When Friendships Change, How To Cope In this episode, we show how to manage friendships as your life changes — and as your friends' lives change, too. You'll get practical advice on keeping friends throughout the years and even a few instructions on how to — eek — break up with a friend.
NPR logo

When Friendships Change, How To Cope

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/752412010/752961270" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
When Friendships Change, How To Cope

When Friendships Change, How To Cope

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/752412010/752961270" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

JULIA FURLAN, HOST:

Hi, this is NPR's LIFE KIT. I'm Julia Furlan. The beginning of a friendship can feel very much like the beginning of a rom-com. You know how it goes; like, a woman sitting at her desk, and she's got a shiny, new job right out of college. She's just minding her own business. Then another woman gets hired and boom. It's like a little friendship montage.

ADRIANA ARO: You know, she'd asked me to go to lunch. We'd, you know, meet up on the weekends. We'd go for happy hour. And at first, I didn't really realize she was trying to make a real friendship.

FURLAN: But she was. That's Adriana Aro. We talked to her recently about the moment she realized she'd made her first real best friend as an adult.

ARO: We were going to get together for dinner. And we both were living in the suburbs of San Francisco at the time. And nobody really wanted to come as far south as my suburb, and she was like, oh, no, you like that restaurant? I'll come down. And I was like, really? You're going to come all the way down here and visit me? And she was like, yeah, no problem. I'll just get in the car. I was like, oh.

FURLAN: For the next few years, Adriana and her friend were the portrait of BFFs. They were texting all day. They were talking on the phone for hours. They kept it up as they started new jobs and their lives changed around them. Adriana was even the maid of honor in her friend's wedding. But then, you know, things shifted.

ARO: You know, I started to notice changes when she got a new job and I started graduate school. And so I don't know where or who's life changed more, but we had started talking a lot less. She was married, so she was spending a lot more time with her family. I was spending a lot more time at school.

FURLAN: The texting stopped. The phone calls mostly stopped. They started seeing each other only every couple of months. Then Adriana did something that I consider incredibly brave.

ARO: I asked her if we could get together and talk about our friendship a couple of years ago, and that was a lot harder than I thought. You know, I framed it like, our friendship has changed over the years, and I'm wondering if we can talk a little bit about how we do this. And it was a really awkward meal together. You know, I said, you know, I feel kind of neglected. I feel like things have to be on your terms. It's really hard to maintain a friendship when, like, we're not really on the same page.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: Sometimes, the only way out is through. But there's a good conclusion to this story. Adriana and her friend have a slightly different relationship than the minute-to-minute texting that they used to do, but it works for them. It's all OK.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: And friends, this is why I've gathered you here today. In this episode of LIFE KIT, we're going to talk about how to manage friendships between those movie montages. We're talking about friendship shifts, awkward dynamics, break ups and, really, how to put some words on the trickier moments.

And just to get out ahead of it, we're focusing this episode on IRL friendships - relationships that you have in the world as opposed to online friendships. Just - we had to simplify. We've got so much good advice for y'all - all kinds of strategies to deal with these situations. More in a moment.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: So as we drag ourselves around this flawed and increasingly hot planet, there are lots of transitions that happen. Sometimes, we know why a friendship is shifting. You know, you're sober, and they work at a bar. You're getting divorced, and they just had kids or whatever. But sometimes, there's just a feeling that things are off, which is what we're going to start with today.

Our first takeaway for this episode is a simple tool for looking really clearly at your friendships. It's called the friendship triangle.

RACHEL MILLER: The way that it works is if you imagine a triangle - the bottom of the triangle is positivity and then the two sides of the triangle are consistency and vulnerability.

FURLAN: That's my friend, Rachel Miller, who's writing a book called "The Art Of Showing Up: How To Take Care Of Yourself And Other People." The triangle concept Rachel's talking about is an idea from an author and friendship expert named Shasta Nelson about what makes a close friend close.

