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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.   


Comment from Misty
Time: July 10, 2009, 4:41 pm

Once again you have identified a common issue in friendship, and given clues to sorting through it. thanks. Misty

Comment from faith 8246
Time: October 19, 2013, 7:56 pm

I have a question. My supposedly best friend who used to hang out with me and sit with me in Church is really busy, and I try to respect that, but she has changed. I asked her to have dinner with me one afternoon at her convenience. She said she could not do that and she was fine with not seeing her friends but once in a while. It had been 4 or 5 months since we had lunch. She never sits by me in Church anymore and never really has time to talk or anything. I have tried to be a friend and patiently wait and be understanding of her schedule, but it has been 6 weeks or more now, so I told her how I was feeling- that she never had time for anyone or anything anymore. Her response was to tell me that she had a busy day. We would talk later. It is like everything has to be at her convenience, and it confirmed what I thought- that she did not have time for me anymore. My questions are this. Do you think I am being oversensitive and/ or selfish? What should I do?

Comment from anon
Time: December 5, 2013, 1:42 pm

Friendship Doctor I need help,
I have on-line friends who are in constant need of reassurance, advice or looking for a pity party. I’m emotionally drained I don’t know how to deal with this. I’m getting daily messages asking why I don’t want to talk, I simply have nothing nice to say.It’s impossible to cut ties in the on-line world short of deleting my digital life. I don’t want to hurt them but I don’t know how to deal with them. They are always feeling sorry for themselves or needing me to hold their hand through something. These are two separate friendships that I don’t have the courage to end.
Please, please help me.

Comment from Dr. Carducci
Time: December 5, 2013, 2:00 pm

Learning to say “no” to persistent demands for emotional support is not easy; but since you are fed up and tired of doing it, you must say no to these on line acquaintances. I think it is important to sever those relationships which are one directional in the emotional support department. When you don’t, your current depleted emotional state is the result. I’d recommend the following email response for each of the emotional hangers-on when you receive their next emails.

Dear Jack/Mary,
I have decided that I cannot help you with your emotional problems. I suggest you seek professional counseling. I am concerned about your well being but I simply do not want the ongoing responsibility. I wish you good luck.
Your name

Notice I did not use the word “can’t”–because this is a choice. If you say “I can’t” you’ll get back an email explaining why you can.

Good luck,

Comment from Dr. Carducci
Time: December 5, 2013, 2:08 pm

Hi Faith
It seems, for some reason, your friend has terminated the friendship but hasn’t the courage to tell you why. I suggest you write her a note telling her you are aware she has withdrawn and they you would like to know what you have done wrong to cause her rejection. Reassure her you will not pester her for future time together but would like to know what happened so that you can avoid doing it again in the future. If she responds with a letter of explanation, you will then know what you did, can change it, can grow from the knowledge, and maybe even fix the friendship. If she does not respond, let go of it. It means she has checked out of the friendship and is not willing to try and fix it. It’s difficult letting go of friendships, I know. But sometimes it’s your only recourse.
Good luck,

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