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Struggling With An Ambivalent Friendship

Published: March 18, 2022 | Last Updated: March 18, 2022 By | 13 Replies Continue Reading

A woman is upset about an ambivalent friendship. Here are some tips to recognize and react to an ambivalent friendship.

QUESTION

Dear Friendship Doctor,

I am experiencing a bit of a struggle in one of my close friendships (or at least we used to be very close). I am the type of person who has always experienced very close, magical female friendships. One of these, with a woman whom I’ll call Lauren, started soon after we met in grad school. We had an intense connection for a while.

Lauren is very smart and cool and wonderful, but can also have a strong arrogant and domineering side to her. I used to be able to grudgingly put up with it, since the friendship was so rewarding.

As an example, if she and I were in the company of a third person or group, she would often attempt to dominate the discussion, cut me off and prevent me from speaking—and subtly or not-so-subtly, would put me down. Though when the two of us were alone together, it was rarely like that.

So, fast-forward to today, we’re living in the same city again, (a few years have gone by long distance and we’d kept in touch). My life is going pretty well, I have a great man and a great career going. She met a man online a little over a year ago and now she’s pregnant, and we’re in the same city again. Her career plans didn’t turn out, she didn’t try much. She’s been reluctantly waitressing.

She seems as though she doesn’t want to have me and my partner meet hers, and I don’t really like having her around my man (though I don’t discourage it from happening) since she tries to dominate and can put him down as well.

I want to be close to her because she can be so amazing. I also need new friends since I’ve moved pretty recently to a place where she lives. But it can be so hard to be around her. I’m not great at gently pointing out when people are being inappropriate or hurtful to me. I usually try to let it pass but then I end up feeling resentful.

Now, it seems that she isn’t very forthcoming about wanting to get together, and when we do, we don’t have that great of a time. Then I don’t see her for a while until I initiate coffee. I sense that I might react more to her arrogance in company than I think I do, and maybe it’s creating tension.

So… I don’t know what to do, I think it is a perfect storm of her being unhappy, me being too passive to bring up what’s wrong with how she can be, and my simmering resentment showing when we’re together (maybe, not sure). We’ve always had a bit of competitiveness between us as well. And I feel sometimes like she’s given up and gotten pregnant.

The problem is I really miss how things used to be between us. But is the arrogance and putdowns a sign we shouldn’t be friends anyway? I know I can’t change her. It’s just too bad.

Signed, Victoria

ANSWER

Hi Victoria,

You may have answered your own question by taking the time to think about how you feel and writing your note to me.

A few things you mentioned:

-It sounds like this relationship was always competitive and that you feel that your friend isn’t in a good place career-wise from your perspective. This can make things worse between you.

-She is reluctant to get together and when you do, your get-togethers aren’t as satisfying as you hoped they would be.

-You are ambivalent about getting together with your partners and worry that doing so will exacerbate the problems between you and your friend. And, you worry that she’ll act abrasively to your partner.

In your letter, you stated:

I think it is a perfect storm of her being unhappy, me being too passive to bring up what’s wrong with how she can be, and my simmering resentment showing when we’re together…

Since your friend is pregnant, it’s my guess that she is very preoccupied with the upcoming arrival and may have less interest in pursuing an ambivalent friendship.

Given your own assessment of the friendship, past and present, it seems like you are ambivalent about it, too. Research suggests that ambivalent friendships are among the most trying and stressful ones of any.

My suggestion: Back off, check in with her periodically to see how her pregnancy is going, and consider her an acquaintance rather than a close friend.

It’s tempting but unrealistic to only focus on the positive aspects of a tumultuous friendship.

Hope this helps!

Best, Irene


Tips For Identifying and Dealing With An Ambivalent Friendship

What is an ambivalent friendship?

An ambivalent friendship is a friendship that doesn’t feel safe, secure and satisfying. One of the individuals involved (or, perhaps, both) feels a push and pull which makes the friendship feel stressful and uncertain.

Research on ambivalent relationships suggests that they are even more stressful than toxic ones. For example, one study on ambivalent friendships by Holt-Lunstad and Clark linked them to increases in blood pressure.

How can I assess a friendship to determine if it is truly ambivalent?