So let's break down the friendship triangle concept, OK? I want you to picture an equilateral triangle in your brain. You see how I did that? I just remembered geometry. Shout out to you Mr. Montalbano (ph). Thank you for teaching me that. Anyway, so in this triangle, each arm is the same length. And we're going to start with the one that you can label positivity in your mind.

MILLER: That is just sort of the genuine fondness, joy, humor in a relationship. So it...

FURLAN: OK, the good feeling.

MILLER: ...The good feeling.

FURLAN: The idea isn't that you need to be positive all the time. But the positive interactions that you have with that friend should outweigh the negative ones.

And now, the other sides of the triangle, which are consistency and vulnerability.

MILLER: Consistency and vulnerability should move forward at roughly the same pace. So for moving up this triangle, you want the consistency and the vulnerability to sort of match.

FURLAN: So if you've got a base of positivity and you're in touch a fair amount, which is consistency, and you're also being vulnerable - boom. That's what Shasta Nelson calls friendtimacy (ph). And if something's off, you can look at the triangle and think, what are we getting less of than usual?

MILLER: When you're trying to figure out, should I end things with this friend or why do I feel off when I'm with this friend? Are any of those factors the reason? Is it just, we're spending too much time together, I need some time alone? Is it, I've been really vulnerable with them and they were never vulnerable with me? Is it that their - the positivity is gone, that they're negative all the time?

FURLAN: So really noticing what's going on in a friendship is a huge first step to seeing where you think it might go. And here's a note about vulnerability that I just want to highlight - you will not get closer to your friend if you do not share who you really are. It's as simple as that. Nobody wants to be friends with an Instagram-perfect-humanoid-cyborg-robot-person. So, like, don't forget to be yourself when you're with your friend.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: We have reached the treacherous path, friends; the part in "The Oregon Trail" where you are about to ford the river and your oxen have died and maybe your family's gotten dysentery. Sorry, this is a very specific reference, but if you don't get it, don't worry. The treacherous moment when you've evaluated your friendship and you realize that, yeah, something is up.

And one of the ways that Rachel has figured out for diagnosing this is a concept she calls TME. It's super helpful. It's like putting on a pair of glasses that makes everything come into focus. So, Rachel, what is TME?

MILLER: TME stands for time, money and energy.

FURLAN: OK.

MILLER: To me, the shorthand is necessary. I talk about it a lot in the book because those are your most valuable resources. And so thinking about where your TME is going, how you're spending it, who you're giving it to, I think is a helpful framework for thinking about boundaries, about thinking - in terms of thinking about relationships. There's so many day-to-day choices that we make that ultimately come down to how we're spending time, money and energy.

FURLAN: Right.

MILLER: And I think we have more agency than we realize in how we spend those things.

FURLAN: So look at your time, money and your energy. It's our second takeaway for this episode and another really good diagnostic tool. TME is an easy way of drilling down into the literal value of something. Because it's hard to quantify when somebody makes plans and then flakes last minute three times in a row, but it's really easy to realize that your time is valuable.

MILLER: You have to know who you are and what you want. So then you can sort of guard your time, your energy, your money. And without any boundaries, you can't really live the life you want to live. Like, you will just let other people decide everything for you if you don't have boundaries.

So to me, being able to set boundaries and honor them and to also identify and honor other people's boundaries is so critical. But I think it's just something that people really struggle with because it requires having difficult conversations, which most of us don't want to do.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: Right. Boundaries - they can feel really uncomfortable when you're putting them in place, but they are so, so important.

The barrier that you create with a boundary might feel a little bit awkward at first. But ultimately, what boundaries do is ensure that you're not stockpiling resentment in some secret corner of your chest for years and years. You don't want that.

And setting boundaries, in practice, often just looks like having really difficult conversations. People expect to have difficult conversations with their parents, with their siblings, with their family members. You'd even be prepared to have a tough conversation with your boss, right? But when it comes to our friends and acquaintances, we're much less used to addressing conflict directly.

