F is for Effort…and Friendship

On Sunday, Amy posted a letter from someone with a common problem: a long, old friendship has felt one-sided for years, and the letter writer is getting burned out.  She wants to know why her friend can’t step it up, just a little.  Should she give up?  Confront?  Accept?  Drop the friend?:

Dear Amy: I have been best friends with “Laura” since kindergarten.

She got married and then got pregnant without telling me. I rarely hear from her and when I contact her, I get short, simple answers to any of the questions I ask. She never asks about what’s going on in my life.

She is having her second child, and I just received an invitation to her baby shower.  Am I obligated to go because I have known her so long?

Or is there a polite way to say, “You don’t make an effort to even be a friend, so I don’t want to make the effort”?

Or can I just send a present and say, “Best of luck and congratulations”? — Confused

Dear Confused: You could send a card (or say in person), “I feel like I only hear from you when you have these big events going on! Congratulations on your pregnancy. I’m so sorry I can’t make it to the shower but I hope you have a wonderful party.”

This is a polite, opaque statement, in keeping with the lack of intimacy in your friendship.

It would be very generous to also send a gift.

It’s really hard to know what to do in these situations.  Part of it is that you never know, really, what the other person is going through.  Are they really just flaky?  In the case above it seems like it could be anything from a (hasty?) marriage and baby, (postpartum?) depression, an abusive relationship that’s isolated her, frazzled new-mom exhaustion, or just plain old not wanting to be friends anymore–in which case, the shower invite may have been the doing of “Laura’s” mom, sister, friend, or someone else who assumed the LW was still part of her life.

In other words, the LW can’t tell if “Laura” could care less, would like to pick up the friendship–in a year or two when she’s done with newborns–desperately needs a friend right now but is afraid or otherwise incapable of reaching out, or, feels like she’s doing a perfectly fine job of being a friend as it is.  And it’s hard to make a decision about how to respond when the only person who can tell you what’s going on is totally unreachable.

In these cases, Carolyn’s advice is usually to assume that what the person is bringing to the relationship now is all they’ll ever be able to offer.  That’s who they are, what they have time for, etc. Based on this, measure out your own time, effort, and emotional involvement accordingly.  Be as involved as you can or want to be, to the extent that the relationship is still a positive force in your life, and be open to the fact that other people’s time, effort, and emotional investment a) is out of your hands, and b) may not be measured the same way yours is.  That is, just because they give less time or energy, doesn’t necessarily mean they care less.  This particular flavor of this sticky situation came up in the Friday chat:

Washington, DC: Hi Carolyn –

I’m a female that’s known her best friend (male) for about 15 years, although we haven’t always been best friends, and at times even lost touch for months or even a couple of years. However, we’ve been constant best friends for the last few years. About a year ago, when he began to get serious with his then-gf/now-fiancee, I gave them as much space as possible to both avoid any jealousy issues as well as just to let him enjoy the relationship (he hasn’t had many of them). Now he’s getting married at the end of this month, and I’ve been told several times that I’ll be in the wedding party in some capacity. Come to find out that I’m not an official part of it, but they’ll “find something for me to do.”

I’m happy for him, but I can’t help feeling a little sad that this is what I’ve been reduced to. I know that perhaps the bride may not be interested highlighting our relationship, but as far as I can tell it’s not really her anyway. I think he just didn’t care enough. We used to joke (before he met this girl) that I would be a groomsman in his wedding (I’ve actually been a groomsman at another wedding so he knew it was a role I would completely embrace). Now I’m just feeling down about the whole thing and would like some perspective, so I can go to the wedding with complete enthusiasm and let the rest of this stuff go. I do understand it is their day and all that, I just want some help in adjusting my thoughts.

Carolyn Hax: He might care, but be feeling awkward (he hasn’t had many relationships, you say …). Or, that “space” you started giving him about a year ago, out of love and respect, may have come across to him as your losing interest in him. There are many possibilities here.

