overwhelmingly busy or finding other excuses not to accept invitations — hoping all the while that in being prevented from engaging with us consistently that our friend will eventually lose interest in doing so. The advantage to passive rejection is that it avoids direct confrontation, thereby minimizing hurt feelings, as rare is the person who upon experiencing such passive rejection recognizes that his friendship is being rejected. (It just seems not to occur to most us.) On the other hand, passive rejection typically takes a while (sometimes a long while) and feels unpleasant. And it requires us to be dishonest.

The alternative, however, seems simply untenable for most of us. “Look, Glen, I just don’t want to be your friend,” I could have said all those years ago. But even then that seemed to me unforgivably cruel. Had Glen been in the habit of torturing small animals in his backyard, it would have been easy. But such obvious moral failings rarely represent the reason we want to end a friendship.

The truth is, though I’ve offered it here, and though it works, I’m not comfortable with passive rejection either. I hate lying in any form, including lying by omission. Further, because everyone knows this is how most of us do end friendships, when we turn down plans because we really are too busy our actions may easily be misinterpreted as attempts to end the friendship when they’re really not. This entire topic is uncomfortable, in fact, but I’ve observed enough people struggling with this issue to think it warranted discussion. When I began this post, I thought I’d come up with a satisfying answer. But having reached the end of it, I find I haven’t. So what do you think? What’s the best way to distance yourself from someone who wants to be closer to you than you want to be to them?

Alex Lickerman is an internal medicine physician who blogs at Happiness in this World.  He is the author of The Undefeated Mind: On the Science of Constructing an Indestructible Self.

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  • Suzi Q 38

    This is the story of everyone’s life at one time or another.

    Someone likes someone (as a friend) or someone is interested in someone (romantically) more than the other.

    I remember dating in college. I liked to see if the person was fun to be with, liked to talk to, and wanted more time with. This part of the relationship could take weeks. The actual first date was sometimes awkward. A good friendship did not always translate into a passionate partnership.

    It is difficult to separate, as the disappointment to on party or the other is very real and maybe a little sad.
    I would try all of the above techniques that you mentioned, and the young man in question was not getting my message.

    I finally had to tell him directly on the phone that I was not interested, and he should pursue someone else that would be a better match and more interested than I was.

    I remember feeling like a bad person, but I didn’t want him to spend his hard earned money on dates with me.

    Sometimes, it was the other way around, and I was disappointed, LOL.
    Once, this date (who was a physician) took me to lunch and a museum. His pager thing kept going off. He kept looking at it and did not return the calls, but it annoyed me. I remember thinking “wow, you are way too busy for me.” This happened on the next couple of dates, and I realized that I could never be his focus.

    I used a technique similar to the one you describe. I did not have the heart to be direct.

    This is the way of the world.

  • barbarahales

    We’ve all had friends at one time or another that were meant to be in our lives for only a short time or to serve a particular function.

    One need not spend an inordinate time fretting about discontinuing a friendship. If you never socialize, never call (or return calls) and in general, make yourself distanced or emotionally unavailable, most people will get the message subtly without having to be told.

    • waynebeamer

      Hi Barbara: I agree with you about many people being in our lives for finite times. Also, I disagree with Dr. Alex about ending a friendship. I’ve done it openly and quietly. Quietly gets the point across more quickly than most expect.

      Ron: My heart goes out to you… And, to those people you called “friends:” Seems like those “friendships” were pretty one-sided, so long as THEY were getting what THEY wanted.

      Friendships are harder than ever to maintain with too many distractions from work to reading blogs like these. It’s hard work, and takes time to cultivate and maintain friendships. Many people just don’t or won’t do the work. We’re better off without such people in our lives, no matter who long they may have been in them.

  • Rob Burnside

    Thank you for an unusual, thoughtful, well-crafted blog. Though I’ll be slightly off-topic, your piece makes me want to share the odd and, to me disturbing loss of friendship I experienced over the course of last year, in which three long and valued relationships were ended. I’m puzzled and distressed by these losses and write tonight not so much for sympathy, but in the hope of discovering some sort of common denominator. In other words, has this sort of thing happened to anyone else?

    The longest friendship–a man I’ve known since kindergarten–hit the skids when I was unable to quit smoking on a day I had previously picked and promised to do so. My friend (I’ll call him Al) is an ex-smoker, and like many former smokers, is harshly critical of those who continue the habit. For many months, he wouldn’t communicate at all, and this after years of near daily conversations. He’s also a home infusion RN (with many terminal patients) and has had a series of serious personal mishaps, including grave illness. Today, he “speaks” in terse, three or four word emails, if at all–passive rejection with an edge, I suppose.

    The second longest friendship (from 8th grade on) lost was with a woman, and a high school classmate, who lived around the corner from me growing up. (I’ll call her Betsy) Our relationship has always been platonic, but very close, particularly since a class reunion nearly a decade ago. From that day forward, we’ve emailed each other frequently for advice, commiseration, yarn spinning, and so forth.
    Betsy and I were born three days apart, and our mothers met in the maternity ward, which is pretty close to where she ended up working, as a pediatric RNP. We called each other “Boris” and “Natasha” throughout high school on up until just recently, when Betsy’s beloved father passed away. About a week after that happened, she told me I was intrusive, that she didn’t really know me after all, and that our friendship was over from that point forward. Active rejection for sure.

    Finally, there was “Charlene.” We’d known each other (again, not in the biblical sense) since college–only forty-five years. Periodically, our lives would intersect, and we’d have a good laugh or two about the “old days” and how our paths kept crossing. The last time it happened, she had just received a diagnosis of Stage IV colon cancer, and was, of course, devastated. I did my best to support her emotionally, and took her to her initial chemo treatments. One day, as I was driving her home, Charlene said, more or less out of the blue, “You don’t really know me,” and from that day on refused further communication or assistance. For the rest of the year, I worried about her, to a point where it actually made me emotionally and physically depleted, but since she has apparently forbidden family to speak with me, I have had to become accustomed to knowing nothing about her condition. This goes beyond passive and even active rejection–it feels more like total rejection.

    I’ve thought about all three lost friendships, and made a number of unsuccessful attempts to resume communication along the way. The only similarities are these: they were all extensive, mutually satisfactory relationships that suddenly vaporized, but due to what? Age? We’re all in our mid sixties. Illness? Two were on chemo, and one had just endured a long, difficult loss. Some unexplained phenomenon brought on by Facebook’s “friending” and “de-friending”? Do we shed friends at this stage of life? Eliminate those we are no longer able to relate to for whatever reason? And if so, why haven’t I heard of this before? To my way of thinking, a real friend is a friend for life, no matter what. Al, Betsy, and Charlene were real friends of mine. Now, they’re not. It isn’t my breath (I brush, floss, and gargle routinely), so what else could it be? I’d dearly love to know. Any help out there?

    Thanks, Dr. Alex, for letting me ramble on your dime. As I said, it’s a very thought-provoking piece of writing.

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