MILLER: When you set a boundary or sort of enforce a boundary, you are ultimately stating a need. And talking about your needs is actually really hard. Like, that feels really vulnerable. So I think actually it's not like the fear of the conversation or the confrontation so much it is - as it is this, like, extreme discomfort with being vulnerable with friends.

FURLAN: Yeah.

MILLER: It's hard. I struggle with it, too. It's hard.

FURLAN: Takeaway No. 3 is a huge part of this. If you feel like there's a shift happening in your friendship, be direct. And for this, I went to Heather Havrilesky. She's the advice queen for New York Magazine, and she writes a column called "Ask Polly."

She has a wild inbox. People write to her from absolutely impossible situations. There are bad boyfriends. There are oppressive jobs. There is even an incredible story about a woman whose mother-in-law was poisoning her with mushrooms. You got to Google that one. But there's one type of letter that Heather says is a real punch in the gut.

HEATHER HAVRILESKY: The friendship letters sometimes are the most dramatically sad and mournful letters that I get.

FURLAN: But no matter what the friendship situation is, Heather says that starting from a place of honesty is absolutely vital.

HAVRILESKY: Ask for exactly what you need. And sometimes, it can be healing. I hate the word healing, but sometimes it can be very healing...

FURLAN: (Laughter)...

HAVRILESKY: ...to just say - to actually think of something you need. Take a bad friend, a so-called bad friend, right? Think of some small thing that would make you feel good if they did it for you. Not, like, you know, go run and get me a sandwich, but, like, I would like it if - I said this to a friend of mine. If we spend three hours talking about your marriage on the phone, I really want you to say to me at the end of those three hours - I really appreciate your time.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: You just want a thank-you.

HAVRILESKY: Yeah.

FURLAN: Sometimes, it's just that simple. So here are some thoughts from little ol' me, a flawed human. You can take them or leave them. But one thing that I recommend doing is going into the conversation already having processed your feelings. Like, be really clear on the things that you are going to talk about.

Secondly, I really like having a little list of things that I want to talk about so that I make sure that I stay on track. Basically, it makes sure that I can, like, tick off all of the things that I wanted to say and make sure that I'm saying them in the way that I want.

And all of this is important because what's so hard to deal with friendships is that we don't always have the words to talk about them.

HAVRILESKY: The more shared language we have around friendship and the more acceptance we have that friendships do require a lot of communication, a lot of talk and a lot of honesty, the more we can say when things come up, it's OK. This happens all the time. People feel frustrated with their friends all the time.

FURLAN: Here's another thing that Heather recommends. Once you figure out what to say, just make sure you do it as in-person as possible. Like, say it with your live, human voice in the world, ideally, or over the phone if you need to because you know what? Nobody wants a no-subject line email that's six pages long - nobody. Don't send them to me. I don't want them.

HAVRILESKY: Don't write long emails ever. You know, I spent a solid decade in my life just writing long emails to friends. Bad idea - very bad.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: OK, friends. I want you to picture me putting my hands on both of your shoulders and looking you right in the eyes with takeaway number four. It's OK if a friendship doesn't mean 100% everything to you forever. Think of your life as a book. Some friends are going to be part of every single chapter, and others are OK coming in for that middle section where you get really into hiking, and you go to grad school, and then they disappear after a bit.

CATHERINE BAGWELL: I think sometimes, we only think about these kind of close, lifelong friendships as being true friendships. But there are lots of people that come and go, and we have relationships at different times that really serve important purposes for us.

FURLAN: That's Catherine Bagwell, who's a professor of psychology at Emory University who studies friendships. She says it's OK if you have a friend for a particular moment who doesn't stick around for the entire rest of your life. It doesn't mean you failed. This idea has been around for a long time - I mean, like, ancient history, literally. Catherine quoted Aristotle when she was talking about these different kinds of friendships. And our old buddy, Mr. Aristotes-magotes (ph), talked about these friendships of virtue, which are the ones that are like your every-chapter-BFF people. And then he talks about these other friendships.

