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Friendship Terminators: “You made a mistake! You’re history!”

This past week my client Joanna told me about a painful run-in she had experienced with a friend of 20 years. I think it’s an important example of a pattern of interaction that destroys friendships.

The back story: Five years ago her friend Lonnie, after many unsuccessful attempts, finally managed to break up with Steve, her longtime boyfriend. Apparently, he had been both charming and abusive—a deadly combination—and Lonnie had been addicted to the relationship despite knowing better. While going through the frequent breakups and reconciliations and airing her complaints to friends, Lonnie often referred to Steve as “the devil,” saying she needed to “exorcise” him from her life.

Skip to the present. Lonnie has been living alone for the five years since the breakup and has unfortunately been trying to cope with the loneliness of single life by numbing out with alcohol. She now has a serious drinking problem and is defensive and socially withdrawn. Joanna is her only remaining friend.

This past week, Joanna invited Lonnie to lunch and during the meal, Joanna said, “Lonnie, I’m thinking about joining a gym and working out. Why don’t you join too and we can begin exercising together. It’ll be fun.”

Lonnie, wide-eyed and instantly full of rage, stood up and screamed at Joanna, “How dare you say that to me. How dare you taunt me in this way.  What kind of friend are you? I would never do this to you.”  Joanna, mystified, asked, “What did I say?  What did I do? All I’m suggesting is that we exercise together.” Lonnie, still screaming, said, “My god, you did it again. I can’t believe you would use the word ‘exorcise’ with me.  You know how painful my breakup was with Steve.  You’re rubbing my nose in it.  I can’t be friends with you anymore.  I’m out of here.”  She then left the restaurant.

Joanna, perplexed and sad as she related the story to me, said, “I can’t believe she interpreted an innocent suggestion that we exercise as taunting her about her “exorcism” of Steve. My god, it seems like an almost insane assumption on her part. I feel horrible and yet I know I haven’t done anything wrong. I called her to try and explain things but she said our friendship is over, ordered me to never contact her again, and then hung up on me.”

I explained to Joanna that Lonnie’s alcohol addiction has apparently reached the stage where it now affects her ability to accurately perceive reality. Such distorted perceptions are not unusual during the middle and later stages of drug addiction and often prevent the building and maintenance of stable friendships.

Joanna understands this but is having difficulty accepting that she has most likely been permanently written off by her longtime friend for no good reason. Such rejections are painful because in addition to the loss of the friendship, there is always a lingering fear that one has somehow actually caused the break.

While Lonnie’s abrupt termination of her friendship with Joanna is complicated by her alcohol abuse, it is also most likely a long-term pattern. I refer to individuals who end friendships so abruptly and without first trying to fix things as “Friendship Terminators.”  Such folks usually have a history of abruptly ending friendships. The core problem is often a poorly developed ability to effectively resolve conflicts.

It has been my experience that “single children”—that is, individuals who were raised without siblings—often do not have good conflict-resolution skills. Because they did not have the benefit of the unavoidable and repeated arguing, forgiving and forgetting with siblings, they tend to hold grudges and to simply end friendships when someone hurts their feelings or says something thoughtless. They tend to take such mistakes far too personally and to overreact as a result.

Additionally, folks who have led entitled lives (e.g., star athletes, unusually attractive people, wealthy or famous people) with little experience bending or negotiating are more apt to write people off if they perceive them as not meeting their expectations.

This piece is designed to enhance your awareness.  As I keep stressing on this site, building and maintaining friendships is all about awareness and skill building. If after reading this, you determine you’re a “Friendship Terminator,” don’t be discouraged. It is a habit, not a fixed character trait. So, here’s the good news: If you learned it, you can unlearn it.

I explain in detail some of the skills necessary for conflict resolution in other articles I’ve posted. For starters, check out these: Disagreements and Humor, Feeling Messages, Friendship Basics, and Rules of Friendship.

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

Comments

Comment from LC
Time: April 12, 2009, 8:03 am

Wow. Truly thought provoking aside from well written. There were 2 quotes I particularly liked: spending less time thinking of yourself and duty, courtesy and generosity. Wonderful article. Makes you start to really think.

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