When Friendships Cease to Serve

Recently a friend mentioned something about another friend, something that I had not been told. The first friend assumed our mutual friend had shared it with me, as she had shared it with her, but that wasn’t the case. This is not the first time this has happened, and I was reminded again of why I’ve been consciously, and subconsciously, distancing myself from that friend, for a while now.

I was definitely hurt, at least initially, but more than hurting me, it got me thinking yet again about who my real friends are, and whether or not I should take definitive steps to leave some friendships behind. In the past I’ve always landed on… well, I haven’t landed anywhere, ultimately making a decision through indecision. I don’t mention how things have hurt me (which might improve our relationship in the long run) and I don’t take steps to disentangle myself from those friendships. My thought process has always been that those friendships don’t take up much of my time or mental energy, so I might as well just leave them as they are. More friends is always better, right?

But I’m wondering if that is actually the case. Maybe if I keep those friends around, I am actually making it harder to find other meaningful friendships. Perhaps the little I do interact with my friends is taking up valuable mental and emotional resources, making it harder for me to invest in other friendships. And maybe the time I do spend following and participating in text chains is more significant than I realize. Finally, I’m starting to wonder if maintaining these friendships is making it harder for me to truly let go of who I once was and become someone else.

I always considered the fact that I’ve known my college friends since college as a strength in our relationship. Sometimes it felt like the defining aspect of our friendship; as we grew into adulthood, and away from each other, our shared past became not just the foundation, but eventually the entirety, of our friendship. We weren’t creating anything new as friends, we were just hanging on to each other out of respect for our shared pasts.

The problem is, the years when I was very good friends with these women were difficult years for me. To say I was struggling with depression and compulsive eating would be an understatement; they were totally devastating my life, at least on the social level. I was a fucking mess, and I abused alcohol and other mood-altering substances to manage the discomfort. I’m not that person anymore, and I’m recognizing that participating in friendships whose foundations reside in that difficult time, are not necessarily healthy in the here and now.

I want to clarify that this has nothing to do with the people I was friends with back then. They are wonderful women, who stuck with me when it wasn’t necessarily pleasant to do so. I owe them a lot. And they have grown into very interesting and engaged adults who I’m sure I’d enjoy hanging out with if I were to meet them right now. But I didn’t meet them now, I met them 20 years ago, when I was a wreck, and whenever I think of our time together, I am confronted with a past I’d rather not relive.

I think this would all be fine, if things weren’t happening now that call into question our friendship, and send me spiraling back into past hurts in an attempt to explain current ones. I can’t try to figure out why a friend treats me so differently than another woman in our group without rehashing all the hurt that has passed between us. And I don’t want to revisit all of that stuff. I believe I’ve confronted it, learned from it, incorporated it into who I am, and moved on, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt to be reminded of the past when I’m trying to make sense of the present.

The truth is I’m a very different person now than I was even 8 years ago. I don’t know if these friends can ever really know me for who I have become, when the bulk of their experiences with me were shared with the person I was. I’m sure if we had opportunities to spend real, quality time with each other now, we could build a friendship that is relevant and meaningful, but in the absence of those opportunities, we’ll always be stuck in the past. And our friendship will always be hindered by it.

This is a revelation for me, that my friendship might actually be hindered by our shared past. I always considered that its core strength, but lately I’m recognizing it is a potential weakness.

So what would I actually lose if I deliberately distanced myself from these women? A text chain that I only halfheartedly participate in? The chance that we might meet up some day and it will be kind of fun? They didn’t even remember my birthday this year. Sure none of my other friends did, but they aren’t those kinds of friends, the kinds who should remember my birthday because they knew me when it mattered.

The truth is, I feel so uncomfortable communicating with one of these women that I don’t really want to participate in the group as a whole, at least not in a meaningful way. But I would still like to be friends with the other two women. For one that means actually calling her on occasion, and seeing her when she’s in town (her parents live close to mine). For the other it means the occasional text and a visit every couple of years, when I’m near her or she is near me. I think I could maintain those friendships without being a part of the group. The reality is I haven’t really been a part of the group in a long time.

I’ve written posts about this a few times, and always decided to just stick with the status quo. I did this because, while I recognized that my continued participation didn’t bring me much positive or meaningful connection, the group wasn’t a negative presence in my life. Now I’m seeing that it is, in fact, affecting me negatively. I don’t like who I am when I’m hurt by this friend, and I can avoid being hurt if I walk away.