BAGWELL: He talks about this friendship of utility. Basically, you're in it kind of for the benefits that you see from the other person. You enjoy it, but that's about the extent of it.

FURLAN: Like, your work friend that you used to get lunch with all the time at that one job can just be that work friend. They don't need to also pick you up at the airport and then be the maid of honor in your wedding. It's not possible to be best friends with everybody, and that's fine. The benefit of having people come in and out of your life at various times is that you have a broader range of people in your life who aren't necessarily always doing the exact same thing that you're doing. Rachel is super smart about this.

MILLER: So to kind of use the example of a friend who just had a new baby, if they need a last-minute babysitter on a Saturday night, the right person to call probably isn't their other friend who just had a baby because that person is probably on a really strict schedule. The right person to call is me, who doesn't have any kids and would love to come over and watch the baby.

FURLAN: Right.

MILLER: Or it might be somebody who's an empty-nester and would love it, or it might be somebody who just graduated from college. So I think there's real value in having people in your life who are at different life stages.

FURLAN: Of course, as you're navigating friendship transitions, you might have a few awkward dinners, right? Remember Adriana at the top? But Catherine says that that's OK. To hold onto friendships, you might have to get used to a little bit of conflict.

BAGWELL: In fact, there's research suggesting that it's not the amount of conflict that maybe differentiates friends and other relationships but how we resolve that conflict - that we are better at resolving conflict with our close friends. So I would say that, you know, conflict in and of itself is not something that is necessarily a marker of a bad relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: If you think about it, it's really a form of vulnerability to be able to hold a disagreement in your relationship because if the other person didn't trust you, they wouldn't be there. OK. Friends, it's time to talk about the thing that a lot of people experience but not too many people talk about - the friendship breakup.

It's actually a tough concept. I've experienced friend breakups that hurt just incredibly badly, but there's no real structure for how to process them. It's not like you've got to file some paperwork, you know? And a lot of times, this can just be a gentle fade-out, where all of a sudden, that one friend who you used to be super close with just isn't in your life anymore. But other times, you might realize that a friendship is really depleting you. In situations like that, Rachel Miller is extremely metal about her advice on friendship breakups - like pedal to the metal, leather jacket, Sandy at the end of "Grease" walking in stilettos hardcore.

MILLER: I think you should break up with a friend like you would break up with a partner.

FURLAN: OK.

MILLER: So there's no one correct way to do it. But I think going through the exercise of, like, well, what would you do to break up with a romantic partner? Would you ghost on this person? Would you text them and be done with it? Would you try to work things out and give them an opportunity to change? So I think both thinking about ending a friendship and also thinking about specifically how to have the conversation, romantic relationships can be a helpful jumping off point. So from there, let's say you've decided you want to break up with a friend. I think the big thing is that you should actually say the words - either I need to break up with this friendship or I need to end this friendship. I think you need to be really clear about what is happening.

FURLAN: If you are cringing so hard that your shoulders are at your ears just thinking about having that conversation, you are not alone, friends. That level of vulnerability really knocks the wind out of me. I'm afraid of conflict. I think a lot of people are. But this is our fifth takeaway for this show. If you're going to end a friendship, do it with a lot of intent and care. It's really brave. And look. If it's not right for your friendship, that's also OK.

MILLER: I want to be clear that not every friendship breakup will end with a conversation like this. You could also break up with a friend in a less formal way. But if you are choosing to be formal about it, I think you need to say, I want to end this friendship and talk about what that means in practical terms. I'm - you know, I'm going to - after this, I'm going to stop following you on social media. I'm going to give you your - the shirt that I borrowed back. And this is kind of going to be the end - and making it clear what you mean by that.

FURLAN: Even if you don't think it's appropriate to press destruct on this friendship, you can still be direct about what needs to change.

