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#348: Friendship is going cold. How do I fix it?

Dear Captain Awkward,

So this guy B and I have had a very close, very long-distance friendship for a few years now after meeting online. It’s never been 100% platonic – it started with his crush on me, which then became mutual, but the distance and my then-marriage meant that nothing came of it (though we’ve visited a few times). He’s since made it clear that he only wants to be friends and I’m fine with that, though I still have feelings; he supported me through my (mostly unrelated) marriage breakup, I supported him through various personal crises, plus hanging out (virtually) and drinking and watching movies and linking each other music and laughing and talking about history and politics and sharing hilarious sexytimes anecdotes and it looked like everything was awesome.

Then, earlier this year, he moved back to a town where he had a wider circle of friends, which unfortunately coincided with a bout of depression on my part that he suddenly wasn’t there to help me through. I didn’t handle it too well, and got clingier and needier as I perceived him to be drifting away, which of course made it worse (I have plenty of local friends, but none that I’m quite so intimate with). Now, I’m not completely mental, it wasn’t like five texts a day or anything, but it was very hard to get out of the habit of messaging him at least daily or every-other-daily when that had been the routine for so long.

Once I realised what I was doing, I managed to rein it in, and am currently operating a (strictly internal!) score-keeping to prevent me from spamming and give him enough space, and he still contacts me now and then so I know I haven’t ruined it altogether. But my problem now is I have no way of knowing what his new boundaries are, as he has never been any good at using his words for this, and is so emotionally-distant at random times that the usual barometer of “not responding to messages” is of little use (this has lost him several girlfriends in the past). During my semi-crazy period I asked him a few times how much space he needed, and all he would ever say is variations on “I’m fine, nothing has changed, you are being overdramatic,” while our actual conversations grew shorter, colder and much rarer.

How can I unfuck this friendship without risking a breach of these invisible boundaries that I can’t gauge from his behaviour and that he won’t tell me? There has to be some middle ground between “scare him off with too much contact” and “refuse to initiate any conversation until he thinks I’m no longer a friend” but I’m damned if I know how to find it, and I’m afeared I’ve lost too much goodwill already to even try testing the limits.

– Sadly Not A Mind-Reader

Dear Sadly Not A Mind Reader:

I have good news and bad-but-survivable news for you.

You don’t have to be a mind-reader. Contrary to being bad at communication and boundaries, your friend is using his words quite competently by saying “Stop worrying about this, you’re being overdramatic.” If you were to take him at his word, you’d realize that you didn’t really do anything wrong. You didn’t cause the distance between you. You don’t have to check in and atone and apologize or worry, in fact, he specifically doesn’t want to talk about the nature of your relationship or your anxiety about it. This makes a lot of sense to me, because that stuff feels like work. When someone calls you, they don’t want to have the conversation about why they don’t call more. The more he has to reassure you about how he’s not really annoyed, the more (secretly) annoyed he will get and the more (out loud) he will protest that he’s not that annoyed.

Relevant to your interests: The Dirty Normal: Primer on Attachment Styles

You’re not wrong to pick up on greater distance/less contact between you, because, as you pointed out, this is a long-distance friendship, and something HAS changed: This year he moved back to a town where he has a larger circle of friends and a more active social life.

Sad unfair truth of the day: Long distance friendships are real friendships and very important and true. However, in day-to-day life when people are deciding how to allocate limited time and attention, proximity often wins. Add that to the romantic/sexual-but-not-really/swapping crushes past you have, it’s not surprising that part of his moving away/reinvention of self is making a conscious decision to move on from those feelings and actively put his energy into other people and life closer to home.

Here’s how to unfuck this situation:

1) Take him at his word that nothing is wrong.

2) Take the giant hint that something did change about his priorities and how much time/attention/effort he is putting into your friendship. People don’t often get closure or satisfying explanations for why things are happening, but his actions are speaking pretty loudly here.

3) Continue your very smart, self-aware, and workable strategy of pulling back on communication and letting him initiate contact. Once you figured out what was going on, you reacted quite correctly. Your instincts are sound!

4) Put a moratorium on any conversations about the state of your friendship and whether he’s pulling back from it, discussing how often you communicate, or pressuring him to define the friendship in any way. Make no sudden moves or big decisions. Send no FEELINGSMAIL.

