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Rules of Friendship

When friends change the rules

Regardless of their level of intimacy, friends ideally honor an implicit set of rules and expectations that keep the relationship running smoothly.  If one friend changes an important rule without warning, the other’s expectations are dashed and the result can be a seriously damaged friendship.

For example, my client Roseanne, a bright, articulate and successful professional, had a good friend, Beth, with whom she played the role of career advisor over the years. Whenever Beth switched jobs or had work problems, Roseanne was the person to whom she inevitably turned for advice.

Their friendship was thrown into turmoil when Roseanne decided to apply for the same job Beth had already decided to apply for. Beth became very angry and accused Roseanne of being selfish and disloyal by competing with her for it.  

Confused and hurt, Roseanne said to Beth, “You know I’ve been thinking about leaving my current job. I don’t understand—why don’t I have the same right as you to apply for the position?”

Beth repeated her accusations, withdrew, and refused to have any further discussion or contact. It was at this point that Roseanne, troubled by her friend’s rejection, sought my help.

My work with Roseanne focused on the nature of her relationship with Beth.  When I asked her to describe the friendship, she painted it as one-sided, saying that she, unlike Beth, rarely if ever asked for personal or career advice.  When I commented that she was describing what sounded like a mentor-student relationship, Roseanne agreed that it most likely was.

I then pointed out that if it was indeed the case, it seemed logical to assume that her friend expected it to stay that way. When she, Roseanne, competed for the same job, Beth interpreted it as a change in what for her was perhaps the most important rule of their relationship—that is, by competing with Beth, Roseanne had suddenly stopped mentoring and looking out for her.

After viewing the problem from this frame of reference, Roseanne quickly grasped the dynamics of the situation and agreed that she had indeed changed the rules, thereby offending her friend.  When she asked what she might do to make things better, I suggested she contact Beth and tell her that given their history, she could understand why Beth might feel betrayed and abandoned, and that she was sorry for any pain she had caused.  

To her credit, Roseanne offered the apology.  Unfortunately, despite the overture, Beth continued to avoid Roseanne and their friendship did not resume.

Roseanne, a good person, clearly did not get up one morning and say, “I think my goal for today is to change the rules of my friendship with Beth and really hurt her feelings.” From my perspective, she hadn’t understood how much her mentoring had meant to Beth and was therefore unaware that changing her role from mentor to competitor could have been painful for her friend.

As you can see from this example, it’s important to clearly understand the rules and expectations tied to your friendships in order to avoid inadvertently damaging them.

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