Rocky Road advice: Breaking up friendships
Dear Rocky Road,I have a friend I’ll call Eva. We’ve known each other going on 10 years, though it has almost entirely been maintained via email, texts, and phone calls as we haven’t lived close for the last five years. Even when we did live in the same state, we had no friends in common and met up every month or two.There was a time I considered Eva one of my best or perhaps my best friend (and there has never been a remote hint of romantic interest on either end). We went through respective divorces and relationship struggles and shared, advised, and commiserated extensively over the years. She was someone I could rely on, and did.While Eva was always there for me, and me her, she has always been somewhat high maintenance. She tended to dominate conversations, letting me discuss me for the first 10-15 minutes of a conversation and then go through a litany about her for the rest of a 1-2 hour call. She would text often, sometimes with the innocuous – “How are things?” or “I just saw a deer outside my window” – but a lot that came off as negative and griping – about how she is mistreated by her family, her friends, drivers on the highway, by potential suitors, baristas, or social media algorithms. Sometimes she’d text requesting that I say something to cheer her up or otherwise motivate her, which I’d comply with for years. For a long time, it felt good to be a good friend to her. And then it didn’t.Early this year, despite her being in what sounded like successful therapy, things seemed to escalate. Eva became more and more negative and I felt like more and more of a dumping ground instead of a friend. When I would push back, offer advice, or challenge her outlook or approach, she would dismiss me as just another person who doesn’t understand trying to “help” with the same old empty words. Or she would be outright rude or hostile. The cycle was becoming taxing for me.And then I happened to be going through the extensive journals I kept for years, reading my detailed accounts of my and Eva’s communications and mutual struggles over the years. From reading my journal, I came to a stunning realization: Eva has been stuck dealing with the same problems in the same ways since I’ve known her. Sure she’s grown in some areas, but by and large, everything is still there. I thought, is she going to be going through the same stuff four years from now as she was four years ago? And am I going to keep listening? This imbalance began to turn into resentment.It got to the point where I needed a break, initially, I thought, for a few weeks. But when I tried to communicate the admittedly vague hows and whys, she lashed out, accusing me of not wanting to hear her troubles the minute my life was going better (my life IS going better since some low points, but it has been for years now).A lot of this may have been about me not setting boundaries early or often enough over the years. But when I did, albeit gently, I felt like I wasn’t heard.It’s been five months since I’ve communicated with Eva. I feel guilty for how I handled and left things, becoming just another person to abandon her. And I do miss talking to her and sharing about our lives. At this point I don’t know if she’d even respond if I reached out. And even when I do think about reaching out, I think about the burden this friendship had become (which doesn’t make me feel good for feeling that way) and I don’t want to return to that.I’m at a loss. Each path seems treacherous. I wonder when and how it’s OK to walk away from friendships and if that’s what I even want here.What would you do?Unfriender
The amount of thought you have put into this relationships shows me you are a thoughtful person. But that thoughtfulness represents an investment and you have deep concerns about whether that effort is being squandered. Here’s some factors I would suggest considering:
BandwidthThe anthropologist and evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar asserts that the cognitive capacity of humans’ brains constrains them to no more than 150 meaningful social connections. Researchers have found evidence of this everywhere from premodern tribes to successful businesses.
While 150 may sound like a lot, Dundar says that our innermost circle consists of only about 5 individuals, to whom we give the bulk of our bandwidth. It’s clear that your questions about Eva have caused you to whittle down her data stream, but you wonder if you’re giving up something vital in the process.
Shared historyI’m a Malcolm Gladwell groupie (he wrote “The Tipping Point” and other books about social science) and one concept he has written about that really struck with me is transactive memory. This is the idea that little bits of ourselves reside in other people’s minds. If those people fall out of our lives, those bits go with them, so it feels like we are losing a little part of ourselves. With Eva, I’m sure the sentiment is especially strong considering you weathered a trial as difficult as divorce together. I believe transactive memory also is the reason we do stupid shit like decide to track down our exes on social media. Like an old film reel, they preserve a version of us from that time. The temptation to pay that old self a visit can be irresistible as it is ill-advised.
It’s murkier when it comes to old friends. To be honest, I’ve struggled with this one since I moved to Durango 10+ years ago. People from other places who used to be quite important to me have fallen off my radar. This used to bother me more, but lately I’ve made peace with it. Like skin, we are always shedding bits of ourselves, and yet we remain whole. Just because someone doesn’t stay in your life forever doesn’t detract from the role they once played.
With Eva, you’re pretty clear on where you stand: you know she’s unlikely to change and you know you don’t want to persist in a starkly inequitable relationship. I think if you let guilt alone override this position, you will only resent her more. Shared adversity can be strong glue for friendships, but it takes more to keep the bond strong after the storm. I think it’s OK to thank the universe for the gift of her friendship when you needed it, and consider your karmic debt paid.
Katie Burford has worked a social worker, journalist, university instructor, nanny and barista. These days, she’s a mom, professional ice cream maker and writer. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org, @rockyroadadvice (Twitter) or Rocky Road, 1021 Main Ave, Durango, CO 81301.