Here are some 9 questions to ask yourself to see if a friendship is ambivalent:

  1. Does the friendship feels confusing, trying and stressful?
  2. Does it feel more like work than pleasure?
  3. Does the friendship feel unsafe and unpredictable?
  4. Does your friends undermine you, especially when you are with other friends or coworkers?
  5. Does getting together with the friend make you feel like you’re walking on eggshells?
  6. Do you or your friend feel reluctant to get together? Hard to plan dates?
  7. When you do get together, do you often leave feeling disappointed?
  8. Does your friend seem ambivalent about the relationship, too?
  9. Does it feel like this friendship has run its course?

How did I get stuck in the ambivalent relationship?

  • Friendships, especially long-term ones, can become a habit. Old friends get used to habits of relating in certain ways, even negative ones.
  • Some people are so desperate for friendships that they settle for toxic ones.
  • There is a natural tendency to focus on the positives of a friendship rather than the negatives, especially when a friendship was once meaningful.

How can I gracefully get out of an ambivalent friendship?

  • First, be sure that you have carefully weighed your decision because it’s hard to reverse.
  • Make sure that the downsides of the friendship are consistent or recurring. If the lapses are few and far between, it’s worthwhile to have an honest conversation with your friend. Maybe there’s hope to improve the friendship.
  • You don’t need to end the relationship entirely, scale it back so you see the person less frequently (or only occasionally) or figure out which situations are safer (perhaps, seeing the friend only in mixed company).
  • Another possibility, take a “friendship sabbatical.” Tell your friend that you need time apart to assess the friendship because it’s been uncomfortable.
  • Once you’ve made your decision about next steps, stick to it. Try to avoid mixed messages.

Related posts on The Friendship Blog

An Ambivalent Friendship

How To Step Back From An Ambivalent Friendship

First published February 2016; substantially updated March 2022. 


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Comments (13)

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  1. CeCe says:

    Dear Victoria,

    Since there are many insightful comments already made, mine will be short and sweet. She is a TOXIC friend. Please drop her for your sake and your man’s sake. Life is too short to put up with toxic people. Move on.

    Cheers,
    CeCe

  2. Arlene says:

    It seems that a friendship with this woman has more cons than pros and with no real ability to feel close and important to her. Friendship is meant to be uplifting, supportive, fun and not a competitive tearing down process because of her personality problems which has probably ended many opportunities or relationships along the way for her. I feel sorry for the baby myself and should you have a baby, a friendship with her would be horrible as it would probably now jump to who has the smartest or prettiest baby! Why not just leave well enough alone as it seems she doesn’t possess the friendship gene!

  3. Friend says:

    I think it would actually be a relief to back off a little. It sounds like you’ve also come to realize your friend is no longer a friend, or at least, not the friend she once was to you. You should congratulate yourself on your realization and move on. You deserve more thoughtful and caring friends.

  4. Kristina says:

    Try to put yourself in her shoes. Is it easy being pregnant? What is the significance of mentioning that? Maybe Lauren is busy trying to have a family. Bring her some soup sometime.

  5. Laura says:

    Victoria,

    Sometimes we need to write our thoughts down when reflecting on challenging situations, and that’s exactly what you’ve done here-we’ve just all helped confirm what you already know, and have known for some time-kudos to you, and what a relief!
    Whether it was the threes-a-crowd bullying or to your own spouse, this person hasn’t been a consistent friend. Yes, sometimes things can get tense, friends get jealous, but it’s typically a one-off and true friends get over it.
    True friendships mature and age like a good wine, and this one has definitely soured.
    She’s gonna have a baby, go to her mommy groups and probably start getting competitive with other mommies like her-lol! We’ve all met those ones!
    All kidding aside, this is a chance for your own re-birth, to meet new friends through your local community centre, and explore your new city with your hubby or just pick up a new hobby!
    Congratulate her when the baby comes, but move on. Ultimately, real friends don’t put you or your other family members down. Embrace the realization that you came to yourself!

