Monday, May 18, 2009

"Is this friendship worth salvaging?"

Lucinda Rosenfeld's friendship advice column looks promising. The tagline: "Boys are easy. Friendships are hard." An oversimplification, but not untrue.

The first letter to the column ends with the question that on some level underlies all that will be sent in in the future: "Is this friendship worth salvaging?" My first thought when seeing that question was that there's really no route to take if it does not. This was something I hoped Rosenfeld's answer would address, but alas, no such luck. What if a friendship isn't worth salvaging? Need this ever be put into words?

The main reason one must end a romantic relationship, firmly and definitively, rather than allow for a drift-apart-over-time, is that one and eventually both parties will want the option of exclusive, romantic relationships with other people. The dumped party knows this, so even if the dumping isn't directly for another person, it's for the idea of other people, which is enough to cause not only hurt but jealousy, and whatever other neuroses apply in that situation.

Since one lousy friendship doesn't prevent other, more solid ones from forming, the obvious answer should be, when a friendship isn't working out, to just see that one friend less and the more appealing ones more. After enough unreturned calls, enough bumping-into's ending abruptly in the phrase, 'We'll do coffee,' and what may have once been a close friendship dies its quiet death, with no assumption that anything but civility will ensue, should the ex-friends find themselves in a room together (office, party) at some point in the future.

And this does, in a sense, work. Outside the realm of Sex and the City, people tend not to be as passionate about their friendships as they are about their romantic ones - in part on account of having more friends than serious beaus at any given time, but also because of hormones and whatnot. While a 'dumped' friend may occasionally stop to think, 'It's been ages since I've seen X,' or, 'Hasn't X been flaky lately?', rejection is far more likely to be met with likewise than with tearful pleading to return to a BFFdom that is no more.

But the ignoring method is, well, rude. The need to free up both parties to date others isn't the only reason romantic ties must be cut in such a way that both exes know they are exes. It seems like the right thing to do is to be upfront, within reason, about when you genuinely don't have time to meet for drinks, and when that's simply not where you want your time to go. Or not. Who knows.

So basically, if this column is to be all I imagine it to be, it will have to address not only what to say to a friend when she does X, but also how to start and end friendships respectfully.

17 comments:

Paul Gowder said...

There are circumstances where it's necessary to outright dump a friend in the same way one dumps a partner. Usually, this involves malicious people. I've formally or near-formally dropped friends when I've had reason to believe that they have it in for me and I don't want anyone else to think I have anything to do with their behavior, or (more pressingly with things like facebook) I don't want them to have any information about me.

There's also the friend-dumping-as-consciously-delivered-insult, of course. Sometimes, it's good or at least justifiable to be rude, and it's a shame you can't trade real-life friends for 1/10 of a whopper.

Phoebe said...

But how often is one wronged in this way by a friend, rather than, say, an acquaintance? Just as breakups are typically about a lack of interest in seeing the other person, not a Betrayal of shocking proportions, friendships on their way out aren't always about a moment when one friend revealed himself to be a bad person in some generally-accepted and easy-to-cite-during-the-dumping.

Re: facebook - isn't the better way to go just to not put anything on the site you want kept secret?

Paul Gowder said...

Yeah, that's true. I was going to say that non-mutual friendship endings (as opposed to a sort of organic mutual degradation) that are a result of one party's slow spiral into suck rather than Epic Betrayal are pretty rare too. But then I thought of dozens just among people I know.

Re: facebook, there's secret and then there's secret. Truly malicious people can make use of what you had for breakfast that morning.

Amber said...

But one has so many more friends, and therefore more opportunities to make flamboyant personal statements and act out your melodramatic inner life!

Regardless of what they might say about the importance of forthrightness, people do not really want to hear that they look fat in those pants, that their baby is not cute, or that their friends are dumping them for being mean/drama queens/boring/pick your friendship poison. Flaking out is often the politest thing you can do.

One can protect one's Facebook updates selectively now, I think. But it is prime ground for stalkers, generally.

Phoebe said...

Amber,

"Flaking out is often the politest thing you can do."

Yeah, a part of me thinks this. But another part of me wishes there were a way to convey that you really are busy, when that's the case. There are full months of grad school when socializing grinds to a halt - after which my first night out always includes the sensitivity of a 14-year-old to half a beer - and I don't want all friends not contacted during that time to consider themselves dumped.

"One can protect one's Facebook updates selectively now, I think. But it is prime ground for stalkers, generally."

I didn't mean "privacy settings", so much as just not putting anything up there, even for select friends only, that, if forwarded to the wrong people, would lead to disaster. At least, having not figured out those settings, that's been my approach.

Paul Gowder said...

There are also some people who simply refuse to be ignored.

Phoebe said...

