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When Preoccupied Friends Are Thoughtless

During a recent therapy session, my client Rick wondered out loud about how to handle an on-again, off-again problem with his close friend Steve. Rick described the following scenario.

“Over the years, whenever Steve finds a new lady friend, he becomes so undependable it falls under the heading of irresponsible and disrespectful. I have no problem with Steve having a relationship and making me lower priority. Heck, I’m married with a kid, so I’m not that available to hang out anyway. The problem is that once Steve is in a romantic relationship, he stops keeping his word. He’ll call me, suggest we get together for a beer, agree on a time and place, and then he simply doesn’t show up. He doesn’t even bother to call and cancel.

“It’s so predictable. Once there’s a lady in his life, he acts this way, not just with me but with all his friends. This is his third serious relationship in the last five years, and during each one, he has blown off our get-togethers on a regular basis.”

I said, “Rick, I don’t blame you for being hurt and annoyed by his behavior but I can’t help wondering why you haven’t yet confronted him about it. What’s your reasoning?”

Rick said, “My fear is that if I confront him, he will see me as judging him, be hurt, and stop being my friend. I think part of the problem is that we have always had an easygoing, laissez-faire friendship. I guess the quick answer is that I’m not sure if I have the right to do so.”

Rick’s dilemma asks an important question, one that does not have a simple, formulaic answer. My daughter Shannon, in a discussion about the same topic, framed the question in the following way. She asked, “How does one make a distinction between accepting people for who they are versus being appropriately assertive about one’s own rights within the friendship?”

She could not, in my opinion, have framed it more accurately. I believe in order to make the distinction she refers to, one must have the ability to look inward and identify one’s feelings and then identify those specific behaviors that cause the hurt feelings. Then, once one determines if the hurtful behaviors are or aren’t a departure from the implicitly agree-upon rules for the friendship, one can make the distinction.

For example, in Rick’s case, he has clearly identified his fears of being low priority and of being disrespected by Steve. Additionally, and importantly, he can tie specific behaviors by Steve to these feelings. When Steve doesn’t bother to show up or bother to call and cancel a get-together, he is being disrespectful of Rick’s time, energy, and feelings. Finally, Rick said that when Steve is not in a romantic relationship, he does not have a history of breaking appointments in this manner. It is clearly a breach of their implicit agreement over time about how they will relate to each other as friends.

My Recommendation:

It seems to me that if Rick wants to keep this friendship healthy and honest, he must not sell Steve short. If he assumes Steve will be defensive and withdraw, he is not giving Steve the opportunity to honor their friendship by changing. Further, by not confronting Steve, he is continuing a pattern of storing up resentments against him that could, over time, kill the friendship. In his words, Rick said, “I’m so hurt by this situation that I’m tempted to dump the guy as a friend.”

It seems Rick’s best shot is to at least let Steve know how he is feeling and what Steve is doing to generate those feelings. He can soften the message if he likes by first stating that he knows Steve is in love and so preoccupied with his new lady that he may be unaware of the liberties he’s been taking with their friendship.

Note: A communication technique called a “Feeling Message”  facilitates the kind of tactful confrontation I am recommending that Rick have with Steve. It is one of the best tools for mending and strengthening friendships. Click here to learn more. 

Do you have a question or comment for me? Feel free to post it by clicking on the comments link below.