Disappearing Acts: Should you think the best or assume the worst?

Published: November 2, 2010 | Last Updated: November 2, 2010 By | 11 Replies Continue Reading


Handling Ambiguous Friendships



Dear Irene,

It is hard to know if lengthy silences and withdrawals by friends are because they are trying to dump you or because they are busy and a little neglectful. I especially grapple with this at birthdays and at Christmas time, often continuing to send cards or emails because I assume the best—that my friends are just busy.


But when I am always the initiator, does this mean I am refusing to accept that they don’t really want to continue the friendship? Is it better to assume the best and send occasional missives? How does one know?

Signed, Becca



Dear Becca,

What a great question! You really get to the crux of the ambiguity of many friendships, which is something that everyone grapples with from time to time. Just as the beginning and ending of friendships are often fuzzy, it’s sometimes hard to gauge what is going on with a friend mid-stream, particularly if you haven’t spoken to her for a while.


People’s lives change over time and sometimes the threads that connect them becomes frayed and weak. Thus, many relationships we thought would last forever turn out to be transient—-and friends, even very close ones, slip in and out of our lives for a variety of reasons. Other friendships are continuous but change in intensity and frequency of contact.


As you suggest, lack of communication may mean any number of things: that the person is engaged with or overwhelmed with other people and/or responsibilities (e.g. work, family, etc); that the person needs more alone time for herself; or that the person is either purposely or unconsciously withdrawing from you.


Being a good friend entails being sensitive to the needs of another individual and to the natural vicissitudes of friendship. Unless you have a concrete reason to think otherwise, you should always assume that lack of communication has more to do with the other person than it does with you. Sending periodic emails, short notes or cards to acknowledge her birthday, or holiday greeting cards are thoughtful and non-obtrusive ways to tell the other person you’re thinking of her.


But if there is no pick-up on the other end—for example, your friend never initiates or reciprocates after you reached out three or so times—it makes sense to check in more directly to find out what’s going on. You can either call her, offer to get together, or send her an email asking if everything is okay in her life and between the two of you.


In most cases, your friend’s response will allay your concerns. If she doesn’t respond or answers in some vague way, allow some time to pass and try again. If there is still no positive response after that, it’s safe to assume that your friend is withdrawing or at least needs a break and you need to accept that.

I hope this is helpful.



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Comments (11)

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  1. Florence Gaile says:

    Don’t “beat yourself up” if you don’t hear from a so-called friend for a long time. It’s probably not about you. The problem with this is…If YOU attempt to be the one to contact she or he first and they don’t respond, it will make you feel even worse. Let it go as just another part of life. Go out and meet new people. Attend classes at Universities, volunteer for a good cause, adopt a puppy, etc. etc. You would be surprised at how much better you will feel and be. Life is too short to wonder why a person you had a friendship with no longer contacts you. Time and Activity heals all wounds. NOT JUST TIME.

  2. ingham says:

    Look back now and realise how you would feel
    If that so called friend was in your life if
    You had cancer, she would be off off

    Feel joy that she is gone, and stop blaming

  3. Anonymous says:

    I feel this way every Ch’mas season when I am deciding who to send cards to or invite to my party. Generally, I am way too inclusive. I have spent a lot of time this year evaluating friendships and ultimately making most of my good friends acquaintances. I think this year I may be a bit more selective with my holiday cards too….

    • Niecy says:

      My two cents: I stop calling friends immediately when I get a distance signal. I find calls are considered by many to be the most intrusive, then emails less so and snail mail least ‘bothersome.’
      No idea how universal that ranking is, and I don’t offer this as advice. It’s just my experience.
      Voicemail and email remind me of work, fun postcards or greetings in the mail are a welcome touch.

  4. Becca says:

    I apologize, Anonymous. I did not mean to imply you were saying I was like the friends you described. I should have written my post better. Thank you for writing about this.

    Irene, you are right that I should look to other avenues for finding friendships. And volunteer work is something that’s been on my mind. I really have been down and overwhelmed. So much so, I don’t even think I have anything helpful to offer if I volunteered! But I am going to try. I know that despite my cautionary nature and my tendency to be a recluse rather than risk pain, I crave companionable friendships. I’ve gotten in touch lately with a few people I’ve drifted from and have received nice responses, and it has made my spirits soar.

  5. Anonymous says:

    I’m “anonymous” from below. Sorry – I didn’t mean to suggest that you’ve done anything like the things I described in my earlier post. My point – which I made very badly – is that I assume that when friends disappear, it’s for a reason. The reason may not have anything to do with you. Or it might. And there is often no way to really know, even if you ask. So I just let the whole thing drop.

    On a more general note, consider that these days friendships are often based on their entertainment value. People aren’t stuck with each other and don’t need each other they way they did in earlier times (e.g. 19th century rural communities), so there is less need or incentive to work things out, let bygones be bygones and so on.

