There’s no reason to feel guilty about pulling the plug on a toxic friendship, says in-house psychotherapist Ms X.
Dear Ms X,
I’m writing to ask about maybe letting go of a long friendship.
I’ve been friends with “Kate” for about a decade, since we were angsty teens in desperate need of some solid emotional support from each other. We have helped each other through some fairly low times and I’ve considered her one of my best friends. In the last few years though I have started to notice some imbalances in our friendship that have left me feeling pretty terrible. There have been a few instances where I have asked her for help and she has blown me off in a hurtful manner. For example, I needed her to help me pick up a family member from the airport in an emergency and she said she couldn’t because she wanted to go out drinking later (which she could have done after helping me – it wouldn’t have affected her evening plans in any way).
After a couple of outright disappointments like that, I started to take note of the way she treats me in other aspects of our friendship. They were things that I had noticed but tried to ignore, because I figured the good things about our friendship were worth some of the little personality quirks that annoyed me. What I realised: she never ever talks about anything but herself, and she acts super competitive with me. Any time I have good news she either shits all over it, or immediately starts talking about her own stuff, barely stopping to congratulate me. I feel like we are in constant competition and I’ve started to feel really resentful and kind of bitter about anything good that happens to her because she seems to only ever tell me in order to overshadow my own achievements.
For the record I’m not like this with my other friends – we all support and celebrate each other’s achievements and generally aren’t a competitive group. With Kate it’s totally different. If she ever asks what’s going on with me it’s only so she can turn the conversation around so we’re talking about her within a couple of sentences. Now I swear I’m not the kind of person who only wants to talk about myself but I would like to be able to finish telling my friends about my dream job offer before she begins talking over me about getting a good mark on her latest school assignment.
About six weeks ago I got fed up and mentioned to my boyfriend that I couldn’t remember the last time she texted me first to hang out or chat or whatever and he suggested I check my old texts. Turns out in the last three months she hadn’t texted me first even once other than to talk about herself. Not to hang out, not to send me something funny, or to chat or anything. Just to send me complaints or because she needed to vent. I decided to wait and see how long it took her to text me if I stopped initiating it and it’s been a month and a half now. We went from texting every day and seeing each other at least once a week, to not a single text between us and only seeing each other once at a party (that in the past we would have gotten ready for together). At the party she sat right by me and barely acknowledged me until I said hi to her, because it got so painfully weird and awkward.
So my feeling is that she a) hasn’t even noticed that I’ve practically disappeared from her life and this is just her being normal, b) has noticed and doesn’t care, or c) has noticed but decided that I’m in the wrong.
I do think that our friendship is probably dead. But I wonder if I owe her an explanation? I don’t think she would take it well if I tried to tell her what I was upset about. I’ve known her for a long time and I know that she doesn’t take criticism well. If I try to explain I don’t expect anything would change – I think she would be indignant and then it would become all my fault somehow. However it does seem scummy to just ghost on someone I’ve known for such a long time, and no matter what she will always be in my life as we have a lot of mutual friends.
She has issues with insecurity and doesn’t come from a great family, and despite the fact that she hasn’t been a good friend to me lately I would hate to add to that by being another person in her life who just ditched her without any explanation. Do you think there’s any middle ground? In an ideal world she would come to me and ask me what is wrong and I could tell her gently. But if I go storming in telling her that I’m upset before she’s acknowledged anything is wrong then she becomes the victim and all my hurts become an attack on her.
Any advice would be much appreciated!
Years ago I was going through a very similar ‘end of days’ period with someone who had been a close friend. I felt quite sad that it was so obviously turning to shit. Like you I had the same levels of affection and time spent together, but also the growing feeling that our friendship values were not exactly equal. I was the one doing the heavy lifting. I talked it over with an older female friend. Here’s what she said:
“Don’t put all your eggs in one basket case.”
Ah bless. What she meant was that I had, for a variety of reasons, been unable or unwilling to acknowledge my friend’s obvious deficits.
You, dear Caller, also list some of these same issues in a spectacularly clear way. You say your friend is never one to check in with you, either by text or phone, and is unable to dwell on a conversation that is about you without quickly flipping it back around to her. What this sounds like is a failure to evolve emotionally at the same rate. You have been friends since your teens and the teen years are an incredible hormonal maelstrom. The stuff that attracts us to each other at that stage of life doesn’t always translate into long-term friendships. In fact I think we have a bit of a fantasy around school relationships and the importance of keeping them alive. Sometimes those friendships can’t carry on because we grow and change and we no longer share the commonality of a school uniform, school bus or a hatred of the same vile maths teacher.
And it sounds to me like your mate Kate has not evolved. She sounds like she is still navigating the world with some fairly heavy duty teen-level narcissism. And it’s not very cute past 21.
You ask whether you should talk to her about this. To be honest, I don’t think you are going to get a whole lot of satisfaction from that. If she hasn’t noticed that she doesn’t text you for months on end except to talk about herself, then I don’t think she is going to have a lightning bolt of realisation that she is a bit shit house as a friend. You’re looking for what in country music is called a “come to Jesus” moment and I just don’t think you will get any pay off in that regard. You say she doesn’t take criticism well so I’m not sure how that talk even goes.
And look, I don’t know if you are dumping or ghosting her suddenly so much as giving yourself some space to have a clear look at how this relationship actually plays out when you aren’t doing all the work. So you could frame this up for your own sanity like this:
You had a great friend at high school but she stayed in high school, emotionally speaking, and now it’s not a lot of fun being in that friendship because who would fucking consciously choose to go back to high school as an adult?
The answer, I think, is to just do less of it – like cask wine. You’re not going to develop a well balanced palate on wine that comes in a plastic bag. But you can have it sometimes. Maybe you flick her a text every six months and see how that works out. Maybe she does mature somewhat and maybe your relationship improves. Or maybe she really is just the cask wine of friends and she gives you a searing two day hangover and infinite regrets.
And you are allowed to feel sad about what seems to be the end of a friendship. That is totally normal and a good indicator of your emotional maturity.
When I went through this myself it made me consider why I had a few of these friendships. I had to wonder what my part was in having friends who needed me to do a lot of the emotional work while they skipped around being selfish self centered moles. What was the pay off for me? I am still not 100% sure, but I think I liked feeling useful and required. Selfish people love a cheerleading chorus to witness their daily complaints and I realised I was shit hot at that. Unfortunately there is only so many times you can say “You go girl” without it sounding like the hollow battle cry for an entitled Mean Girl.
So I decided that anyone I had a significant friendship with had to be able to give me some of what I needed back. Because that’s what adults do.
You know what you need and that is someone who asks you how you are, waits for you to answer, cares about the answer and can delay their drinking plans to run you to the airport etc. Not all our friends have to be amazing well balanced creatures, but there has to be some reciprocity or a basic level of compassion because otherwise it is not a friendship, it’s a support group.
You sound like a really good friend. So treat yourself. Start drinking from the bottle.
Got a question for Ms. X? Send an email to email@example.com, ideally including key information such as your age and gender.
All messages will be kept in the strictest confidence and your name will not be published. If you wish to remain completely anonymous, consider using a free remailer service like Send Email.
Need help now?
Lifeline 0800 543 354
Youthline 0800 376 633
OUTline (LGBT helpline) 0800 688 5463