Cutting Loose; How to Know When a Friendship Has Soured

If you’re in any phase of adulthood – young adulthood, pre-adulthood, firmly-entrenched-in-as-evidenced-by-my-mortgage adulthood – you’ve had your fair share of friendships. You likely have learned the eye-opening lesson that with full-time jobs and grown-up responsibilities comes less free time, and less free time means less opportunity to spark and cultivate friendships. The older you get, the smaller your friend group gets, leaving you with a handful of really close friends rather than a wide sphere of many casual friends.

But how do you know who from the sphere stays in your handful? That’s the tricky part, and in my experience it simply comes down to: who makes you feel valued?

Friendships are meant to be fulfilling, mutually beneficial relationships based on trust and a shared respect for one another. A good friendship means there’s a give and take, though as time passes and people grow and change, staying in touch gets more and more difficult. Not calling or texting as much doesn’t necessarily mean that there’s been a falling out, either; there are plenty of people I was close with years ago who I still feel warmly towards, but we’ve drifted apart. That’s okay. That happens. I’ll still send them wedding gifts whether I’m invited or not, and if I am invited I promise not to drink too much and tell that embarrassing story about how they puked on my shoes when we were 16. (Mainly because I then puked on their puke and it was all just a disgusting tearful mess.)

It isn’t until the ‘mutually beneficial’ concept gets tested that things begin to sour.

I have had one specific friendship since I was fifteen years old. That might not seem very long, but to a military brat, that’s an eternity. He and I were very close in high school, close in college, and even kept in regular touch for a long while after. We never lived geographically near each other after high school, so the majority of it was via phone calls and texting, and that was enough. I knew he cared for me and he knew I cared for him, and the friendship was important to me.

Over the past year or so, I began to notice how one-sided it was becoming. I was always calling, I was always texting. He would reply sometimes, though as time passed, his replies became fewer and he rarely answered the phone. I called less, too, since I knew we worked opposite schedules and likely that had a lot to do with it. At least until he stopped answering my texts and calls altogether. It didn’t sting like a rebuke, but I could tell that it was the petering out of something. We were in very different places in life and this had happened to me before. I had started a family earlier than most of my peers, after all. There was a gap between us through no fault of anyone involved, and I accepted that.

I still checked in with him, knowing better than to get offended when he didn’t reply. His job had mercurial hours, and I had little new or interesting to offer him. So I thought, anyway, until he called me up out of the blue ‘wanting to catch up,’ a call that I missed since I was at work. It was a sweet thought, though, and I was happy to see him trying to rekindle something I’d valued for so long, until I got the follow-up text:

“Hey, I actually wrote something for the first time in a while, and I was wondering if you would read over it before I put it out there?”

That was the stinging part. It wasn’t ‘hi I missed you and I wanted to check up,’ it was ‘hey, I remembered that you could be useful to me, can you edit this piece?’ As someone who copy edits by trade and is used to people dismissing my work as actual ‘work,’ this was the nail in the coffin for our fading friendship. That might seem melodramatic; after all, as another friend of mine put it, his request was ‘flattering.’ 

“Aw, come on, it means he thinks you do a good job! He values your opinion! Be flattered, help him out!”

My counterargument to this was to give the example of calling up my old neighbor who is now a plumber, someone I haven’t spoken to in years, just to say, “Hey, wow, long time no chat! Just calling cuz I missed you. How’s your dog? Still cute, still a lab? Aw, that’s great. Hey, also, I need someone to check out my toilet, it’s not flushing properly, can you come take a look?”

I just don’t think he’d be all that flattered.

At any rate, this was the breaking point for me and my friend. The ‘mutual’ aspect of our friendship had clearly disintegrated. It began to hurt now, thinking of how often I had texted and called him, attempting to ‘stay connected’ despite the clear signals he was sending me that he had moved on. I didn’t begrudge him the moving on, but I did begrudge the way he felt entitled to my time and skills even after paying me so little attention for the better part of a year. I no longer felt valued; I simply felt used. Realizing that our friendship was no longer a two-way street is how I knew it was time to let it go.

The condensed moral of this story is simply: you know a friendship is over when you no longer feel valued. Not a fight, or a bicker, or a long stretch of silence, but simply when you are faced with the truth that your former friend no longer treats you with the warmth and respect that any friendship calls for.

Thankfully, friendship breakups are less traumatic at 24 than they were at 14. I’ll nurse my wounds for a bit by quietly deleting the embarrassingly overeager slew of unanswered texts I sent around the holidays, and by passive aggressively taking the emoji out of his name in my phone. It’s 2017, after all. High time to get a little nasty, even if only in private.

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