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Suzanne Braun Levine

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Unfriending Is Hard To Do, But Toxic Friendships Take Their Toll

Posted: 10/29/2012 9:52 am

Like most women my age, as the years accumulate I get more and more selective about who I consider real friends, while at the same time, more and more committed to those who form my "circle of trust." The trouble is that paring down my inner circle can be hurtful, guilt-making, and very hard to initiate.

I practice the "drift" technique -- fewer calls and dates, slower responses to e-mails -- hoping that distance and silence will dissolve the tie.

This tactic has backfired more than once. The worst experience was when I saw an e-mail from the designated friend, opened it, and decided to "keep as new" rather than responding right away. I let a few days go by and to my surprise got another e-mail from the same person. It read: "I know you are there. You opened my last e-mail. Why didn't you reply!?!" Until then I had no idea that if two people were subscribers to AOL they could monitor the status of their correspondence. I could have said, "because I would like to downgrade our friendship," but of course I didn't -- and still haven't.

This is a particularly sensitive situation, because the party of the second part has really done nothing wrong. So even if I had said in a very loving way, "It's nothing you have done; we've just grown apart," she might well have replied, "I don't feel that way." And then what?

The word "unfriending" is one of the rare recent additions to the dictionary, thanks to Facebook, where the cutoff is brutal and final. In real life, though, you can't just click a friend away. You can have a heart-to-heart; you can have a disagreement and not make up; you can try a "white lie" like, "I've got to devote my time to my grandchildren/my school work/my job." How do you begin?

Breaking up with friends is not a comfortable topic of discussion among our usual advisors, for fear it would be distressing to the friend and disloyal to the prospective unfriend. Now that I am writing a book called "Why Your Girlfriends Are Good for Your Health" (especially after 50) I have an excuse to find out about how we keep, shed, and make new friends.

My research confirms the increasingly meaningful role our girlfriends play in the tumultuous new stage of life we are defining as we live it. The physiological rewards are just as vital. Female companionship -- and the laughter that always accompanies it -- releases hormones that reduce stress; that phenomenon may account for the fact that women are living longer than men. Research also suggests that as much as supportive and intimate friendships are nurturing and life-enhancing, toxic or simply tired friendships are a drain on our well-being. So unfriending is as important as a daily workout.

Recently the San Francisco chapter of The Transition Network -- a ten-year-old organization for women over 50 who want to meet like-minded women and support one another's efforts to move into a new stage of life -- announced Friendship as the topic of a monthly meeting. In preparation they sent out some "Discussion Questions," among them:

  • "What are the signs of a toxic friendship?
  • Is there a good way to end a friendship? Have you ever ended a friendship successfully?
  • Have you ever been betrayed by a female friend? Disappointed? Have you ever been replaced by a "new" best friend?

I'm told the conversation was lively; I wish I had been there.

I hope we can start our own conversation in the comment section. We can help each other find answers to the question: What is the kindest way to disengage yourself from a friend whom you don't want to spend time with now that you are downsizing your life to the people, projects, and principles that truly matter to you going forward?

 
 
 
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