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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.

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


Comment from barry
Time: September 11, 2007, 9:50 pm

very good example…i have run into similar situations in a work environment where i ran into problems that i created with friends that i work with. in that situation, I felt bad and guilty. So I also tried to apologize and improve the relationship. my work associate did not accept my apology. But after I apologized, I felt much better since i had tried to remedy the situation

Comment from Joe
Time: September 17, 2007, 4:25 pm

Intriguing subject. Many’s the time when I felt there should have been some rule against disclosing information I would receive. Now the cliche exists: “Too much information!” I suppose I must have repaid the world in spades after my divorce

Comment from Marina
Time: September 19, 2007, 8:09 am

I think that Roseanne simply disregarded her friend’s feelings and I’m betting she was pissed at her to start with. I think the idea of understood rules is valid but sometimes folks just want what they want.

Comment from Jason
Time: September 19, 2007, 8:28 am

It’s a dog eat dog world. roseanne had all the right in the world to go for the job.

Comment from Jenna
Time: October 3, 2007, 8:24 pm

“If one friend changes an important rule without warning, the other’s expectations are dashed and the result can be a seriously damaged friendship.”
This is very true…my friend since seventh grade changed the “rule” out of nowhere and BAM…now she thinks I’m a horrible friend and am “brainwashing” my other friend against her…

Comment from Bill
Time: November 1, 2007, 9:03 am

I completely agree with what you say about the “rules” of a friendship. What is most interesting is that I had never thought of friendships having rules, let alone different types of friendships. Great work!

Comment from dan
Time: July 21, 2011, 4:43 pm

where can i buy a book that lists those rules of friendship !

i particularly need to read the chapters on reciprocation, equality…and how do deal with being made to feel that you are doing All the running, when it comes to initiating contact and keeping the friendship going.

Comment from Dr. Carducci
Time: June 12, 2012, 5:46 am

Buy my book–Play It By Ear: Improvise Your Way to Lasting Friendships
You can buy it from my web site, from Barnes and Noble on line, from Amazon/Kindle

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