MILLER: If it is less of a breakup and more of a gentle downgrade in the closeness of the friendship...

FURLAN: Right.

MILLER: You should say that, too. Like, I don't want to be the - we can't talk every day. Like, I need a little bit - I still want to be friends with you, but I want to go back to the way that it was when we first met when we emailed once in a while but we weren't each other's number-one person - so I think just being really clear about what it is that you are hoping for. And they may not agree. If you say, I want to go back to the way things were, they may say no, and that's fine. But I think just knowing what you're trying to get out of it and then really clearly communicating it is important.

FURLAN: But you've got to have compassion for yourself in these moments too. And if you're the one being broken up with, try not to internalize it. Heather says you're not a bad person for having a friendship that ended. Like, you wouldn't judge somebody for having an ex, you know?

HAVRILESKY: We tend to blame ourselves when it goes wrong. It's like being a Catholic in the 1950s and having...

FURLAN: (Laughter).

HAVRILESKY: ...A marriage fall apart, you know? I mean, you blame yourself. Why am I such a failure as a woman that I couldn't keep my marriage together?

FURLAN: Right.

HAVRILESKY: So the same thing goes with friendship. I think that when you have compassion for the fact that friendships fall apart, it's natural that we have these really fraught relationships with our friends because we don't have accepted ways of working these things out. And I think today, friendships are more important than ever. And yet, the language around friendship and the way we handle friendship is more self-conscious and awkward than ever.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: Losing a friend can cause a huge heartbreak, and that's OK to recognize. But we also have to accept that if a friendship doesn't last forever, that's fine because we're all on this planet for a long time. And that has to mean making room for a whole bunch of different versions of ourselves. It's like you have a pair of wide-leg jeans, and they fit you when you're 22, and they look great, and they're all in style. And then they go horribly out of style for, like, a few decades. And then you find them again when you're in your 50s, and everything you loved about them before is exactly the same. Or maybe the jeans are a little ripped, and they went to Goodwill, and you never saw them again. But you think about how they fit you just right for that one time in that one picture, and you loved them, and that's it.

Maybe your friend is those jeans. And over the course of your life, you've got to make room in your closet for the skinny jeans moment or the jeggings or the JNCOs or those high-waisted culottes that are super in right now or, like, those boyfriend ones, bell-bottoms, acid-washed, distressed...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: So before we end, I want to do a little recap of all the things that we talked about so we can make sure it gets really stuck in your head, OK?

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FURLAN: Our first takeaway is if your friendship is feeling a little weird, think about the triangle - positivity, consistency and vulnerability. Maybe one of them is a little off. Our second takeaway is that way of measuring your friendships with time, money and energy. Like, what are you actually giving to this thing? Our third takeaway is just to be direct. Ask for what you need - just giving you permission to do that. Our fourth takeaway is that not every friend needs to be there for your entire life, and that's OK. And our final takeaway is that sometimes friendships end, and that's OK too.

I know. It's a lot to take in. But I've got to say that I appreciate you so much for listening and just for trying. Being human in the world is such an ordeal, you know? And you're just out here trying to get better. I want you to know that I see you, OK?

For more NPR LIFE KIT, check out our next episode about dudes and friends. Masculinity, people - we're talking men, bros, all those guys. If you like what you hear, make sure to check out the other LIFE KIT guides at npr.org/lifekit. And while you're there, subscribe to the newsletter so you don't miss a single thing. We've got more guides coming every month on all kinds of topics.

And here we are as always with a completely random tip. This time, it's from listener Hugh Yanuaria.

HUGH YANUARIA: If you peel off a Post-it note sideways rather than from the bottom upwards, the Post-it won't curl.

FURLAN: You hear that? You deserve better than a world of curly Post-it notes. If you've got a good tip or you want to suggest a topic, email us at lifekit@npr.org.

I'm Julia Furlan. Thank you so much for listening.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

Copyright © 2019 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.