Dear Sugar Radio is a weekly podcast from member station WBUR. Hosts Steve Almond and Cheryl Strayed offer "radical empathy" and advice on everything from relationships and parenthood to dealing with drug problems or anxiety.
Today the hosts think about friendships coming to an end, in differing ways. First, they consider the best option for distancing yourself from a friend with no "common interests, morals or goals." Then the Sugars take on the intersection of friendships and relationships. Is it possible for a friendship with someone to cross over into a relationship and then go back to being platonic friends?
How do you break up with a friend who has not done something to warrant a breakup? I've outgrown our friendship, but have no reason to give her as to why. As time passes, I realize we don't share any common interests, morals or goals. She considers me to be one of her best friends, but I am unhappy the whole time we are together. She's truly a great person, but I find myself lying constantly about being busy to get out of plans with this person. I am worried I'm a bad person because I can't justify my feelings. Am I? How do I break off this relationship? Or can I even do that?
Cheryl Strayed: This is a really common question. The traditional way to break up with a friend is to slowly back away until the thing just dies. Most of the friends who've fallen away in my life weren't "dumped." It's just that life carried on and took us in different directions. I would say back off or tell the truth. The backing off may or may not work because, of course, if this friend really does see you as one of her best friends, she's going to pursue you and, at some point, you're going to have to use your words. This is terrible and painful, and frankly, I've never done this, unless there was also a conflict. You simply have to say to somebody, "I think you're wonderful, I wish you well, but I just don't find that I'm clicking with you." If you can muster that up, you can put a quick end to this friendship.
Steve Almond: What you're talking about, Cheryl, is the reason why I love this book, We Learn Nothing by Tim Kreider. There's an amazing essay in it called "The Anti-Kreider Club," which is about his experience being suddenly dropped by a friend he really loved and admired. He writes, "Because there's no formal etiquette for ending a friendship, most people do it in the laziest, most passive and painless way possible — by unilaterally dropping any effort to sustain it and letting the other person figure it out for themselves."
That's your best option here. Your best option is to slowly drift off and leave that person in a state of bewilderment. Because what's the other option? You're not worried because you can't justify your feelings; you're worried because you can justify your feelings, and the justification is that you're just not that into her. You're tolerating a person out of guilt rather than genuine affection for them. You should spend time around people you esteem and admire, not people you feel sorry for or obliged to. Think of it karmically: How would you like to be treated in this circumstance?
Recently, my closest friend told me he was in love with me. After a whole week of discussing what it would mean for our friendship if we became romantically involved with each other, we decided we wanted to be in a relationship. I had originally wanted to test the waters without telling our friends, but he insisted that he wanted a relationship and that we should be open with everyone about it — our families and friends.
Two days later, we were having a conversation over text and I mentioned that I'd told one of our mutual friends about our relationship, just as he'd asked me to do. His response was: "I'm not sure this is worth shaking up our social structure." Soon, it became clear that he was looking for an out from our relationship. I'm not one to beg someone to be with me, so we ended the conversation and our relationship then and there over text, two days after it began. I told him I was humiliated and heartbroken, and I asked him to leave me alone. I haven't heard from him since.
My question is this, Sugars: What now? This is one of my most important friendships. We've been in constant contact for more than a year. Can our friendship survive this? Should I want it to? Clearly this is not the man for me when it comes to love, but I am most upset that he would treat a friend this way. Was this a lapse in judgment, or does it speak to his character? It's OK for him to not want to be with me romantically (even though he told me he's been in love with me for months), but I am torn about what comes next and how to handle it.
Steve: This is a lapse in judgment that does speak to his character. This is a catch-and-release kind of guy. The whole idea is to catch, and the moment you've got it, then you release. And boy, what a trapdoor he opened underneath you. Until he gets things seriously straightened out and comes to you with an apology and an explanation, I wouldn't let him anywhere near you. I know that's a painful thing to say, because you're still attached to the idea that you're going to retain this friendship. Take the romance out of it; that is not how a friend behaves.
Cheryl: I think you had a breakup, and I think you need to just go forward. There are other people with whom you can be friends. There's also the possibility that he'll circle back to you, but let him do that work. We all mess up, we all get confused. If he comes to the realization that, in fact, he wronged you and he does value your friendship, let him be the one to come to you and say that.
What I really hope you won't do is go crawling back to him and say, "Please, please, please be nice to me again because I value our friendship too much, even though you treated me like garbage." The person who did the wrong needs to take responsibility for that and say, "I'm sorry. I want to make amends." If he does this, let him back in and see if those regrets are sincere. But I don't see any reason for you to loop back and say, "I value this friendship so much that it must be saved," because he destroyed it. So you just need to walk forward and put this guy behind you.
You can get more advice from the Sugars each week on Dear Sugar Radio from WBUR. Listen to the full episode to hear more answers to questions about friendships, including how to handle jealousy and how to help a friend in an abusive relationship.
Have a question for the Sugars? Email firstname.lastname@example.org and it may be answered on a future episode.