One area I have come to specialize in as a psychologist is relationships. Love relationships, family relationships, and friendships can become problematic or a source of stress for all of us, but more and more I hear from people who repeatedly give in their relationships, but they get very little back. And many relationships are toxic, negative, or plain abusive. Consequently, they leave people feeling hurt, sad, angry, taken advantage of, or resentful. Or, they talk about having few or no friends, and things just not being the same as they one were. Someone talked to me recently about having few friends, saying, “I got tired of chasing them”. Often people just don’t put forth the same amount of effort as we do, and it gets tiring. Many of these people feel sad, lonely, or that they hate having to grow up. None of these situations are pleasant, but these are things that happen as we grow older, so it’s important we adjust.
The longer I work as a therapist, the more I see the phenomenon playing out of adults drifting apart from friends. This tends to start in our 20s, and though it happens more with men, it is seen with women as well. As we start to transition from our school years to adulthood, we all get busy with work, family, and other pursuits; we move different places; and we take on many responsibilities. Keeping friends gets more difficult, but since we continue to grow during these years, we sometimes grow to have less in common with our earlier friends too. This isn’t always a bad thing. When you’re an adult and life begins to get real, you may start to see who is and who is not a true friend. Though you may have enjoyed partying with Johnny in high school or college and you had some great times, he may not be available, or he may just not be on the same page as you in adulthood. In this case, it may seem sad to let a friendship die out, but you might be better off deciding to leave it in the past. Keep your memories, but realize you two won’t likely be making any more in the future- and that’s alright! You can make new memories with those more like yourself in your 20s, 30s, 40s, and beyond.
Whether relationships are one-sided, harmful, or just not the same as they once were, we are often left with some decisions to make.
I often ask clients if they think balance is possible in these relationships, if there is any hope of things being what they once were, or if they might be better off letting people go. Only the person involved can decide that, but here are some common scenarios for you to think about in making any such decision. If one or more are true, you might give serious consideration either to changing or ending the relationships.
1. When you seem to be making all of the effort. You are the one who calls, texts, or suggests making plans. You make the plans, you pay, or you deal with any issues that might arise, while the other person seems to just be along for the ride. These things can happen for a variety of reasons, but ask yourself this, “If I stopped doing these things, would the relationship die?” If it’s a one-sided relationship, chances are it would.
2. When you do talk to this person, he only talks about himself, and rarely seems interested in you or how you are doing. Self-centered people, or ones who don’t care much about you, are unlikely to show much interest, and they will probably spend a lot more time talking about themselves than anything else.
3. The person is rarely happy for you when something good happens. Does she appear bothered by it, to downplay it, or outright ignore it? Do you sense jealousy? This can be shown through redirecting the conversation to themselves, one-upping your accomplishment, or through acting as though they were not aware of it. And this can happen in-person of course, but also through technology like texting or social media.
4. You have been left out of social gatherings or just not invited. Did you find out about a party of friend get-together via social media or through a mutual friend? Or did someone slip up and mention a gathering you were unaware of? It’s possible this may have happened by mistake, but if we’re talking about family or people you know well, chances are it was intentional and they just don’t think as much about you as you do about them.
5. When a person directly wrongs you. Has this person gossiped or spoke negatively about you to others? Lashed out at you? Ignored you? Blamed you for something? If you can point to a specific behavior or instance in which a person wronged you, it could have been by accident…but then again it may not have.
6. You have been verbally, emotionally, physically, or sexually abused by this person. If so, this is not something anyone should have to tolerate, and it’s never ok. We all deserve respect and to preserve our sense of dignity, so anyone who would do that may not be worth having a relationship with, no matter how you know them.
7. This person seems to want to be connected with you due to some ulterior motive. As in, to be friends with certain people, to get into certain venues (parties, bars, clubs), to be invited to gatherings, etc.? In other words, does the person seem to want to be around you because of what you can get him- or does he truly value you as a friend?
8. When a person wronged or mistreated you and promised to make changes, but has not delivered. Are things much the same? Continuing to be around the person and to tolerate the behavior could be enabling, or the person may not feel it is necessary to actually change, since you are not holding her accountable. Think about whether this person has had enough chances or not.
9. If you made a pros and cons list of staying in a relationship with this person, the cons would outweigh the pros. Does this person make you feel more bad than good? Does he make you feel guilty or bad about yourself? Does there seem to be a high cost to being around him?
10. If this person engages in a behavior that you consider not good for you, so you don’t want to be around it. For example, is this person a heavy drinker or drug user? Or did you relationship seem to revolve around substance abuse? Are they into gambling, committing crimes, cheating on their spouse, or something else? If any of these were true, or anything similar, you may decide it is best not to be around this person anymore.
11.When you believe you have grown, but the other person has not. This can include friends growing apart, as in when you enter into a more adult lifestyle, while friends seem to be stuck in high school or college; or when your tastes or interests change, and you no longer seem to have much in common with someone else than you had before. In any case, it may no longer be fun to hang out with this person, or you may conclude that you would be unlikely to become friends with him if you met him today.
Now let’s say you decide this person is toxic or not someone you want to be connected to anymore, whatever your relationship is. If you decide change is necessary, do you cut this person off entirely, or do you opt to keep her at a distance? And if you do either, do you do it quietly, or do you make it known?
How you choose to handle a change or end to a relationship is up to you, and I would say that the type of relationship and what may have happened may factor into your decision. For example, when a person decides to live a sober lifestyle, yet their family of origin still drinks, it may not be appropriate to end the relationships- based on that alone, but keeping some distance may very well be a good idea. This would involve setting boundaries and likely having some conversations about how things may change, as well as formulating plans of your own to be able to manage situations that may arise. On the other hand, if you have been abused and mistreated by your family of origin, or if they appear to engage in unhealthy behaviors which hurt you, let you down, and don’t serve to maintain the relationship, you might consider going your separate ways. And whether you say anything about this, how you say it, and what exactly you might say, are up to you. It will probably depend on the situation, how you are feeling, and whether you feel it would do any good.
By no means can every type of relationship or every scenario be addressed in one post, but hopefully these are some things to consider. As I said previously, I see people every week who are hurt and feeling badly about many different kinds of relationships. But it is helpful for them to process these, to think about what kinds of dynamics and patterns are at play, what if any role they have in their current situation, and of course what they might want to do about it.
Best wishes to you in your relationships. If any are problematic, or if you are noticing any particular patterns in your relationships (e.g. dating the wrong people, being made to feel guilty by others, having difficulty socially, etc.), perhaps talking with a therapist would be beneficial. If you are interested in a referral, you might find a therapist here.