Once in a while, I'm unpleasantly surprised to find that I've been unfriended on Facebook. If the person is someone I've met once and will likely never see again, I don't mind. Sometimes, though, I get unfriended by people I know well -- people I will probably see again, and it feels like a digital slap in the face. In October, I read Joyce Wadler's hilarious article, "Unfriending Someone, Before Facebook" in the New York Times. "I could not help but think how much better things were 50 years ago, when a relationship went south and you knew why," she wrote. I immediately remembered the time in eleventh grade, before Facebook, when my close friend Madison* unfriended me.
Madison and I met in ninth grade when I complimented her pink Todd Oldham faux-fur vest. We became fast friends over shopping trips and our shared hatred of the pressures of high school. Three years later, she ended our friendship in a cryptic email. Madison wrote that she had been depressed, had recently started taking medication and wanted to "branch out": "Call it selfish, but it's something that I need to do, I can't be held back any longer." Who was this person, and why did she sound like a therapist? Madison told a mutual friend that I embarrassed her.
If Madison wanted to make new friends, that was fine with me, but the breakup felt cruel and unwarranted. I had been a loyal and supportive friend. Why didn't she feel that she could talk to me about her issues? I felt heartbroken, but also angry. I didn't deserve this. Within weeks, Madison found a new group of friends and ignored me in the halls at school. I secretly willed her to trip as she walked past me.
Several years later, though, I found myself in her shoes. I had become close friends with a girl named Tai*, but I did not want to be. She had lied to me several times and had changed for the worse since we became friends. I didn't feel I could trust her and knew that she was a negative influence in my life.
I was hesitant to unfriend Tai because I suspected she didn't have many other friends and I didn't want to hurt her like Madison had hurt me. At the same time, I had to think about myself. Didn't I deserve to have trustworthy friends? And if the situation were reversed, would I want to be friends with someone who only stuck around because she felt sorry for me?
The sting of being unfriended by Madison never completely went away, but I'm grateful that she was at least somewhat honest with me. It took several friends lost and gained to realize that Madison had in fact done me a favor. That year I started hanging out with the the two girls I still count as close friends today. I can talk to them about anything and I feel free to be myself, and I never felt that way about Madison.
Multiple advice columnists, Dear Prudence included, will tell you that the best way to end a friendship with someone is to be repeatedly unavailable when that person wants to hang out. It may be a gentle approach, but I felt I owed Tai an explanation. I unfriended her the way I would want to be unfriended: directly and honestly. When she messaged me asking why I hadn't contacted her to hang out recently, I gave her the short version of why I didn't want to continue our friendship. I didn't make a list of everything she had ever done that had annoyed me or call her names, and I didn't respond when she sent me a nasty message back, trying to pick a fight. I wanted a clean break.
A week or so later, Tai unfriended me on Facebook. This time, I knew why.
*Name has been changed.