Beth Diveley, LCSW, is a native Nashvillian. She is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and has been in private practice for twelve years; she also has seventeen years clinical experience in community mental health. Her practice focus is with adults. She works primarily with anxiety and mood and depressive disorders. She considers her three adult children her most amazing gifts; they have taught her the most about life, devotion and the beauty of patience and forgiveness.
Women and Friendships: How to Handle Difficult Situations
Most women seek a few truly good friends with whom to share pleasant experiences and the milestones of life. A good friend appreciates and accepts her friends. She embraces honesty and mutual trust as the foundation of her relationships. Sometimes things do not go so well, or existing relationships seem to change. Social media can have a negative impact on friendships as well as some of the trends we are seeing regarding bullying and “going one down” with others. Here are some of my thoughts about friendships:
A Friendship Scenario: Sarah is concerned as she has had a significant friendship with Mary since elementary school. Sarah and Mary even went to college together so they have had a long friendship history. Now the two women are in their mid twenties and it seems Mary spends all of her time with other friends and does not accept Sarah’s phone calls. Sarah does not know what is wrong and does not know how to handle the situation.
A: A natural feeling would be for Sarah to wonder what/or if she did anything wrong. Has she offended Mary? If so, why did this long term friend not come to Sarah to process and get back on track? Why will Mary not accept Sarah’s calls? This would be a perplexing and hurtful situation with which to deal. It is important to try and not personalize the situation (often easier said than done!) It is not necessarily true that Sarah has done anything. There may be other explanations but it will require Sarah being honest about her feelings with Mary. This puts Sarah in a very vulnerable place. I would suggest Sarah write Mary an old-fashioned letter.
Sarah can let Mary how much she misses seeing her and that Sarah is concerned something is amiss in their friendship. Sarah can tell Mary that if there is anything Mary needs to share with Sarah or is concerned about to please let Sarah know about it.
Sarah may or may not hear back from Mary. It will be important for Sarah to let go of the results of her letter. People do change; they can develop new lifestyle options that may not be compatible with friends from long ago. If Mary does not respond to Sarah she will at least know she did everything she could to try and rectify the situation.
Q: What are some signs that a friendship is becoming destructive?
A: It seems friendships are always changing and developing. We change as we mature and have a variety of life experiences. Sometimes, however, it becomes apparent that a friendship is beginning to drag one friend down. When spending time with someone starts to cause hurt and angry feelings it is important to take a closer look. Often two friends are drawn to each other because one friend is more controlling/dominant and the other friend is a bit more passive/dependent. The controlling friend will often dominate activities, and show displeasure if things do not go her way. A dependent friend will most often worry about a friend becoming angry. A dependent friend will also be unsure about expressing what she really needs, often blaming herself when things get off track. This type of person will generally capitulate to “keep the peace.” This is also known as a toxic relationship. Eventually this situation will become untenable; the dependent friend will report feeling miserable with the friendship. When this develops, it is important for the friend who is feeling uncomfortable to address the situation. Again, easier said than done!
Q: If someone decides a friendship is destructive, what is the best way to handle it?
A: It can be difficult to navigate through a friendship that has become unpleasant. Boundaries may have been crossed and negative communication habits created. Backing away from a friendship can be awkward. It can create tension and, perhaps, cross words. It can also be particularly difficult if you and the friend are in a larger friend group. If you determine that the relationship is unhealthy for you, it might be wise to decrease contact. A concise explanation can be offered with the understanding that it may not be well received. Sometimes we unknowingly re-create unhealthy relationships based upon family of origin experience. It can be helpful to seek professional counseling to sort things out and develop the best plan for handling the situation.