5) Your romantic feelings are definitely in play here, even if you basically have good boundaries about how you express/suppress them. You’re understandably missing your daily jolts of affection and attention. Whether it is or no, I think this is feeling like a breakup to you. So I suggest that you treat it as one – mourn the loss of your closeness privately, and then take all the energy you are putting into this friendship and put into being awesome elsewhere.

“Elsewhere” =

  • Treating your depression, dealing emotionally with the aftermath of the ending of your marriage.
  • Building Team You closer to home.
  • Putting love into those other friendships you have & also family relationships, if possible.
  • Pursuing interests, hobbies, learning opportunities and meeting new people.
  • Kicking ass at your job or school or creative outlet.
  • Meeting new people = maybe look into finding new outlets for sexytimes? Consider a stint as Makeout Spartacus?
  • Committing to excellent self-care: Regular meals. Good sleep. Exercise. Flattering haircuts. Good books.

In closing, be really, really kind to yourself and give yourself a lot of credit for getting through a very real period of re-adjustment. Be glad that you had this kind friend to be your landing pad as you reinvented your life after the breakup of your marriage. Turn that kindness on your friend as he also adjusts to his new life. The best way to be kind to him is to give him a lot of breathing room and to focus on the good things when you do talk. This weird space you’re in right now is temporary.

 

 

 

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24 comments
  1. Dear LW: I feel you. My situation isn’t entirely similar–it’s my big sister–but she lives in another country with Mr. Sister and Sister Baby, so most of our relationship consists of Skype chats and Facebook messaging. The thing is, even though she insists that nothing has changed (and perhaps, to her, it hasn’t), it feels different. She has new priorities and loyalties to Mr. and Baby that don’t include me. We aren’t the team that we were, and I admit it left me feeling out in the cold, because she was (is?) my best friend. So take the Captain’s advice, especially the bits about building your own support network. It gets lonely sometimes, especially if (like me) you have a tendency towards nostalgia when you’re Full of Sadness. So deepen and strengthen the relationships you have closer to home. Eat well. Sleep well. Read good things and watch good movies. The dynamic of your relationship has shifted, but that doesn’t have to mean continually feeling off-kilter and bereft.

    • CL said:

      I really feel you on this — I also have a sister who used to be my teammate in life, as we were both single, dealing with the same work/life/dating issues, dealing with our crazy family. We used to talk all the time. And now that she has a Mr. Sister, it has completely changed. I’m happy for her, but the change in our relationship makes me sad. I would never say this to her, because there’s nothing she can do about it. She could call more often, but that doesn’t change the fact that we no longer relate to each other in some fundamental ways. Anyway, I just wanted to say I think you put this really well, and you’re not alone in feeling this way.

      • Thanks for this! It’s good to hear.

    • Crystal F said:

      Wow, your post really hit home. It’s not my sister it is my best friend of 20+ years who moved away. We were inseparable and now she barely calls or texts or anything. I feel that the relationship is very one sided. However, I know that I am not in her shoes and I need to take a deep breath and relax. Finding other things to keep me busy will make life easier. Hopefully the friendship will last.

  2. LW, I get a vibe that this guy is messing with you. Or, okay, not necessarily messing with you, but…problematic. You say he kind of tries to shut you up/dismiss you whenever you want to talk about the friendship, and that he’s lost girlfriends – plural! – in the past by being “emotionally distant at random times” (and, presumably, shutting his girlfriends up when they tried to address it).

    I have to wonder…is this guy really worth being friends with? It seems like he either a) doesn’t want to put any real effort into the friendship, b) has a really low threshhold for what he perceives as “clinginess” or “bossiness” and will run away at the first sign that someone likes him/misses him/expects him to adhere to any particular standard of behaviour, or c) enjoys pulling back from women so they have to chase him (but pretends he hates it, of course).

    If you want to try to preserve the friendship, The Captain’s advice seems solid to me. I just wonder why you’d bother. You know his randomly distant behaviour has driven women away before…maybe it’s a warning sign.

    • I didn’t think “messing with”, but the vibe that I got was that he doesn’t really want to be close friends anymore, but for whatever reason doesn’t want to come out and say it.