  6. Salstarat says:

    You have summed up this rather one-sided friendship in a nutshell, Victoria – what you really miss is the person she USED to be and, sadly, she is NOT that person anymore. People change as they grow older – sometimes they become more smug, arrogant and narcissistic and I am afraid your friend does sound like a self centred narcissist with a bit of a jealous streak. There are plenty of toxic people in this world who are willing to put you down and make you feel bad about yourself, however, friends are supposed to make you feel GOOD about yourself; they are supposed to be your backstop and encourage you and be happy for you. This “friend” does none of these things. She is a negative influence in your life and you should now move on and initiate friendships with people who are going to have a happy, positive impact on your life. It sounds like she is taking her self loathing out on you – she can see that you have made a success in your life with a new partner, a satisfying career etc and this has placed a focus on her lack of achievement. Instead of being happy for you, she is jealous and there is NO PLACE for jealousy between good friends. I would not contact her for awhile. People who put you down are toxic and contact with them can only deepen your antagonism and impact on your self esteem. Friends come and go in life; sadly, this “friend” no longer has your best interests at heart. Move on.

  7. Amy F says:

    Long term friendships can ebb and wane in intensity, satisfaction and contact. However things turn out, it sounds like you need a break from group interactions with her. If you wish to maintain some level of contact, texts to check in or say hi can be a way of having a less intimate relationship.

    Relationships constantly evolve as the people in them grow and are affected by life. Things may never be the way the once were, but that doesn’t mean they have to be a choice between unsatisfactory or nonexistent. As everyone says, your friend’s priority will be her pregnancy and her baby. Being a mother will change her, hopefully for the better but probably not in the direction of being more available for you.

    If you want to maintain some type of relationship, focus on the baby. If not, you can back away, although if you ever reconnect in the future she may see you as the friend who didn’t care to congratulate her on her infant’s birth. Whenever I am unsure about how to act, I try to think about what will feel good in the present vs what might be beneficial to my ultimate goal in the future, because sometimes what’s easy or feels positive in the present is harmful to my future desires and what’s difficult in the now will be most helpful to my future hopes and dreams.

  8. Sandra Anne says:

    I agree with Irene and the other comments here. I’ve struggled with similar situations in the past — competitive friends and changing circumstances. I think it’s natural for friendships to change over time, and sometimes we don’t grow together if things are out of sync, as in your situation. If friends can grow together and support each other, they can survive the changes.

    The ambivalence in your friendship is a problem, but so is the “competitive’ factor. In my experience, competitive friends are not always supportive friends. Friendship isn’t a game of one-upmanship. If your friend put you down in the company of others and dominated the conversation, that’s not a healthy friendship. You sound like a thoughtful, caring person — and you deserve friends who return that care.

  9. Tanja says:

    Dear Victoria,

    I guess, there is not much you can do. Recently, I let go of a friend I knew since kindergarten. I do not look at her with animosity. I think we are in different places and do not have room for each other right now. So, I have chosen to accept it. I let go. Once I let go, I felt sad but also relieve that I do not have to think about her anymore. I have more room in my brain to think about other things now. Once in a while you feel sad, but that is life, no one can stay in it forever. But, my main focus is working on what I have with my husband and kids. Sorry you are going through this, but you will feel happier once you let go.

  10. Cecilia says:

    Dear Victoria,

    Let her go. Life is too short to hang on to something that wasn’t very good in the first place. Move on. Your current life sounds pretty amazing. It will be more amazing without your friend. Enjoy it.

  11. Maya says:

    Dear Victoria,
    I like Irene’s advice of checking in with Lauren from time-to-time just to see how and her new child are doing. It is my very strong sense that once her child is born that she will have little (or no time) to pursue the relationship with you for some time to come. Having young babies and school-aged kids is extremely all-consuming. It truly is life changing to transition into parenthood, and her circle of friends will likely extend to including other moms….

    Since your relationship is strained, and Lauren has personality traits that make it challenging to bond with her, see this natural change/force change of becoming a parent as a transition point for your relationship too. She will NEVER be the same again after her child is born and none of can go back in time and have relationships that resemble what they were “in the beginning.” It sounds like you may need to let go of that dream of things being like they were before. Also, please try not to take her ambivalence personally…Her priorities have totally changed, and it also sounds like she may be envious of how well things are going for you….which makes it even harder for her to be supportive. It’s hard letting go of important friendships, but it sounds like yours may be actually “breaking up” in a rather gentle way (i.e. not tons of fighting and stress/hurt feelings), which is a blessing.
    Best Wishes,
    Maya

  12. Ruth says:

    I echo Irene’s suggestion. Also Irenes comment that her focus is on the baby and what to expect when the baby comes.

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