There is also a part of me that believed I need to just suck it up, and deal with this shit, because I was who I was and I don’t deserve to move past it, not completely. Or that I am meant to learn something new as I navigated our relationship. But that’s bullshit. Maintaining friendships that don’t serve me, or actually hurt me, is a useless endeavor. And if I haven’t learned the lesson yet, I’m probably not going to. I don’t need to pay for some past mistakes. I have accepted who I was and learned from my missteps, there is no reason to stay mired in regret.

So I’m going to do it, I’m going to deliberately step away from a friendship, hoping I can still salvage the other two, and see where I end up. I’m not quite sure how or when I’ll do it, but I know it’s going to happen, and deep inside I feel the most sublime relief. It’s going to be hard, but for the first time, I know this is the right thing to do.


  1. Doing what you ‘know is the right thing to do’ is not always easy but ultimately is best. Some times even long duration friendships change, and they may change again in the future. Don’t bash anyone over the head but disengage as you feel wisest.
    Keep looking for new friends at the same time. Life continues to happen, new friends are always a good idea and become even more important as we age and disease and life continue happening to us and those we know.

  2. This is a hard situation that I’m sure many have been through (I know I have). Frankly, I don’t know the best answer as each circumstance is different. I am of the opinion that it’s always best not to burn bridges, but there is also a lot of benefit that can come from healthy distancing when relationships seem strained and repairing them doesn’t seem readily doable. It’s amazing what can come from a break, no matter the long-term outcome.

    But the other thing that came through from your post is asking whether this relationship serves you based on the foundation. And that is very interesting and something I haven’t really considered. Granted most relationships are organic and ever changing, but can one type of start set the change for the entirety of a relationship vs another? That’s a good question.

    I wish you luck.

    1. I don’t think the foundation of a relationship necessarily has to determine where it ends up. My other friendships from college have seemed able to grow with me so that I don’t feel like they are affected by who I once was. This friendship seems unable to do that. I don’t know. I have a lot of history with this person and it’s not necessarily all positive and I’m assuming that is why she shares things with me (much) less than she does our mutual friends. Maybe it’s about something else, but ultimately it doesn’t really matter. If she doesn’t want to share the important things in her life with me, I don’t really know how to pursue a meaningful friendship with her. So I’m just going to jettison it on my end and see where we end up. I have a feeling they are all on another text chain without me anyway, so it shouldn’t really be an issue to just let the friendship go without making a big deal about it. I think she may have done that already, so now I just need to do it for myself.

      1. Given this, I can see why you want to let it go. It’s hard to maintain any relationship (if not completely impossible) when the other person is so absent. I think you bring up a very interesting point with this. With your other friendships, there was the potential for growth, while this one floundered even from the beginning. Hence my question about foundation (seriously, I hadn’t considered it before in this light).

  3. I’m sorry about the situation with your friend. I have certainly felt better after limiting contact with one of my friends. She has a way with people that rubs me the wrong way, no doubt partly because of my own insecurities, but I don’t want to regularly feel vulnerable/socially anxious, life is too short for that. Facebook and common friends stuff is difficult, but I’m getting better at dealing with that.

  4. Like Cristy, I try not to burn bridges. But I have found that distancing myself from a friendship that’s not working allows me to still have some connection with the person when I do see them. For years my friendship with my oldest friend, the one who was my closest friend for a long time, wasn’t working. I’d end up frustrated whenever I talked to her. So I stopped trying to reach out. I still see her sometimes at group things, and we’re happy to see each other. But neither makes an effort to email or call the other anymore. It’s sad, but it’s better than getting together and winding up annoyed all the time.

  5. My oldest, best friend is really more like family- we spend holidays together, we selected where we moved to be near her (we don’t have any family) I’m the auntie to her kids that sort of thing. So, I can’t imagine that with her.

    But, that said I have college friends that this happened with, and I made a very deliberate decision to cut contact with a group. I can see it would be harder if I’d cut contact with just part of the group. But, for me there was no choice. Eleven years ago when my mom died this group who knew my mom and I were closer than any thing- completely ignored it when she died. Not a single word of condolences. I let it slide when they didn’t acknowledge it right away, I let it slide when my birthday came a week later and no one said anything about how hard that must be. But when I got a Christmas card that said “Hope you had a great year!” I was done. If none of them could bother to even say “sorry for your loss” I didn’t want them in my life. I feel good about my choice 11 years later. I hope you’re at peace with whatever you do.

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