Occasionally, though, a friend all but forces a clean break. My pal Nancy reports, "I'd been close to Anne for years, but at a certain point I felt overwhelmed by her need for me. She acted as if I belonged to her and became resentful when I socialized with other people. I felt drained, suffocated. When I tried to talk to her about it I got nowhere, so I wrote her an e-mail explaining that I just couldn't be friends with her anymore." Anne was predictably enraged and fired off a response accusing Nancy of being selfish and uncaring. But even though the exchange was painful, Nancy emerged feeling as if a great weight had been lifted.
In my own life, I seem to have a knack for attracting needy friends. Even though I joke about my nonpaying "caseload," I struggle to set limits.
"Women seem to be both hardwired and socialized to be nurturing," says Sandy Sheehy, author of Connecting: The Enduring Power of Female Friendship (William Morrow). The upshot is that many of us get stuck in draining relationships. Sheehy tells the story of Martha, a graduate student, wife, and mother who felt sucked dry by an emotionally dependent friend. After unsuccessfully trying the usual stop-calling-and-drift method, Martha found a way to extricate herself while allowing the other woman to preserve her dignity. She said, "I can't be the friend you want me to be." Sheehy says, "Martha took the burden of inadequacy on herself." It's like a boyfriend telling you, "I can't love you the way you deserve," instead of saying, "I don't love you."
Sheehy also recommends explicitly calling it quits if you have what she terms an enabling friendship. "Maybe you started out as drinking pals or shared a shopping jones, but now you want to stop the behavior that brought you together," she says. "It's more responsible to admit that you don't think you can maintain intimacy and not binge than to pretend you can't see her because you've suddenly taken up scuba diving."
Although the troublesome twins—envy and jealousy—are at the root of many breakups, they're more difficult to address gracefully. Ruth, a moderately successful painter, remained silent on the occasion of her friend Carolyn's first solo art show. When Carolyn asked her why, Ruth said she thought it best not to respond because she hated the work. "It was obvious that she hated me for getting a one-woman show before she did, but she couldn't admit it," Carolyn says. The former bosom buddies haven't exchanged a word since.
Sadly, many friendships end needlessly because we're afraid to acknowledge conflict. "If you notice you're withdrawing from someone who really matters to you, you have to ask yourself why," Josselson says, adding that we anticipate tension in our relationships with men, but not with other women. But at some point, any meaningful friendship is bound to provoke difficult feelings. "Once you accept that, you can talk about things as they come up and there's a good chance you'll become closer," she says.
Sometimes the conditions of a relationship change, especially one forged during a time of mutual crisis, but the unspoken contract on which the friendship is based stays the same—which is what happened to my cousin Paula and her best friend, Elaine. The two women became joined at the hip when both were having marital problems. "It was almost like another marriage," Paula says. "We did everything together." Eventually, Paula and her husband resolved their differences, while Elaine and her husband parted. "I was terrified to tell Elaine that even though I still loved her, our friendship could no longer be as all-consuming," Paula says. "But I knew that if I didn't say something, I'd withdraw completely." Fortunately, Elaine was able to adjust her expectations and the pair found a new way of relating that was comfortable for both.
We Hear You!