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Losing Friends With Grace

Attachment-based guidelines for navigating the travails of friendship.

Have you ever had a friend break up with you? Sometimes a friendship becomes so painful or unhealthy that we need to end it outright. The problem is that we don’t typically have clear guidance or formulas for making these decisions. Often, we are likely to be flooded by negative emotions that drive our thoughts and decision-making processes. Hopefully, we make good choices, but we may also make poor ones and lose relationships with people who we could have been kept in our circle of friends.

Close friendships can be tricky to navigate partially because we don’t typically have formal friendship agreements. In other words, we don’t usually ask a friend to be exclusive or set clear expectations for frequency of contact, for example. But as we become more intimate with a friend, we may start to transfer some of our attachment bonds to this person anyway. Although we don’t typically talk openly about how we feel about our friendships, we do have unspoken psychological expectations for our friends when they become attachment figures.

According to pioneering attachment theorists John Bowlby and Mary Ainsworth, the hallmarks of a secure attachment figure is that he or she is consistent, available, warm, and responsive — particularly when we are feeling stressed or in need of support. Being a friend and providing these secure-base functions may be easy enough for the 55% of us with secure attachment styles. But if we are one of the 45% with insecure attachment styles (preoccupied, dismissing, or fearful), we might struggle either with our friendship expectations or with our ability to provide a secure base to others.

If you have a secure attachment style, you are likely to be able to accept the good along with the bad in your friends. You know that people are fallible and so you provide allowances. You may get very close to your friends, but you also give them a great deal of latitude and autonomy. If a good friend declined an invitation with you but then went out with other people, you may feel hurt, but it wouldn’t consume you.

Plus, you will have enough good friends that you will not have put all of your eggs in the one proverbial friendship basket anyway. You will have seen enough relationships go through ruptures and repairs over the years that you know relationships sometimes don’t last. But you also know that you can tolerate the loss and so you are free to continue getting close to people.

Remember: the quality of a relationship lies in the time you have with that person, not in how the relationship ends. Never judge the quality of a friendship by its ending.

If you have a preoccupied or fearful attachment style (both include high levels of attachment anxiety), you are likely to have a stronger need for closeness in your relationships. You may have a chronic feeling of loneliness and really want a “best friend” and confidante. You also may be overly attuned to subtle cues that you are being left out or marginalized (i.e., not that important) in your friend group.

Think about the last time you heard of some of your friends getting together and you weren’t invited. If you have a preoccupied or fearful style, you were probably bothered for days and spent a lot of time wondering why this happened. Or think about a time when you spent a lot of time with a friend and you became very involved in that person’s life, only to find that when you were in need, your friend did not reciprocate. At this point, you may have realized that the relationship was one-sided.

If this happened to you, you may feel hurt, betrayed, and angry — and you might stay angry. You may spend a lot of time trying to figure out why your friend couldn’t show up for you in your time of need. The feeling of betrayal and anger may also have been accompanied by a feeling of shame because of the belief that there must be something wrong with you, and then shame about yourself because you are so bothered by your friend’s seeming rejection.

This pattern may have happened to you or maybe you have observed one or more of your friends acting this way toward you and you were the perceived offender.

If you are avoidant and have a dismissing attachment style, you may have friends who complain and tell you how they have always been there for you, but you don’t reciprocate or reach out enough. You probably feel exhausted by the amount of emotional interaction that some of your friends want. You want friends and get lonely as much as the next person. You are social but you just have a hard time tolerating the needs and emotionality of your more anxious friends.

I have had many clients on both sides of this equation. They are almost universally good people who want friends and intend no harm to anyone. They just have different tolerance levels, different expectations, and differing abilities to act as a secure base (consistent, available, warm, responsive).

If you have a dismissing attachment style, try using the “consistent, available, warm, and responsive” recipe. Being consistent means that you are clear with the other person about how much you can be counted on in times of need. If you have a crisis-prone friend, for example, you may need to state that you probably are not going to pick up the phone at 3 a.m. That way, your friend will know what you are and are not willing to do. Thus, you can be consistent in what are now openly communicated boundaries and expectations (which most friends don’t openly discuss). You can similarly be available in a way that works for both of you. If you can’t be as available as a friend wants, just be honest (this can be hard) and tell them. This honors them more than your feeling put out or resistant (which they will know and experience as more painful rejection anyway).

In relation to being warm, be aware that other people usually don’t know how you feel inside unless you communicate it. If you are overly expressive and effusive with your positive emotions, be aware that this might be difficult for your more avoidant friends to tolerate. Consider dialing it back a bit so you don’t scare them off.

