Regretful about reconnecting, a reader asks whether there is a kind way to put the kibosh on an unsatisfying friendship.
Hi Dr. Levine,
A couple of years ago, at the suggestion of a mutual friend, I reached out to an old high school classmate. I had lost touch with this woman after I went away to college. We were close friends when we were in our late teens, and so were our families — at that time.
Both of us have been through a lot in the years that we weren’t in touch. She was married and divorced, then remarried, raised a child, and so on. We are now in our 50s so we weren’t “there” for each other during the major events of our adult lives, so we’ve had to get to know each other again over the past couple of years or so.
This old friend is now a caregiver for her twin granddaughters, and she often tells me that she misses “adult company” and hasn’t spent as much time developing her own friendships as she wishes she had.
She has a way of making me feel a bit pressured, and each time we get together I feel as though she is expecting me to be the old friend I used to be.
But I am not that person. As I have gotten to know her (and her husband), I am struck more by our differences in some important ways, and I don’t feel that this friendship is a good fit. I feel I gave it a good chance, but I don’t want to invest any more time in the relationship.
Here’s the problem: I feel terribly guilty, especially since I am the one who reached out to reconnect a couple of years ago. I wish I hadn’t followed the advice of the mutual friend who encouraged me to reach out. I wish I had left this friend in the past, and simply treasured my good memories of her.
This situation has happened to me before. I am an outgoing person who enjoys meeting people for lunch, having people to my home for dinner, and so on, and sometimes I get together with old friends on a casual basis.
But I don’t really want to spend so much “exclusive” time with an old friend who’s clearly grown in a different direction — both in terms of her lifestyle as well as political beliefs and values. I don’t want to hurt people. Am I wrong to fade out this friendship? How do I distance myself without hurting her feelings?
Your letter presumes it’s wrong to end friendships that aren’t satisfying. If you believe that’s the case, then you have an obligation to continue this friendship. That entails succumbing to the pressure you feel to make time for someone with whom you really don’t want to be with. Does that sound right to you?
As you might have guessed, I disagree with that presumption. Just because you reached out and connected with an old friend, you have no obligation to sustain the friendship if the gulf between you seems too great. You say that you have maintained this renewed relationship, albeit a superficial one, for a couple of years so you’ve certainly given it a chance to congeal.
You harbor no animosity towards this woman and don’t want to hurt her. But understandably, it’s likely that she’ll interpret any effort you make to distance yourself from her as a rejection. You also have mutual social connections.
If I were you, I would not initiate any further contacts with her. When your friend reaches out, I would just explain how busy you are and don’t have time to get together. You may need to repeat this several times. Hopefully, she’ll back off. As painful as it is to get dumped, it is also difficult to dump someone else.
I was reading an article this morning about Bread Crumbing, the name used to describe a situation when a romantic interest offers someone just enough hope by giving them “breadcrumbs.”
What does this have to do with your situation? If you continue to maintain occasional contact with this woman who is “yearning for adult company” and seems to enjoy yours, you’ll be giving her breadcrumbs, a mixed message. She needs to find other people to connect with—and my sense is that you want to do the same.
Friendships are voluntary relationships. As one or both people change, individuals often discover they’ve outgrown relationships (whether romantic or platonic) that are no longer a good fit. There shouldn’t be any guilt or shame associated with ending them.