Dear Therapist: I am feeling a shift in friendship dynamics with some of my oldest friends where hanging out isn’t as natural as it once was. It’s harder to relate, or open up and it’s sad to say this but if we met today, I’m not sure we would have really sparked a friendship. What do you do with this? Do you just wind down the friendship? I can’t imagine life without her in it!
Frame Community Therapist Brooke Schwartz weighs in…
As you mentioned, it can be incredibly sad to realize you’ve drifted away from an old friend you value and once connected with. Friends drift for a number of reasons: some mature at different paces, develop new interests, physically move away from each other, or cultivate closer relationships with other people in their lives. No matter the reason, realizing that a friendship isn’t coming as naturally as it used to is a challenging experience that can leave you feeling confused about what to do next. All this said, there are ways to move forward.
To start, you mentioned winding down the friendship. This is absolutely an option if you feel like the friendship is no longer serving you and that your quality of life would be better without them in it. A helpful first step is figuring out what exactly it is that you want. Are you looking for a break from the friendship altogether or just to communicate less? Are you willing to give the friendship a try if your friend is willing to put in the effort to meet your needs? To figure out your goal for the friendship, you may need to check in with yourself to see if maintaining the friendship is in line with your values. If you value being able to open up to your friends, perhaps this friendship isn’t for you. But if you put more emphasis on the value of maintaining old relationships, sticking it out may feel like a more values-driven decision.
If you decide to wind down the friendship, consider having a conversation with the friend explaining your feelings and needs. It can be helpful, prior to this conversation, to reflect on what those are. Do you feel unsupported by this friend? Does it increase anxiety when you think of spending time with them? When communicating your feelings and needs, I recommend balancing them with exactly what you said above — that you can’t imagine life without her in it. If this is the route you take, try saying something along the lines of, “I can’t imagine my life without you in it, and I’m finding that as we grow we have less and less in common. It’s time for me to take a step back and prioritize the relationships in my life that come more naturally.” If you do decide to end the friendship, make sure you are setting that boundary clearly so that you both come out of the conversation with a clear understanding of where things stand.
If you’re not ready to end the friendship, another route you might take is working on your own radical acceptance of the friendship as it is (rather than focusing on what you think it should be). Radical acceptance involves taking a nonjudgmental and non-attached attitude to reality as it is with the goal of reducing our suffering. In a friendship like this, you can practice radical acceptance in a number of ways. One option, if you find yourself tensing up (e.g., furrowing eyebrows or clenching your jaw) when with this friend, maybe try unfurrowing or unclenching to send signals of acceptance to your brain. If you notice yourself having “should'' thoughts (such as “After being friends for 10 years, we should be able to relate to each other better”), you can rephrase them as statements of wish or desire (“I wish I felt like I could relate to her"). Keep in mind that accepting is not the same as approving or liking. Many find that in practicing radical acceptance they feel less distress around certain people in their lives.
No matter what you decide to do, remember to validate your emotional experience and remind yourself that it’s normal for friendships to drift over time. It’s absolutely possible to both love and care about someone and struggle to understand where or whether they fit in your life. It’s a tough situation to be in, but realizing it as you have is undoubtedly a healthy first step.
About the author: Brooke Schwartz, LCSW is a licensed psychotherapist and writer based in Los Angeles, CA. Brooke practices behavioral therapies such as Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT), and writes about a variety of mental health topics. To learn more about Brooke, or view more of her content, visit her Frame profile here.