What to do when friendships fade

Last updated 14:44 28/05/2013

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As a serial defriender, I once considered tracking down old friends to examine why the friendships ended. The idea was sort of platonic homage to Nick Hornsby's High Fidelity. It was when I hid yet another 'suggested friend' on Facebook that I realised the prospect of talking with former friends would be more upsetting than talking with ex-partners.

When it comes to relationships, we spend an inordinate amount of time discussing the joys and (possibly inevitable) lows of romantic couplings but rarely do we afford the same reflection towards our platonic partners or the pain of a broken friendship.

Yet, most people have a story about friendships gone wrong that is still felt keenly. They may have been short or long, ended in anger, or drifted away, the subject of a 'dear John' letter or even cruel silence.

For Fran Norris, a six year friendship ended instantly when her friend was rude to one of Norris' children. "After quite a few drinks on a joint holiday, she had a go at one of my kids.

"I ended the friendship face-to-face on the spot," she says. "I didn't realise that's what I was doing at the time, I was simply standing up for my child but in her eyes any challenge was a betrayal." Today, Norris refuses to renew the friendship. "I'd love that, but I don't think it's possible. I can't have that kind of behaviour in my life anymore."

When Angela Thompson noticed a seven-year friendship falter, she let it fade away: "Lacking the stamina to deal with the issue head on and sit down for a grown-up conversation, I instead backed away quietly."

This decision wrought a curious reaction with Thompson's other friends. "Mutual friends are the worst offenders when you're trying to break up with a toxic friend," she says. "They don't want you to stop being friends, because it puts them in a difficult position. You get told 'just get over it' quite a bit. It doesn't hurt to gently remind mutual friends that they wouldn't be saying that if you were breaking up with your partner."

Though we have mountains of advice for handling conflict at work, family fights or marital breakdowns, we still don't have a defined script or pattern for ending a friendship. Do we sit down and properly break up? Just walk away? Defriend and block on social media in a fit of pique?

Clinical psychologist Serena Cauchi observes it's rare for a client to seek out therapy for help with friendships. "It is something that comes up in conversation during therapy," she says, but is rarely the focus.

Depending on the relationship, Cauchi advises there are ways to repair - or end - friendships without drama.

Serena Cauchi's tips for handling friendships:

Don't blame: Talk about what your needs and feelings are rather than telling friends what is wrong with them. "It will just make the other person defensive and escalate the problem," says Cauchi.

Do talk about your needs: "Talk about why the friendship is not working for you - talk about how your needs aren't being met."

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Don't gossip: Negative talk hurts everyone involved and in some cases can actually exacerbate matters.

Do play fair on social media: "It's more complicated with Facebook - you're linked in so many ways. [Defriending] causes trauma and distress because people are aware you're no longer friends," which removes the other person's right to resolve conflict privately.

Don't be so available: Consider letting the friendship fade away. According to Cauchi: "One way is withdrawing and see if the other person addresses it." If they don't, it could be because there is a mutual wish to end the friendship or, if they do, it makes it easier to reconcile.

- Sydney Morning Herald


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