It’s simple human nature to want to avoid conflict. But by not addressing the problem—or by mishandling the break-up—you might guarantee discomfort and unhappiness for days, weeks, maybe years, says Liz Pryor, Good Morning America’s advice guru and author of What Did I Do Wrong?: When Women Don’t Tell Each Other the Friendship Is Over. She shares the story of former friends, Terry and Mia, to illustrate.
In her book Connecting: The Enduring Power of Female Friendship, Sandy Sheehy says, “Merely acknowledging that we might want to stop being friends with someone brings a nagging sense of failure and guilt.”
I didn’t detect the guilt in Terry, quite frankly, but I think that like many women who initiate this experience, Terry has a feeling of entitlement that says we’re allowed to choose our friends and end our friendships in whatever way we see fit. It is our own choice and it doesn’t make us bad people. All of which is entirely true. We aren’t bad people because we want to end a friendship, but the way in which we choose to end it can be more or less bad in the hurt that it causes.
The contrast between Mia’s and Terry’s feelings is striking. For Mia, the ending came out of nowhere, throwing her into complete emotional turmoil. Terry, on the other hand, is merely annoyed by the inconvenience this experience has brought to her daily life.
Perhaps the people who are ending the friendship (the initiators) are scared they will be perceived as unkind. Perhaps what Sheehy says is right on—by acknowledging to their friend that they don’t want to be friends, they bring on a feeling of failure and guilt. Thus they don’t do it!
The receiver here, Mia, suffers more than rejection and sadness. She actually begins to question and blame herself for the failure. She puts herself through the ringer searching for answers she can never find. When all else fails, she decides to ask her friend, “Is something wrong?”
The initiator responds, “Nothing is wrong.” Now the receiver can’t trust her own intuition, which is usually founded on fact. The friend who is without a doubt leaving her life, has said, “Nothing is wrong.” The initiator is refusing to acknowledge her own behavior, so the receiver is permeated
with a sense of helplessness, because her intuition has been sabotaged. Yet instincts are rarely wrong, and it’s crucial for receivers to follow them.
Writing a letter can help at this point. When Mia wrote to Terry, she got her feelings in order and down on paper, which helped her find some emotional footing again. It may have let Terry see that Mia is aware of what Terry is doing. Mia gains back some sense of control and can begin to trust herself again. Terry doesn’t have to respond to the letter; the fact that Mia sent it was enough to give Mia the fortitude to move forward. It would also help ease her future contact with Terry, make it less fraught with emotion. Thinking of the number of times she would see Terry in the weeks and years to come had been overwhelming and forced her need to do something.
After writing a letter, the receiver can take charge and move ahead in her own life. Yet there is no doubt that a woman will mourn the loss of an intimate girlfriend just as she would mourn the death of a loved one. As shattering as it is, how we choose to handle it can become a profound lesson in resilience.
Most of the women who decide to end a friendship have been toying with the idea well before they actually start leaving, so by the time they do begin their quiet departure, they are already emotionally detached. That’s very evident in Terry’s side of the story. I’ve yet to meet an initiator who had any idea of the total emotional upheaval she was causing in her friend’s life. In fact, her intent is to avoid hurting the friend she’s leaving. Initiators believe at the time that they’re doing the right thing. In fact, they feel consciously decent and kind, as they think they are saving their friend from the crushing reality. Initiators are so emotionally detached that they don’t see their friend is already suffering.
To choose to avoid rather than confront is tempting. Because there will be no outside judgment it becomes even more tempting. Then we convince ourselves we do it to spare the feelings of our friend, who will surely be hurt by the truth about why we don’t want to hang out with her anymore. To the initiator of the ending, it can feel almost too good to be true, and a lot of the time it is.
We have to consider the consequences of our choices. Our not acknowledging that we are indeed ending the friendship is what could be considered lying by omission. To deny something is wrong when a friend asks, is an actual lie.
An alternative for Terry’s “Nothing’s wrong” is to acknowledge to Mia what is going on. It is tougher to think about than to actually do it, but once it’s over, it’s really over. By not addressing the problem, she guarantees discomfort and unhappiness for days, weeks, and maybe years.
It is simple human nature to want to avoid conflict. Sandy Sheehy says in Connecting, “The idea of ending a friendship is something women kind of chicken out at.” It’s their desire to avoid conflict, or their wish to be seen as “nice.”
Those who initiate the ending don’t really want to hear advice. As a former serial initiator, I know this from experience. Once this process gets going, it is very difficult to switch course. So initiators should give conscious thought to an ending before actually starting the process. Friendships define so much of who we are, they deserve our acknowledgment of their endings. These girlfriends we’ve loved have had a huge effect on our lives and we on theirs. We need to pay attention.