When friendships go bad

Since the hit series Sex and the City popularized the term frenemy, there’s been a word for the friend who isn’t a friend: one who pretends to be an ally, but turns out to be an enemy. Sadly many of will encounter this situation over the course of our friendships.

“When I went back to teaching I was very glad to have someone at my school who really understood me,” says Elena, 42, of Toronto, of a friend she prefers not to name. “But over time things soured… I found that if we weren’t talking about her issues in the classroom, she wasn’t interested. And she definitely didn’t want to hear what I had to say about strategies she could try.”

But the end came when Elena had to have back surgery. “I heard from another teacher when I came back that my friend had been saying that I was fully recovered more than a week before I came back, when that simply wasn’t true. I realized that since I had come back to work things hadn’t been good between us. After that and a few other things I ended up just writing her off.” Her friend eventually transferred into an administrative position at another school, which made it easier to let the relationship go.

Unfortunately these kinds of stories are common. Friendships can be intense relationships, similar to siblings and sometimes longer-lasting than marriages. As Jan Yager, Ph.D, and author of When Friendship Hurts explains:

“As friends become closer and more intimate, expectations also may arise so that disappointments become more likely, and painful, than during the early stage of the evolving friendship.

Furthermore, as a friendship that formed within a certain context, such as at school or at work, expands to include a multiplicity of situations and even other relationships, conflicts may arise that may derail the friendship. In addition, the longer you remain friends, the greater your investment in maintaining the friendship; you are more likely to ignore or try to explain away negative behaviors. But you (or your friend) will be able to put up with only so much, and the friendship may last only until such an act of betrayal occurs that the situation has to be addressed and resolved or the friendship will end.”

How to address issues in friendships

If you are having trouble in a particular relationship there are a few approaches to take.

Ask yourself whether the friendship has been comfortable recently. As Dr. Yager explained, your investment in the past that you have shared with your friend may be causing you to put the best possible spin on your friend’s actions. In the last while — perhaps a year or two — have you felt that your friend has behaved in a way that shows that he or she is concerned with your interests, as well as his or her own? Or has it been a relationship that largely operated only for their benefit?

Once you’ve determined a relationship is not working for you, consider whether you want to try to repair it. In some cases you may believe that it’s possible to work through the issues. In others you may find it is already beyond repair. Remember that friendships do sometimes naturally come to an end over time and that makes them no less valuable in the past.

If the relationship has already effectively come to an end, take time to mourn and grieve much as you would for a romantic relationship — the end of friendship truly is a loss, even if it is really a loss for a kind of connection that ended years before. After that, take steps to end the friendship.

Some people, like Elena, prefer to simply gradually step back from being close to a former friend. Others advocate ending the friendship more cleanly with a conversation or a letter. Your decision will depend of course on the circumstances around the friendship, and whether you and your friend will continue to have to be in touch due to shared activities or a common workplace. Whichever you decide, remember to be as calm and caring — although firm — as possible.

If you want to try to repair the relationship you will likely need to have a heart to heart. Schedule some quality time with your friend and then let her him or her know what the issue is as affectionately as possible. Explain that you miss your prior relationship and focus on the fact that you want to get back to it — not in enumerating a long list of flaws. The next steps, of course, will be up to your friend.

Choosing friends

If you find that you have more than one unsatisfactory friendship, however, you may want to begin by examining yourself. Some friendships can begin like love-affairs, intense and exciting, but when the first wave wears off, the friendship itself is weak. If this describes some of your relationships, you may be more attracted to exciting individuals than those who are more likely to stay the course. Consider looking for less excitement and more thoughtfulness from your friends.

Conversely you may be a “helper” — someone who primarily makes friends by coming to people’s rescues. The problem with this kind of friendship is that it can become tiring and fraught with resentment if you realize that you have been giving without receiving in return. You may have internalized a view of yourself that means you have to be useful to be a friend. You will need to examine and rewrite this script before you can begin to establish friendships on a more equitable basis.

Being a friend

And of course there’s always the flip side: being a good friend. In the hectic pace of daily life sometimes we all forget to reach out to our friends with a phone call or an email. And if you’ve used a friend as a sounding board lately, don’t forget to return the favour.

Photo ©iStockphoto.com/ Chris Schmidt

The art of no
Find old friends online
When your old friends meet your new relationship