• Handling Breakups

How To Step Back From An Ambivalent Friendship

Published: February 26, 2016 | Last Updated: March 18, 2022 By | 7 Replies Continue Reading
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A woman asks how to tone down an ambivalent friendship with another couple. She really isn’t in to them anymore.



I have been reading about ambivalent friendships and am recognizing those feelings towards a certain friend. In my mind, the relationship is over. Countless examples of behaviour that I don’t look for in a friend (pushiness, bossiness, impoliteness) have led me to this uncomfortable yet affirming position.

My only problem now is how to communicate this to my friend. She wants to get together often and if my partner and I go to dinner at their house one weekend, the very next weekend they are inviting us over again.

I could picture getting together with her every few months, but it is difficult to back away after seeing each other at closer intervals, not to mention seeing her in a positive light after entertaining so many ambivalent feelings.

How do I go about letting her know? Does she even need to know? I question whether I owe her an explanation.

Signed, Lisa


Hi Lisa,

Ambivalent friendships can be very vexing. In fact, research suggests that they can be worse for your health than consistently negative ones. Realistically, there is no simple fix to the problem you have described because you can’t alter this friend’s personality.

You seem clear that you want to see these people less frequently—although not cut them off completely. If this friendship isn’t satisfying and makes you feel uncomfortable, you have no obligation to maintain the same close relationship you had in the past.

Of course, I understand your uneasiness about disentangling your partner and yourself without hurting your friend, feeling guilty about what you are doing, and/or provoking a confrontation that would alienate these once-friends entirely.

I would suggest that you gradually make yourself less available. Hopefully, you can stick to the truth as much as possible without going into detail but telling a “white lie” is okay. Let your friend know that you won’t be able to get together as often as you had in the past. You can say that you need more time with your partner or want to spend more time at home on weekends.

You don’t need to tell her that you find her too hard to be with. What good would that do? In fact, by suggesting that you get together every couple of months instead of every week (and sticking to that!), your friend may eventually get the message and decide to back off as well.

People often disagree about whether someone should “fade away” or “be explicit” about distancing him/herself from a friend. You need to do what feels comfortable and right to you in these circumstances, keeping your ultimate objective in mind.

Hope this helps.

My best, Irene

Also on The Friendship Blog:

Struggling With An Ambivalent Friendship

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Category: HANDLING BREAKUPS, How to break up

Comments (7)

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  1. Christi Kelly says:


    Normally I do not comment, but when I read through this,

    I felt compelled to reply.

    First, this is a friendship that MATTERS so much,

    that you are putting this much

    Thought, Energy, and feeling into;

    Therefore it is a relationship in your life, that merits you addressing it.

    I know it is hard….but lying is not okay.

    You have to confront this situation.

    Clearly set your boundaries before handling it.

    Map out, ultimately, what you would LIKE from the relationship

    I.E. Do you really want this person in your life anymore?
    What level of involvement, with this person, are you comfortable with?
    And Also, What you ARE and ARE NOT, willing to discuss in detail,
    in the conversation, confronting this situation.

    If you continue on, as nothing has happened you are choosing to be a fraud,

    both in friendship, and truth to YOURSELF.

    As a side note:
    You only have one life, and EVERY MOMENT is precious,
    And those moments that you are “muscling” through spending time with someone that does not edify you, and you do not edify them, with mutual love;
    Could be spent with those you DO love and need you!
    Could this person be a source of negativity in your life, that you do not feel strong enough to confront?

    Also,that person, WILL feel your energy, even on a subconscious level,
    and it WILL affect your relationship.

    If you are changing the parameters of the relationship with a friend
    With friends, especially close ones, or ones that have been close;
    I think you owe it to YOURSELF much more than THEM, to acknowledge that, and own it.

    P.S. These are one of the hard times in life! Stay strong 🙂 <3 You deserve a life filled with love, not someone else's negativity 🙂

    Wishing You the best!

