When Friendship Bonds Break Down

It's hard to feel close to your inner circle when you're forced apart. Here, how to reconnect — or bow out gracefully.

woman looking at phone

Crises have a way of clarifying what truly matters to us, and revealing pre-existing truths that we may have been too distracted to act on previously. 

As a trained psychotherapist, Director of Head & Heart for THE WELL and Support Circle facilitator, I’ve been hearing epiphanal statements from clients, such as: “I'm ready to have a baby" or "I only like speaking to two out of my 15 friends.”

Friendship seems to be one of the main areas of reflection participants in our Support Circles. Research confirms what you probably already know: The quality of our friendships and closeness with our connections play an important role in improving our health, happiness and even lifespan. Yet despite having more time on our hands (and maybe more feelings of loneliness), many people have told me that certain friendships feel more draining than nurturing during this time.

Below, I share four of the most common complaints coming up right now in Support Circles around friendship — and how to address them.

“I don’t have time.”

As boundaries between all areas of our lives have blurred or disappeared, many of us are exerting a lot of energy just to do the bare minimum: show up to Zoom meetings, feed our families, maintain base levels of sanity and do it all again the next day. 

Consider the ratio between what you are putting out and what you are taking in. If you notice trends of misalignment over time, this may leave you feeling depleted and resentful. As author and researcher Brene Brown says, “Until we receive with an open heart, we are never really giving with an open heart.” 

For those of us who have been socialized to be givers and people-pleasers, or have social identities that require us to sacrifice our own needs in order to remain safe and accepted, it can be especially difficult to assert boundaries on output in order to make more room for input. I’d encourage you to reframe obligations by saying “yes” to yourself — and “no” to what others want from you — more often. 

Finally, track your energy levels to determine when the best time in your schedule is to make an authentic connection with a friend. For example, if you are typically exhausted in the evening or prefer quiet time on Sundays, these may not be the times to confirm a phone date. 

RELATED: Here's why you're feeling unmotivated right now — and what you can do about it.

“I am sick of talking about COVID-19 and how much life sucks.” 

As you should be! Research shows that when we travel predictable pathways of conversation with the ones we love most, we actually stop listening to them because we assume we already know what they are going to share.

It may be helpful to spend a moment connecting with yourself first before opening up to another person in order to better ensure the quality of conversation feels enlivening, and not depleting. 

Some prompts for reflection are: What do I want? What do I need? How can I be explicit about my need for support right now? For example, I sent a text to a friend earlier in the week saying, “I am really struggling today, and you were the first person that came to mind when I thought of getting some help. Do you have time for an old-fashioned phone call at some point this week to figure this out with me?” 

It can also be helpful to get very explicit about details. So instead of saying something like “I miss you,” describe what the missing feels like. Someone shared with me recently that she missed me “like I would miss light in a cave.” I felt closer to her afterward because I could envision the missing she felt because it went beyond a pleasantry.

“I am in crisis mode, and I don’t have the capacity to connect.” 

This is completely normal right now. When we are in survival mode, the part of our brain that enables us to feel calm and opened to connection literally shuts off. 

By simply letting someone know where you are, you create an opportunity to shift out of survival mode and into a more mobilized state. Instead of ignoring text messages or not initiating communication, you can actually build closeness by being honest about your internal experience, even if that truth is that you don’t have the capacity to connect. This helps stop friends from taking your disappearance personally, and it also lets them know what’s really going on for you.

RELATED: Feeling isolated in a solo quarantine? Here are five ways to stave off loneliness.

“I’ve realized I don't benefit from certain friendships.” 

As our circumstances change, our needs change. Some friendships that felt nurturing before the coronavirus pandemic might feel draining now. It's okay that relational needs shift, but it is our responsibility to take ownership of these changes. It is our prerogative to go towards the things and people that make us feel seen, soothed and secure, and that might mean taking a pause from the relationships that can’t meet us where we are.

If you decide you’d benefit from ending a relationship, rather than disappearing or making excuses, it can feel more empowering to take accountability. When endings are not faced and named, the other person is left flummoxed — filling in the gaps with worst-case scenarios rather than facing the reality that some things (friendships and more) truly do have beginnings, middles and ends. 

Try this process, which psychotherapist Esther Perel calls power parting: Thank the friend for what you’ve experienced with him/her/them, name what you’ll take with you from the friendship, share what you’d like for him/her/them to take from you and finally, state what you wish for him/her/them moving forward.

How to Connect on a Deeper Level

If you feel like you could benefit from some higher quality connections filled with depth, laughter and space for you to be you, I’d love for you to join a Support Circle with THE WELL community. (Your first Circle is free, then $25 each. Support Circles are included in Digital Membership.)

We gather twice weekly in a real-talk, no-judgment zone to work through issues that are meaningful to us and develop more fulfilling connections with ourselves and others. We practice things that feel hard, like being honest with ourselves, feeling our feelings, self-acceptance and being in our bodies. You might meet a new friend, learn how to make your personal and professional relationships more satisfying or just leave with answers to your most complex questions.  

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