      • Lilly said:

        I didn’t think “messing with” either. The timeline in the letter is not completely clear but I think that this:

        0 He’s since made it clear that he only wants to be friends and I’m fine with that, though I still have feelings

        …might be part of or most of the reason for the LW’s friend pulling back.

        That and maybe this:

        he supported me through my (mostly unrelated) marriage breakup

        I get that the LW said the marriage breakup was MOSTLY unrelated but if it was partly related and the LW’s friend only wants to be friends then it seems to me that there might be a link between this – the LW ending a marriage and being single for reasons that at least in part, even if it’s a very small part, relate to her feelings for him,and him not reciprocating those feelings. That’s a hard position to be in, and the clingier the LW gets the more the friend is going to recede.

        Maybe he wants to set a clear boundary, and make a new start, and the pullback from contact is a giant hint.

        I think the Captain’s advice is spot on, take him at his word that nothing is wrong and accept that his priorities have changed, don’t have State of the Friendship Union Big Talks.

    • TO said:

      That’s not what it sounds like to me at all. To me he just sounds like someone who needs a little bit more space in his life than she does, and who finds ‘talking about the relationship’ tiring and work – as 90% of people I know do — we do it when it’s necessary, but it’s work and when we feel like whatever needed to be said has been said, we’re happy to go back to just enjoying each other’s company for the next few years (months, decades, etc).

      To me all the ‘randomly distant behaviour’ thing is saying is that this guy is probably attracted to the wrong kind of people, who he doesn’t actually match well with. They want a very sustained level of intimacy, talking every day, repeating expressions of affection very frequently, while he sounds more relaxed and like that’s not how he naturally expresses his affection for people.

      Of course I may be projecting based on my own experiences and other people I know, but that was my thought reading it.

  3. bluegirl said:

    This answer was a strange sort of relief for me, because I’ve been feeling like I’m on the other side of this lately. Friend and I haven’t known each other all that long (a little less than a year) but we’re pretty close. But several months ago she seemed to start getting anxious about the state of our friendship, and wanting to have big FEELINGS talks about our friendship and whether things were wrong. It made me feel really, really weird, but I also felt guilty about saying that I hated talking about the state of our friendship and having to reassure her all the time. I guess it never really occurred to me that it was an acceptable boundary to draw. That link about attachment styles is really useful, too.

    I would say to LW, though, that none of that changed how much I love and care about my friend. I did and still do sometimes need time and space away from her, but it doesn’t change the way I feel about her and I always come back.

    • Lieutenant Right said:

      As someone who has been in and is currently in LW’s position, holy crap your last paragraph is so helpful.

      LW, one of your main problems is likely being patient. You have to trust that the other person will get back to you and will make time for you. Before that, make time for yourself and your other friends. Do you have other long distance friends? Contact the ones that are better at getting back to you, it’ll make your waiting for responses feel less laser-guided to ONE person.

      • bluegirl said:

        I’m glad it helped! It’s a tricky thing, especially with someone who’s very anxious, because she can’t ever really KNOW for sure that I still love her and I’ll come back. Because even if I tell her those things, her jerkbrain is often louder. But I know it’s true, and if saying so doesn’t convince her then I hope eventually proving it will.

        • stephanie said:

          I am often that person with the anxiety and the temptation towards “omg are we still friends” feelingsmails!

          I have a strategy for that: when I notice it happening repeatedly in regards to the same friend, I tell them what is going on (my jerkbrain sometimes interprets things without my permission and I decide you don’t like me) and then ask them to write me a short letter, like on a post card or something, that’s like ‘I love Stephanie very much, and even though sometimes we disagree or her jerkbrain plays up, that’s not going to change. If it changes I will let her know’ or whatever, and put their name and the date. Then I put the card somewhere. This was especially helpful when I moved to a new country and was 9000km away from all my friends and family who might not have had time to email me every day, and when I was feeling FEELINGS I had that at least to fall back on.

          • That’s a great thing to ask for!

            It might not work for everyone, but you figured out a specific and not-arduous thing your friends can do to help you handle your anxiety. That is awesome!

  4. Sheelzebub said:

    OK, the advice given here is very good, LW. I’d add this: talk to a therapist about why it is the person you were emotionally closest to–and whom you came to rely on when your marriage fell apart–was the one person who was physically far away. You have friends nearby yet I get the impression that you keep them at arm’s length. I can theorize all day about why this is, but you’d be better served hashing it out with your therapist.