That’s why the important thing to think about is not the fact of your not being in the wedding, but instead the fact of your friendship. Remind yourself that there’s often an explanation for things that you haven’t considered, reserve judgment, and keep being his friend.

The friendship may be done, even if he cares about you; some people just aren’t good at carrying people over from one phase of their lives to another. If the friendship is meant to last, though, then your patience and flexibility will carry it through this awkward wedding phase.

What Carolyn?: “The friendship may be done, even if he cares about you; some people just aren’t good at carrying people over from one phase of their lives to another.”

I’ve been staring at this for five minutes. What does this even mean? I don’t think I get it.

I care about you, and if I were the old me, you’d still have a place in my life, but I have a new person in my life and even though they don’t replace you, my quota is full so you’ve been lifted out?

huh?

Carolyn Hax: See, that’s how a good manager of people would see it.

I may be speaking only of introverts, but I don’t think so. There are some people for whom it takes everything they’ve got to manage the relationships in their day-to-day life–a spouse, co-workers, neighbors, people with whom interacting isn’t optional.

Where some people would have no trouble placing an “optional” call a day to a best friend who lives across town, a call a week to out-of-state Mom, etc., there are others for whom a call every month, three months, etc., constitutes caring and keeping in touch. People who get it might not think twice about that.

But people who manage daily contact just fine might think, “I can’t believe you supposedly care about me and then go months without calling.”

That’s what I’m saying. He might be in the I-care-but-I’m-immersed-in-all-I-can-handle” camp, in which case he’ll call this friend of 15 years far less without caring even a bit less about her than he used to.

There’s a connection between the two letters above: both are reporting problems with their “best friend.”  This complicates things even more, because with this label, you’re not only asserting friendship, you’re asserting that your friendship should come above all others.  You’re declaring yourself the primary friend.  So this sets you up to be disappointed, not only when your friendship isn’t blooming as you’d like–but also when your best friend’s friendship with anyone else but you is.  (Cue flashback to lots of middle school tears based on expectations that it took me years after middle school to shed).

I appreciate Carolyn’s point that what constitutes “staying in touch” for one person, is tantamount to “neglecting the friendship” for another.  I know this is true, because I can see myself on both sides of this line with different friends.

To one set, I’m the only person who moved out of state, and I hate talking on the phone.  So I basically keep up on facebook, and through one person, from whom I get news about the others and, I guess, vice versa.  I do my best to get into town for big events–and yet there are times when I come home for some other reason and forget or don’t manage to let anyone know I’m there (or don’t until the very last minute), and then everyone feels bad that we didn’t get together when we had the chance (and I’m acutely aware that I couldn’t, ahem, put forth the effort, to get together).  Not to mention I always forget birthdays.  I love these friends dearly and I’m grateful that when we are together, it feels (to me) like no time has passed.  But I know in this crew I’m a bit of a drifter.

With others, months go by when I feel like all the effort comes from me.  I feel sad and hurt to not hear back for weeks, and it becomes a matter of pride to not post things like “call me!” “callll meeeee!!!!” “calllll meeeeeee pleeeeeeeze!” publicly online.  I chant to myself: “this is what our friendship is…I would never have it any other way….I accept and embrace what we have”….and I still sometimes wind up feeling sad and martyr-y and thinking angry, impatient thoughts, only to find out later that they were entirely misplaced.

This is all just hard.  It’s hard not to be hurt, it’s hard not to be defensive, it’s hard not to keep score, it’s hard to feel guilty every time you do talk to a friend who you know you’ve neglected.

The only thing to do seems to be, love your friends as much as you can, as best as you know how, and choose to believe that they feel the same.

This, too, is hard.

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2 responses to “F is for Effort…and Friendship

  1. Yikes… “There are some people for whom it takes everything they’ve got to manage the relationships in their day-to-day life–a spouse, co-workers, neighbors, people with whom interacting isn’t optional.”

    Totally me. Apologies for being a pathetic friend 😉

  2. no apologies! it’s totally me, too!

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