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How to Rescue an Ailing Friendship
by Rachel G. Baldino, MSW, LCSW for

Friendships can enhance, enrich and enliven our lives in many wonderful ways. A good friend stands by you in fair weather and foul. Perhaps most important of all, a good friend just "gets" you. He or she understands your values system, what makes you laugh and what makes you cry, and what you hold most dear in life.

We treasure our good friends not only because they love us, and being in their company nourishes our souls, but also because they know us and understand us so well. This feeling of being truly known and deeply understood is priceless.

But even the most solid and time-tested of friendships can hit a "rough patch" for a wide variety of reasons, and when something goes wrong with a particularly treasured friendship, we tend to suffer enormously.

ailing friendships

When a treasured friendship hits a rough patch, it can really knock you for a loop.

When an Important Friendship Takes a Bad Turn

Let's say Mandy has a very dear friend, Beth, both of whom are 25 years old. They instantly "clicked" when they first met all the way back in their sixth grade homeroom, and they have been "thick as thieves" ever since, spending a great deal of time together throughout middle school and high school, and creating countless joyful memories.

When they went away to different colleges, they made a point of staying in good touch via telephone calls and email. Now they live in the same big city, where they both work in offices and continue to spend some time together ... though, given their hectic schedules, not nearly as much as when they were younger.

Up until this point, their friendship has been an unmitigated source of joy. They have always confided in each other about everything: all of their greatest dreams, hopes, sorrows and joys. But very recently, for the very first time in the long history of their friendship, Mandy has been feeling that Beth has grown somewhat distant, and that she seems to be spending more and more of her spare time with her other friends and with a new guy she has been dating.

Mandy feels sad and jealous that they haven't been spending as much time together; and there is a part of her that wants to confront her friend about suddenly going "M.I.A.". But at the same time she doesn't want Beth to start perceiving her as overly needy, or as a pain in the neck, especially since they have never had to contend with any kind of conflict in the past.

When a friendship reaches a crossroads like this, both friends face a few different choices, but the most direct approach tends to work best. In this case, that would mean that Mandy should tell Beth about her concerns, and then give Beth the opportunity to defend her behavior.

Ultimately, they may decide that they need to take a little "break" from each other ... or they may want to consider the possibility that their respective emotional needs may be changing as they are growing older; and consequently, their old friendship may simply be evolving into something new ... but just as precious as ever.

When Old Friendships Transition Into Something New

In her book, Friendshifts: The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives, respected author and researcher, Dr. Jan Yager, contends that our friendships are a critically important part of all our lives.

However, she also acknowledges that many (and perhaps even most) friendships go through various "bumps" and changes-the "friendshifts" that she refers to in her book's title-as we progress through our lives.

In Yager's own words: "Friendshifts is a word I have coined for the way our friendships change as we go from one stage in our life to another, or even relocate from one school, job, neighborhood, or community to another. It is a variation on the old adage 'Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver, but the other's gold.'"

Yager's ideas can help people understand that if they are having a rough time in some of their friendships, there is no need to assign "blame," either to themselves or to their friends. Instead, they can consider the possibility that perhaps their friendships are just going through a perfectly natural, organic transformation. And if a particular friendship is meant to survive a particular rough patch, then it probably will.

Now, when it comes to old friends, remember that your closest old friends know you in a way that perhaps only your spouse and/or closest family members do. Which is to say that they know the person you were in childhood, in adolescence, in early adulthood, and they know the person you are now. And as I mentioned at the beginning of the article, there is something quite precious about being known so well and understood at such a profound level. Therefore, an old friend who has remained one of your closest friends would probably have to commit a pretty serious act of betrayal for you to make the decision to abandon the friendship entirely.

Of course new friends can be just as important to us as our old friends, and it is important to keep making new friends throughout our lives. As Jan Yager says about the importance of new friends in this excerpt from her book Friendshifts:

"When I gave the eulogy for my 83-year-old dearly beloved grandmother, I was saddened to look out at the small cluster of family members in the funeral parlor chapel. I did not see even one of the friends my widowed grandmother had cared about for most of her life, since they had already died or moved far away. But my grandmother also failed to develop new friends, and consequently she was lonelier in her last years than she had to be. She needed to understand the concept of friendshifts so her later years could have been fuller; her family was too busy with their own lives, unable to give her the daily intimacy she so desperately needed."

Now one thing we learn as we grow older is that some friendships are not meant to last forever, much in the same way that some romantic relationships are not meant to last forever. And some of these friendships that are not "built to last," so to speak, may end with a "bang" (i.e., a big fight); whereas other such friendships may end with a whimper (i.e., a relatively slow, prolonged process of drifting apart).

But what is also important to bear in mind is that some friendships can and do last for a lifetime, and not all friendships that hit rough patches are meant to end.

Rather, they may merely be "shifting" or evolving, as Jan Yager points out. And of course, as we all know, emotional growth and change can sometimes be accompanied by a fair amount of "growing pains." But if the friendship is important to you, you will probably find that it is worthwhile to endure those growing pains.

Tips for Coping with an Ailing Friendship


If an ailing friendship is precious to you, then it is worth saving.

If you are currently experiencing trouble with a friend whose friendship you have always valued, you may want to ask yourself the following key question:

Just how precious is this friendship to me?

In other words, is this friendship worth saving, or might you be better off (emotionally speaking) just letting it go?

If, upon reflection, you determine that the friendship in question actually is very precious to you, despite the problems you are having right now, you will probably want to fight your absolute hardest to keep the friendship alive.

To do this, you and your friend may need to:

  1. Openly and honestly address the fact that at the present time, there in fact is a problem in the friendship.

  2. However, even though you are both acknowledging that a problem exists, remember to emphasize to your friend that you want to do everything in your power to resolve it, and you very much hope that she feels the same way.

  3. As they say, "Where there is a will, there is a way," particularly if you both very much want the friendship to survive. Now, if she agrees with you that there is a problem, and if she also wants to do everything in her power to resolve it, you will both need to try to identify the precise source of the problem, and then you'll need to brainstorm together about ways to resolve it.

    Of course, conflict is never fun or easy, but sometimes it can be a necessary part of healing an ailing friendship and growing emotionally. And because you both want to achieve the same goal-the salvation of your friendship-your shared sense of purpose will help to "soften the edges" of the conflict resolution process.

  4. Believe it or not, even in the midst of this sort of "necessary conflict," it is actually possible to "accentuate the positive" as a means of keeping the conversation moving in a constructive direction. For instance, if there has recently been a "communication breakdown" between the two of you, you can remind her that up until this point, you have always communicated extremely well with one another. And considering that, until now, strong communication has always been one of the main components of your friendship, then you can probably get that back.

  5. If your friend is open to the idea, consider forming your own "mini book club of two," and reading a book like Friendshifts together, taking the time to discuss how the various chapters may (or may not) apply to your own friendship. You may both come away from the experience feeling not only enlightened, but also a much greater sense of appreciation for one another, and for the important roles that you have played-and hopefully will continue to play-in each other's lives.

Recommended Reading:

How To Most Effectively Pick Your Battles

How To Make All Your Relationships Work


Friendshifts: The Power of Friendship and How It Shapes Our Lives

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