When an old friendship goes sour
I’ve been having some issues with a former close friend. Over the last decade, we’ve really drifted apart. Without getting into too much detail, I’ll just say that my friend’s life has been met with a lot of tragedy. Before many of these problems started, our friendship was already on the rocks. I set our differences aside to be a supportive friend during troubled times, but turmoil has become a constant in her life. She just doesn’t have the coping skills to get out of her own way. I hate to be critical because I know she has been through a lot. Basically, she only contacts me when there is a crisis or if something is needed from me—not for anything lighthearted or fun. I feel like my role in our relationship has become more therapist than friend; and I fear saying this to her would come off as insensitive or hurtful. We just don’t have anything in common anymore and I feel like the friendship has been over for some time—minus any major blowouts or drama. As a result, I’ve been avoiding her. I feel guilty, but I don’t know what else to do.
Several years ago, I had a challenging friendship; and in describing the situation to another friend’s husband, he made reference to something called the “friend mountain.” Basically, this person tried to climb friend mountain a little too quickly for my comfort. Let’s just say there was a misstep, she tumbled down the hill, and thankfully took a hike up someone else’s mountain in another hemisphere. In doing a little research about said friend mountain, I discovered a good read— “10 Types of Odd Friendships You’re Probably Part Of”—written by Tim Urban for a blog called Wait But Why. Urban refers to it as the “life mountain,” but the premise is basically the same. You have several tiers of friends and your closest ones are positioned at the peak of the mountain. More casual acquaintances, fair-weather, and Facebook friends are placed in the foothills.
To apply this metaphor to your friendship, it seems your friend was once at the top of the mountain and took a slow and gradual slide to the lower levels. The hiking trail is now overgrown and you don’t feel like putting in the time or energy to clear it. Understandably, you feel guilty about that. Now, we could keep talking about a scenic mountain vista, but there’s another metaphor that I believe more aptly depicts your situation: expired food.
A good friendship is fresh, healthy, and nourishing. It’s reciprocal. Both parties are putting in an effort. People actually make time for conversation in person or on the phone outside of a crisis. Sure, there may be times where they can’t give one hundred percent; and over time and distance, friendships may change or fade away. That’s an unfortunate and natural part of life—one that allows opportunities to let new people in and for personal growth.
I’ve been saying this a lot the past couple years, which is why I’ve needed many a break from various platforms—social media is the artificial preservative that extends the life of a friendship well past its expiry date. Think about how lazy your “friendships” have become. Hardly anyone sends actual birthday cards or thank you notes. There’s no need for a class reunion anymore. There’s no catching up on the last ten years because we already know what Jim’s dog wears on Halloween. We know Gina sells Beachbody, likes to post misattributed quotes, and show off her squats at the gym six days a week. We know what gluten free, dairy-free, nut-free, vegan baby food Susie makes for her kid every Tuesday. And admittedly, none of us actually care. We just hit that thumbs-up button on the minutiae, move on with our days, and call each other “friends” without putting in any actual work.
When you said you don’t do anything lighthearted or fun anymore, I believe you. I have a strong hunch that your “friend” thinks she’s put in the work – lazily scrolling through your feed while never managing to actually show up in your life. As I read your inquiry, I couldn’t help but notice your “friendship” is now entirely based on guilt and manipulation. She uses her problems as an excuse for her lousy behavior and you were already annoyed before the tragedies started mounting. You felt bad for her, so you kept placating her. She continues to play victim to lure you back in. You avoid her and then feel awful for avoiding her. You say you feel like her therapist, and, to be honest, that’s probably what she needs. It is one-sided. It’s a vicious cycle. Why wouldn’t you feel bad all the time? You’ve been drinking her diarrhea milk for a decade.
The problem isn’t you—it’s her lack of self-awareness. So, you have two choices. You can tell her how she makes you feel, and, as you mentioned, this will likely hurt her feelings and perpetuate the cycle of your feeling awful. Or, you can simply remove the nasty science experiment that’s been growing in your fridge for the past ten years. Run, don’t walk, to the nearest dumpster. Set boundaries and give yourself permission to finally throw away that toxic substance.
Stacey Rowe is a freelance writer and artist located in Rochester. She can be found on Twitter and Instagram as @thestaceyrowe and online at staceyrowe.com