I write a lot about connections, loneliness, and belonging. It’s important to have community in our lives. It makes us healthier, physically, mentally, and emotionally. And even though I’m not yet forty, I’ve been fortunate to have some friendships for over twenty or even thirty years. I find those friendships rewarding. We do our best to keep in touch via email and social media. I also try and visit these friends once or twice a year. Our brief times together provide me with much encouragement.
But there’s a flipside to this: how do you know when it’s time to end a friendship? As an article on friendship pointed out: “When getting together feels like an obligation, you dread seeing someone or you walk away from dinner feeling angry, frustrated or dissatisfied, it may signal that the friendship is faltering and the end is near.”
It’s possible we have a toxic friendship. There are people that abuse our time and sympathy (I call them emotional vampires because they suck our emotions and give nothing back). It’s often the case that we wish to do what we can to save the friendship—especially if it’s one we’ve maintained for many years. Yet, for the sake of our own mental health it can sometimes be best to end that relationship.
When I have found a friendship to be overwhelming me emotionally, what I often do is first try and confront the friend in an honest manner. I let them know what they’re doing and that while I still care for them, they way in which they’re approaching our friendship is difficult for me.
If that gentle reminder doesn’t help, it is good to speak again with them. But if repeated discussions don’t change the person’s behavior, it can be best to extract one’s self from the relationship.
In doing so there might be feelings of remorse and sadness from letting go of something that you may have once held dear. But keep in mind that your mental health is what is most important in this situation. It can be key to look after yourself, especially if the relationship is causing mental or emotional distress for you.
When it comes to the actual extraction, lessening the frequency of communication is the best means to do so. It doesn’t mean to stop speaking with them cold turkey, but it can mean instead of your monthly call or email, make it every other month. If you’re in their city or town for another reason, don’t reach out to let them know you’re there. If they find out later you were around, assure them you were busy the entire time you were there and didn’t have a moment to spare.
If the friend confronts you on your behavior, be honest with them. Explain that you spoke with them about changing their behavior to make the friendship more equal and that s/he didn’t adjust. Tell them that you have to watch out for relationships that are difficult for your mental health. There is no reason to feel shame—your mental health is more important than any of your friendships.
The relationship may find a rekindling. That is the ideal situation. Your friend sees how their actions caused problems with your relationship and then changes their behavior. Barring that, though, you may have to make a clean break with that friend. It can be difficult and there will likely be feelings of remorse and as though part of you has died. And it’s okay to feel that way, because when we lose something important in our lives, it’s natural to grieve.
At moments such as that, turn to other friends and family. Give yourself time to feel your feelings. And then continue to build new relationships. Leave the past in the past knowing that you did your best to save the friendship and had to look after yourself. And when dealing with the precious area of mental health, you can never be too safe.
Recently I visited family and friends in the small city in Indiana where I grew up. As a teen I felt, for the first and last time in my life, real community. Sure, I’ve had friends here and there over the yeas, including a few very good ones. But I’ve never felt those tight friendships that I did in my teens.
There’s a tendency to wax nostalgic about times that seemed particularly good, but that’s not the case for me. During my high school years I was often quite depressed and anxious. I wasn’t in as good of a place with my mental health as I am now. And yet I knew people who stood by me during those times. They accepted me for all my faults.
Our ability to grow up and survive in the same environment and overcome some of the same mental health issues, as well as a boring, small city, bonded us. It’s something that caused a connection for me with others, even twenty years later. It’s these feelings of love and appreciation that cause me to wonder what it is I’m missing now which prevents me from finding those deeper connections.
I realize that a great part of developing that intimacy was because I saw people on a frequent basis—daily and sometimes on the weekends, too. I don’t have that luxury with many people beyond those with whom I work. Even then, I haven’t developed any connection like the one I felt with my high school peers. Due to hectic schedules, driving distances, and people having children, it’s more difficult to find the time to see one another.
My hometown has come a long way from when I was in high school. There used to be little to nothing to do. Now my peers from high school (and many people I don’t even know) have brought into town a great brewing company, lots of bars, a Neapolitan pizza restaurant, an Indian restaurant, a record store, and an excellent coffee shop. I often tell people it’s the kind of place I’d want to live if it wasn’t in Indiana.
As I get older I see the importance of community as a way to develop connections that make us feel wanted and cared for. They also are a way to combat the loneliness that I often feel in a big city.
After my recent visit I began thinking more about moving back. I don’t think I’d do it, because there’s a part of me that loves the hustle and bustle of a big city, and I appreciate the many opportunities of things to do in Boston. But I have no idea what I’d do for work in my hometown. And the politics in Indiana aren't always to my liking and that makes me frustrated. Besides, I love New England’s natural beauty and being near the ocean and hills.
Yet I can’t help but wonder at what point that desire for community and a closeness with friends will override all other things. That sense of belonging may end up drawing me back to a city to which I never thought I’d return.
This blog is an exploration of the subjects of belonging and loneliness. I also look at mental health issues. I seek to provide content to my readers that is informative and helpful. If you don't want to miss anything, sign up for my email list.