Paul Gowder,

"There are also some people who simply refuse to be ignored."

Yes, and those people are by and large romantic exes, not ex-friends. Usually, when a friend fails to pick up on flakiness being 'flakiness', it's out of genuine social ineptitude, not an active desire to keep a friendship going despite the other party's ambivalence.

Amber said...

Sounds like a parallel with ask versus guess culture. I tend to sympathize with ask but was socialized with guess. Confrontational friend breakups have the advantage of clarity, but is that worth the capital-d Drama?

The trouble with your Facebook strategy is that it presumes that the information you sought to avoid spreading could easily make its way to unwanted ears via less technologically advanced means.

Phoebe said...

"The trouble with your Facebook strategy is that it presumes that the information you sought to avoid spreading could easily make its way to unwanted ears via less technologically advanced means."

Do you mean 'couldn't'? Because it's certainly true that information about relationship status, whether someone will be at a particular party, etc., can become known without Facebook making things extra-simple. Those committed to stalking will figure things out with or without the Internet, but that doesn't mean things should be made easier for them than necessary.

Amber said...

yes, that was a typo.

Phoebe said...

Ask vs. guess does seem right. One has to hope, in the ex-friends scenario, that both parties are one or the other.

I just looked at question that sparked the ask vs guess comment - that adds another whole level of confusion. Just as some flakiness is genuine, some behavior that seems like the continued investment in a so-so friendship is just a sort of at-large pursuit of all acquaintances.

PG said...

"The main reason one must end a romantic relationship, firmly and definitively, rather than allow for a drift-apart-over-time, is that one and eventually both parties will want the option of exclusive, romantic relationships with other people."

I think that as with Paul's malicious ex-friends, there also are some romantic partners whom you need to Get Away from. Of course, the most graceful way to do this is to obligingly Move Away. "Our relationship is guttering out in passive aggression but I'm still sorta attracted to you -- oh, look, grad school in a different state, gotta go!" (Though I suppose picking the school that was in a different time zone, instead of the one a mile from his office, probably made clear where the relationship fell among my priorities, i.e. somewhere below a good live music scene.) I suppose that's "Guess" behavior.

The AskMeta question made clear to me that I'm generally an "Ask" person, though, as are most of my friends and family. While I wouldn't ask to stay with someone whose merely a friendly acquaintance, if I were visiting a city where a close friend lives (say, Austin, where two friends whose weddings I've attended and who attended mine have houses), who have specifically said "You should come visit, we have lots of room!" I'd probably ask if I could stay with them, not just mention that I'd be in town and hope that they suggest it.

Then again, I'm also accultured to having guests in a small space; I share 600 sq ft, and over New Year's we each had a sibling visiting at the same time. The sibs get along wonderfully and it worked out fine. We do not do this when my parents visit, however. I think there's also an age element in the willingness to have a semi open-door policy: I didn't make any special preparations for having siblings visit, but even for having parents come by, I'm getting someone in to clean.

PG said...

Also, I am suspicious of the XX advice columnist's comparisons, because corporate governance is fascinating.

Amber said...

Agreed that sometimes you need space away from people. A formal friend-breakup has the advantage of allowing you to divide formerly-joint spaces: those friends are mine, that bar is yours. The slow fade or subtle flake-out doesn't really work if you keep running into each other at old watering holes. But this strategy assumes a certain willingness to negotiate, which may be unlikely in the acrimonious back-and-forth that can follow an explicit rejection.

Phoebe said...

PG,

"I think that as with Paul's malicious ex-friends, there also are some romantic partners whom you need to Get Away from."

Certainly. I guess what I was getting at was, we have a script for getting out of romantic relationships, with malicious or kindhearted partners, but none for exiting friendships that have run their course, but where one or both parties still feel obligated to keep things going.

The move-away-at-a-convenient-time approach is just that - convenient when it happens, but rarely an option with romantic relationships, let alone friendships - normally you would want to continue some but not others.

Amber,

I get watering-hole dividing, but with mutual friends, wouldn't it ultimately be up to those friends which person they continue to see? And would any of them feel obligated, on account of what wasn't even a romantic breakup, to steer clear of inviting a pair of ex-friends to the same gathering? Which I suppose is my way of saying that I think you were right initially with your suggestion that flaking, even in its ambiguity, is the way to go.

PG said...

Having dealt with the ex-friends phenomenon, I can say that Friend A's actually insisting that she not ever see Friend B again is a good way for Friend A to lose some friends she may have wanted to keep, even if those friends can see how Friend B was at fault. The friend who can be chill is going to be more valued long term than the friend who was on the right side of a particular disagreement.

Phoebe said...

PG,

That's certainly true. Which is why the ex-friends cannot, upon splitting decide for themselves who gets to 'keep' which friends.