  2. Laura says:

    I agree with Ben, Linda and Lyn. Be polite, be respectful, and be true to yourself.
    You haven’t been sending mixed messages, you’ve just been trying to be polite!
    I agree also with Irene, as these relationships can take up a lot of “head space”, and it speaks to the fact that youreva very considerate person.
    I’ve had the same issue with a friend, and I’ve definitely backed off and I’m much happier.
    Do what’s right for you and your hubby and be at peace-as Ben said, life is truly too short.
    And don’t forget; a lot of times these overbearing people tend to be controlling, and look for people to control and boss around; don’t be that person!
    Good luck!

  3. Ben says:

    There is an old saying, “keep it simple.” Another one also fits, “you can’t change anyone, but yourself.” Are people thinking they can change other people’s behavior by modifying ours? Good luck with that. How many friends does a person need? Having figured out many of the people I thought were friends and are apparently not hasn’t killed me. In my life I have admired those who are self-assured in a polite way. Life is too short to keep having to “figure it out.” Be proud of who you are and be true to that. I also agree with Irene that by simply not being available causes someone you really don’t want to be around to cease calling or inviting. “Seek peace and pursue it.”

  4. Linda says:

    I agree with Irene. I would distance myself from this friend and simply tell her that you’re busy with other important commitments or that you’re spending time with other people or projects you enjoy — which is likely true. You can do this in a caring and kind way. When she tries to arrange plans, be firm but kind. Tell her that you and your husband are spending time with each other on a “date” or that you are getting together with family or another couple from work, etc. Explain that you would like to get together again “another time” — which sounds like the way you want the friendship to continue, meaning you just want to see her less often. There’s nothing dishonest about that.

    But I don’t think it would be productive to tell her the real reason — especially if you don’t want her completely out of your life.

    Unless a friend has done something VERY wrong to you — in which case you’d be right to state the full truth — I believe it’s better to do a slow fade and respect the person’s feelings. After all, it could be that you two are not a good “match” — and that doesn’t mean she should feel hurt or insulted. I disagree with the other friendship “experts” who claim that you should verbally “end a friendship — unless something truly evil is going on. People grow, change, and move on. We shouldn’t have to apologize for that, or explain it.

    At one time this friendship worked for you — and there was something good in it — but now it doesn’t work. I’ve had this happen in recent years, and while it made me feel guilty at first, I got tired of the stress it caused when I got together with the friend I’d outgrown. We were moving in different directions and wanted different things from a friendship. It finally hit me that a friendship isn’t a marriage, and that I am not obligated to keep friendships that don’t work, and that I don’t owe everyone a formal “reason” when things change.

  5. Amy F says:

    If you want to tone down or back off a relationship, you must stop sending mixed messages. Ask yourself why you are going to dinner at the house of someone you want to avoid. How does that get you closer to your goal?
    You don’t owe her anything, but communicating your desires avoids misunderstandings. “Sally and I have decided to spend more time together as a couple instead of going out with others. Thanks for understanding. I’ll give you a call if we decide to start going out again.” While not 100% direct, it’s not a lie either.

  6. Lyn says:

    I certainly agree with Irene on this as I have been in the same situation and it can be very difficult.
    So I do feel for you I did distance myself as I generally did not have the time to meet her week in week out as I was working.
    Unfortunately my ex friend took it all the wrong way even when I apologised for not being able to commit to the relationship as often as she wanted me to.
    So much for being honest she turned nasty sent me emails and stopped me trying to argue her case in the street none of which got her anywhere I had to sever the relation ship as she really did show her true colours and proved my feeling about her were right after all.
    So do beware be true to yourself don’t feel you have to stay because it’s the right thing to do my ex friend had no repect for me was a control freak
    I am so happy with out her.
    Good luck

    • SusanB says:

      Amazing. Why do people think that reacting angrily and being nasty is going to bring you closer? I have a ‘friend’ who freaked out on the phone with me today because we haven’t seen each other in a few months. Isn’t this common, to have weeks and months go by and not see friends? People are busy with aging parents, children, jobs, health issues, etc. Why my friend thought getting angry, saying mean thoughtless things and trying to make me feel guilty would bring us together – what it did was make me feel terrible and run in the other direction – the opposite result of what she reportedly wanted. People are strange and difficult to understand sometimes. Shaking my head.

      You did the right thing. Now I may have to cut out another female who acted egregiously….another one bites the dust.

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