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Dr. Irene S. Levine

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How to handle a fizzling friendship

Posted: 11/27/09 11:01 PM ET

QUESTION

Dear Irene,

I've been friends for three years with a guy at my office. We became friends after a really rough period in which I was demoted, isolated, and treated quite shabbily, though I couldn't afford to leave and wasn't in the best psychological state to do so (like, I was in need of health-insurance-paid therapy to restore myself). Only after laying a potential legal case before HR did I get the option of working in a different area at our office, with a different group, and things have stabilized. Our friendship helped me endure those dark days. We had spontaneous, one-on-one happy hours and bull sessions on the way home (since we live a few blocks from each other), dinners, etc. He's worked at our office a decade, in the somewhat protective bubble of our IT department, and has seen it all.

Just to clarify things: He is gay, and I am a heterosexual woman, so no crushes there. We are both moderate introverts who value our privacy and down time, though my friend acts way more outgoing than he really is. We tend to keep our "circles" of friends separate, and we prefer to keep our intimate (platonic) relationship at work quiet, as well as our outside interests. We work in a high-powered, hyper-aggressive, alpha male-dominated environment that is rife with sex, race, and age discrimination, and those who haven't been driven out by that know each other, though none of us really have much in common. My friend and I became friends because we did.

In any case, lately my friend has adopted this "I love you, now go away" persona that's testing my patience. Every few months I get the occasional drunk dial about how much he wants to be a good friend and sees me as a "little sister," but then, when I reach out and offer to do something nice for him, or just want to spend time, I get the wall of silence - like unreturned text messages and phone calls (like once a week), or avoidance at the office.

He said he wanted to travel to California with me for my birthday a few days, yet when it came time to commit the money a couple of weeks before, he "disappeared." Then he seemed offended after I returned, know that I took another good friend of mine with me. I didn't even give him any crap about it, though I certainly felt like it.

This back and forth has been going on for months. Still we see each other everyday, though there's more distance, but it remains cordial. It seems he's perfectly content to engage me when it's convenient for him, and while I enjoy his company when this happens, I feel kind of used. When we do talk, he dominates the conversation and listens little, either about me or about the advice that he asks me for about his own slightly frenetic life. He tends to complain that many, but not all, of his friends, some of whom are "in the life," are superficial, expect too much, and give too little. He says some judge him more harshly now because he's gained weight and is over 40.

Yet I see on Facebook and elsewhere that he has no problems "festing" with these same folks, or helping to save them from themselves in some way. Fine, that's his business, but here I am, a friend who accepts him for who he is, and I feel like I'm getting the short end of the stick. I'm trying to give him a chance, but I don't even feel like waiting around for his next "appearance" to tell him that this behavior is killing the vibe. As an introvert, it's not easy doing the emotional miner's work to cultivate rich, long-lasting friendships. I've had so-called friends treat me like this before, though some years ago, so I've developed surgical precision in cutting people off once I'm done. He's tap dancing on that edge of no-man's land, here. What would you recommend?

Signed,
Ella

ANSWER:

Dear Ella:

It sounds like you had a really close and easy relationship with your friend, which was especially important to you at a time when you were having so many difficulties at work. So I can understand your disappointment when such a satisfying and significant relationship suddenly changes and your friend becomes mercurial, distant, and not very reliable.

I suspect that something (or a series of things) has transpired in his life that he hasn't told you about; he, himself, may not even be consciously aware of what's happening. You mention that he's gained weight, is drinking too much, and is making inappropriate late-night calls. He's feeling judged by others and feels like the people around him are letting him down. He's just reached his 40th birthday, which may be a time when he's assessing what he's accomplished in his own life. He may be depressed.

You need to talk to him and communicate your concerns about him and your friendship. Let him know how these changes are affecting your relationship and that you feel badly about it. This will open the door for him to talk to you more openly if he chooses to---if not, at least he will think about what you have told him.

I know this has to hit you particularly hard because you have invested a lot of yourself in the relationship but it sounds like the issues have more to do with him than with you, per se. If you can't communicate, he may just need some time to struggle with what's bothering him and come out the other end.

Hope this is helpful.

Best,
Irene

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Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Her new book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, was recently published by Overlook Press. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog and at PsychologyToday.com.

 
 
 

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