    Did you rely on this guy because you have feelings for him? That’s natural, but it’s not often workable–you were married for much of that time, he said he didn’t have those feelings for you anymore, and you both were long distance. So he might have felt pressured. And maybe he should have used his words in telling you this, but he might not be at the point where he can parse out what’s bugging him.

    Please focus on building the friendships you have with people who live closer to you, who you see everyday.

    • I’m a little stung by the suggestion that having a long-distance friendship be your closest is necessarily something that needs “hashing out”–one of my closest friends is long-distance because that’s how we met, when I was in junior high school and spent a lot of time on the internet because I was an awkward loner who didn’t have any friends IRL. We’ve stayed close friends and relied on each other through rough emotional experiences. Sure, it sounds like LW needs to expand Team LW, but that’s not because this guy is at a physical distance. It’s because LW is feeling increased emotional distance, which isn’t the same thing.

      • JenniferP said:

        I love this point, but just like legalizing gay marriage doesn’t ruin straight marriage, having a long-distance friendship or relationship that isn’t working…sometimes directly because of physical distance/time/expense/logistics distance, which I see over and over in my inbox …doesn’t negate your awesome friendship with your friend. It does take more effort to keep those friendships close. You say in your comment that your lack of close face-to-face friendships were influential in your becoming so close to this person. So the “stung” is on you, but I’m glad the friendship is awesome and you both put similar effort into it.

      • Sheelzebub said:

        I certainly didn’t mean to hurt your feelings. I did want to point out that it sounded like he was her only support, that she didn’t feel she had anyone else, and that’s an issue. I stand by that.

        • TO said:

          Regardless of the close vs distant thing, it’s good not to have one person be too disproportionately your source of emotional closeness or support.

          Also it can become a problem if one party has only one or two close friends, while the other has a larger circle of close friends — things can get unbalanced and person one can feel like they need person two more than person two needs them. I wonder if that’s the case here?

  5. Revolver said:

    Hooo boy, I hate when people use the word “overdramatic.” I don’t know if he actually said that, LW, or if that’s the sense you got, but that is one big dismissal and invalidation of your feelings. Obviously part of this reaction is bringing my own baggage into the conversation, having been called a crybaby often and gaslighted (gaslit?) by family members. But still, women in particular (gender assumption on my part, you said he had girlfriends?) are given harsh judgement if they’re seen as too much…too much emotion, too much anger.

    If you’re like me, you’re going to read the Captain’s letter and, combined with your friend saying or implying you’re overdramatic, you’re going to berate yourself for being such an idiot and clingy and needy (my jerkbrain’s words about me, not what I actually think about you!) One thing I’m working on in therapy is being able to say, “You know, Self, if I had the knowledge now that I had then, I probably wouldn’t have acted the same way. I will take these steps to acting differently in the future, but your feelings were valid and you’re human. Give your past Self a break.”

    I think it’s absolutely valid for you to have these feelings. Even the FEELINGS. I think it’s absolutely valid of you to bring them up. So please don’t feel like you were wrong to have ever brought it up. But the Cap’n is right that his answer was a pretty clear answer, and at this point all you can do is accept it at face value and decide how you’re going to move forward.

    As an insecure attachment type, I highly recommend the book Attached (http://www.amazon.com/Attached-Science-Adult-Attachment-YouFind/dp/1585428485). It is written in layperson style, so you don’t have to be a psych major to read it, and it gives some great advice for each attachment type in relating to other types. Super recommend it!

    • I second the recommendation. It’s a great book!

  6. Beth said:

    Reading this made me think of a few times in my life where my ability to maintain the same level of contact with long distance friends changed – new (and more demanding) jobs, new baby, moving states, etc. I’m a total introvert, and in times of big changes in my life I’ve often had to pull back from the level of contact with people. Dealing with the immediate day to day social things can drain my batteries so much that the thought of doing one more social thing (even just an email or call or text) is too much for me.

    It doesn’t mean I love my friends any less. But caring for myself as an introvert in a loud, busy, extroverted world can be hard sometimes. I hope my friends never think that I mean something about them when I pull back, because I’m not pulling back AT them, just trying to take care of myself.