  6. Irene says:

    Thanks for your post. I’m so sorry this happened to you. This certainly was a hurtful way for her to end your friendship. I hope that writing about this experience and sharing it with others will be helpful in others understanding that they are not alone~



  7. Irene says:

    One other thought—sounds like you are a little down and overwhelmed by your current circumstances, which is understandable. Perhaps you could make an effort to get yourself involved in something in your community so you could meet some new people. Could you participate in a free or low-cost adult education class on some topic that interests you? Could you volunteer at a local hospital or charity? Just a couple of hours a week doing something new and different might make you feel better!



  8. Becca says:

    Thank you for posting my question, Irene. And for your thoughtful suggestions, which I will take to heart.

    I’m pretty tough on myself, very self-critical, yet I don’t think I’m guilty of the crimes Anonymous has described. I do think I repel people sometimes when I discuss my problems. Yet, I am 1000 % there for others when they have problems. I call, send emails, cards, gifts. I offer to be an ear if they want to talk about their problems. And I tell them if they want to talk about other things and not talk about their problems, I’ll listen to that, too. But the minute I need an ear, they run for the hills. I am also guilty of being a bit of a bore. My life has slowed down a lot. I work hard & am hanging on to every paycheck for medical bills. I’m close to being laid off and am in the “senior” category. So I don’t have vacations and leisure time activities to talk about.

    Yet … I still have this notion that if I continue to stay in touch at the holidays & birthdays, the worst that can happen is that the recipient rolls their eyes & wishes I’d go away. But the best that can happen is that I have brightened a moment of their day because they know I care.

    I too have been very guilty of disappearing on people. Sometimes it’s been justified: a toxic person. Other times I have just felt my insecurities & overly sensitive nature has made me uncomfortable to be around the person. Even though the person hasn’t really done anything intentionally hurtful. These people aren’t exactly the kind of people who like to talk things out, so I have hesitated to tell them why I’ve disappeared on them. But they still send me cards at holidays & I appreciate knowing they care enough to do that.

    I hope more people write in with their insights and experiences.

    Thank you again, Irene.

  9. Anonymous says:

    Sometimes you just don’t know, and may never know as in my case. I was still trying to keep in touch with a friend of 8 years when she did this to me. My last attempt was a birthday wish to her a month ago. Two weeks afterward she deleted me on Facebook and blocked me on top of it. I had noticed she stopped responding to my attempts but nothing happened between us to spark this abrupt dumping that I know of. Our lives were taking different paths and interests; but despite that I thought we would always at least be cordial to each other even if we were no longer BFF like we once were. There was no reason to be otherwise or unfriendly, I thought. Apparently I was wrong. The blocking was the most insulting and hurtful thing; what did she think I was going to do? Attack her? Start rumors? Hardly. I truly thought she knew me better than that. The de-friending would have been enough. I get it.

    I hope her dissappearing is truly all about her. I wish her no ill but I unfortunately assume the worst about her dissappearing act based on the way she ended our friendship. I may never know why and have to accept that and move on, hurtful as it is at times. I’m not going to contact her to ask why or try to mend things because I was always the one doing this in the past. Her actions have now sent a loud and clear message that she no longer wants me in her life.

    This site has helped me understand I’m not the first or only one this has happened to, nor will I be the last. I am choosing my friends much more wisely now because it seems to me that someone nearly 40 years old would be more mature than to use Facebook to end a long-term friendship. Actions speak louder than words; hers certainly did. Perhaps she did me a favor, as I don’t know that I want someone in my who would do such a sneaky and cowardly thing, someone that I used to trust and believe in. I think there are others out there who are more worthy of our time and energy, even if it takes longer to find them, and perhaps even longer to trust because of people and situations like this. However, I don’t necessarily believe a little caution is a bad thing. Thank you for listening 🙂

  10. Anonymous says:

    This one is so tough. I’ve pulled the disappearing act on friends because I wanted out of the friendship and in every case I had excellent reasons. The most recent case involved a “friend” who was constantly negative and critical (even telling me which parts of my face need Botox).

    The thing is, these ex-friends probably really have no idea why I suddenly dumped them. *I* saw a pattern of self-centredness, or using, or criticism, and finally had enough. But the ex-friends probably did not see this pattern in their own behaviour. Most people think they are good people who aren’t hurting anyone. Even Botox-friend probably thought they were being helpful. The others probably did not notice that *every* time they called me, they wanted something, or that the conversation was 90% about them. I’m inclined to think that it’s not my job to teach grown adults how to treat their friends decently (if you haven’t figured it out by age 35, I’d rather just not be friends with you).

    So, I bailed. And by that point I didn’t care if I hurt my “friends”. They had already shown they didn’t much care if they hurt me.

    As a result, I’m inclined to think the worst when friends suddenly go quiet. If they want to continue the friendship, they can get in touch.

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