If you are reserved and emotionally less expressive, be aware that your more anxious friends might need the interpersonal feedback to know that you still like them and are still present in your interaction. Giving verbal, facial, and emotional responses are the last part of the recipe. In attachment theory, this might be termed “mirroring” or “empathic attunement” or “validating.” If you don’t provide this function, your friend might feel you are disinterested, checked out, or simply don’t care. If you are irritated at having to provide this last function, you might want to consider how much you really want the friendship.

Here are some suggestions for navigating the end of a friendship:

1. If you need to back out of a friendship after being close, try to be honest with the person about what you are doing. But do it with kindness and just talk about your own emotional availability and tolerance levels. You can say something like, “I realize that I’m not being that good of a friend right now. I just don’t feel very emotionally available at present to show up the way you need me to.”

2. Try to avoid “all or nothing” thinking. This usually is not something that someone with an avoidant/dismissing attachment style would think because it has to do with emotion regulation. Often, if a person feels so consistently rejected that they cannot resolve the pain or stop ruminating about it, they will either want a great deal of reassurance or will break off the relationship (thereby getting a sense of control and relief). The problem is that friendships have cycles like any other relationship. Sometimes people are close and then they drift apart. If you feel you must end the friendship in the drifting apart phase, you will eliminate the ability of that person to ever revive the friendship.

3. It’s better to show up some than not at all. Many people will avoid sending an old friend a text because they don’t think they have time to engage in a long text exchange or know what to say. Stop it! Send that person a text anyway. Just try saying “You’ve been popping into my mind a lot lately and I just wanted to drop you a text to let you now I was thinking about you.” You can then go back and forth a few times and then tell the person you have to go. Wouldn’t you like to get a text like that from an old friend rather than not hearing from this person at all?

4. Allow friends to “change orbit.” Most people have from 2 to 4 close friends, a circle of perhaps 10 friends who they will do things with once in a while, a circle of casual friends, and then a large number of acquaintances. Sometimes because of life circumstances, their own emotional and psychological issues, or things you may never know, a friend may need to move from the inner circle to one of the outer rings. If you have the emotional tolerance, you should let them. Let them go with love and realize that they also have their own (pleasant or painful) life paths to follow. At the moment this might not involve a close relationship with you. Let that be OK, although it’s also OK to feel sad about it. Remind yourself that you had “a good run together” and now it is time for the next chapter.

5. When you can’t stop thinking about a friendship, use thought-stopping techniques. There is no amount of trying to get into the other person's head that is likely to work for you. Get busy in your own life and feed your emotional system positive messages that will improve your mood. Make plans and fill your day. Don't sit around waiting for a text or phone call or email.

6. If you can’t stop hurting or feeling activated in a friendship, consider whether the pain you are feeling is partially an emotional memory from painful events in childhood. Many people suffered injuries through loneliness, neglect, or the tumult of negotiating friendships through adolescence. If what you are feeling is reminiscent of those times, consider doing inner child work and imagine sending comfort and messages to that child who is still hurting inside of you.

7. Know what you want and set clear boundaries. I decided long ago that I did not want to do one-way, non-reciprocal relationships. I had a close relative who would never call me no matter how many times I called her. For the early years, she would tell me that she did not have long-distance calling on her phone. Then long distance became built into every phone plan… but she still would never pick up the phone to call (or text). So, I finally decided that I would stop reaching out. This was a personal decision based on how I wanted to feel in relation to this person, how I wanted to respect and feel about myself, and my ability to handle the loss if this person never called me (which she has not).

8. If you go through all these steps and still can’t think of a resolution, it might be necessary to end the friendship. If your friend is making it hard for you to function (won’t stop calling, interferes with your work, causes damage to your other relationships, hurts you financially) and telling this person the truth does not resolve the issue, you might want to do a “hard stop.” If you do this, realize that you don’t have to act angry in order to be serious or deliver bad news. But it is kinder to tell the person that you are stepping out of the friendship and will no longer be available to them rather than ghosting them or letting them live in a state of anxious ambiguity. Similarly, if you have a friend who keeps you living in that anxious state and you have tried direct communication and you cannot tolerate the negative feelings (but try to do that first), then honor yourself and end the friendship. If you do, you may still take the emotional hit anyway, but at least you will know that it isn’t going to keep coming.

We are all social animals and need the company and acceptance of friends in order to have workable levels of self-esteem and positive emotions. Just remember that being able to let go can be just as important as saying hello in the first place.

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