  7. icelimbo said:

    Though the specifics of the situation were not exactly the same, I’ll offer my experience of being the guy where I moved on from a certain place where I had an intense online friendship with a girl. It wasn’t particularly sexual in nature, more one of those friendships where you complete each other’s sentences but aren’t physically attracted to one another. Regardless, I moved somewhere new for a job, and for a little over a year, we were still in very close virtual contact. This is despite a serious dating relationship on her end and various dates here and there for me as I was exploring my new city.

    The Cap’n is right to say that often proximity wins out as people’s circle of friends widens. I would also add that for me, one of the big changes I went through was a promotion at work and a decision on my part to start building an adult life for myself in this new place. This big decision, to make a home here for myself, and the little ancillary decisions involved, simply didn’t have much to do with that close friendship, and I simply started drifting apart from her. My basic feelings towards her haven’t changed all that much, but the truth is I’m focusing on other aspects of my life now, and though I really enjoyed our hours-long Skype or chat sessions, I found I engaged in them less and less because of developing other close friendships here. Oftentimes, I’m simply not home a lot anymore, enjoying my circle of friends and the company of a girl I’ve been dating for almost six months now.

    Three months ago, my friend did exactly what the Captain is advising against: a huge feelingsbomb email which, for me, came mostly out of left field and threw me for a bit of a loop. When I responded (trying to respond kindly), I asked what I could do to re-engerize and put a little more focus into our friendship. The response I received was good in that it was very straightforward and honest, but it was unrealistic: she ignored that my life and my priorities had changed, and essentially asked that things “go back to how they were” when we were in contact for several hours multiple times a week. It was hard to read and hard to respond to. The best advice I can give, LW, having some experience on the other side of the equation, is to cherish what you have _now_ with your friend, while also giving him permission to become who he’s becoming, and to open yourself to more new friendship possibilities too. I don’t feel like you should suffer through this, and I’d encourage you to take advantage of that situation, as this friendship is decreasing, to increase other friendships you have more.

  8. secretrebel said:

    Hello, LW, I’m coming to this a bit late but I noticed the next couple of questions have over 100 comments and yours is still in the low twenties and I thought you might appreciate an extra comment. Unfortunately what I have to say is probably not something you want to hear but here goes…

    I think you are far too wrapped up in B and your feelings about B. To me this post came across as So Very Needy. You were in love with B, your marriage ended in part because of B, you became very clingy and possessive of B and you are mentally keeping score of how much contact you have with B. This is all very double plus ungood.

    B is not and likely never will be your boyfriend. B is not even your good friend because all those romantic feelings you have for him have got in the way of that. You need to stop thinking about B and concentrate on yourself and making friends who are not B. Listen to what the guy is telling you which reads to me as “please stop dramatising our friendship and asking all the time about needs and support and boundaries and accept that I don’t feel that way about you and let me go about my life ALONE or at least without you.” I’m sorry, but that is how I as a complete outside read B.

    Take some space from B, from thinking about B and all things B related. I am confident that if you do he can dwindle from a huge friendship quasi romantic ISSUE(tm) into the appropriate position for someone you know and like. and you will both be better off for it.

  9. LW said:

    Letter Writer here. And thank you all so much for the good advice and well wishes, it’s all exactly what I needed. Just for the sake of clearing up a few points:

    Re. the local friends/support during breakup – it’s not that they are not close, but my ex is part of the same friend group, so I didn’t want to cause extra drama by involving them in the situation. Breakup was relatively amicable, as these things go, but sometimes you just want a totally unconnected party for some good venting and partisan support! The distance in this case was a feature rather than a bug.

    On the subject of “messing with”… there’s an alternate-universe version of me that’s writing a letter about how this asshole pretended he liked me and used me for company when he had no-one else then tossed me aside as soon as I was no longer needed… but that’s not really fair, and would just be the hurt speaking. I don’t want to be feeling that I’m entitled to X amount of attention because I was awesome in instances A, B and C; this isn’t some Ayn Rand nightmare of altruism-at-a-price. But, I do need to be looking out for myself more than I have been.

    It’s been really helpful to read the perspectives of people on the other side of this too, and hearing that a withdrawal of contact doesn’t necessarily mean you care any less. Theoretically I know this, as I’ve been through enough friendships that have changed shape over the years, but so good to see it spelled out. 🙂

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