“You may have lots of friends now, but only in tough times will you know who the real ones are.” — M
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the impact of trauma on friendships. I’ve written about friendship before , but nothing shows you who your real friends are like a crisis. I’m not talking about a short-term crisis, like your car breaks down and you need a ride, or you just got passed over for a promotion. Most friends will show up for that.
It’s when you have a longer term crisis that you see the difference between the friends who like being around you when things are good, and the friends who like you even when you’re not fun to be around. People you think are closer than family will sometimes abandon you when you’re a slobbery mess for a few months, or you have a series of unfortunate events.
I’ve seen this many times over the years, in my own life and the lives of my friends.
Years ago my grandfather came to live with me the last couple years of his life. I was his sole caretaker and also working full-time, and my whole life was work and geriatric doctors appointments. I couldn’t go out to bars or volunteer or do the activities I used to do, and I was overwhelmed and exhausted all the time. Friends dropped like flies because I wasn’t fun anymore.
About ten years later I had developed a large group of friends in my running community. I felt super close to several of these people. Then I had a pretty serious knee injury that never fully healed, and I had to stop running. As it turns out, with most of these friends I had nothing in common except running, and once I wasn’t running, there was no reason for us to hang out.
These two major episodes of shedding friends helped me see who I was actually friends with, and where it was just a superficial relationship. And while those realizations where painful, in the end, they were super helpful. I strongly believe that when it comes to friends, quality is better than quantity.
I’ve had friends who went through traumatic divorces, or had people close to them die and when they didn’t “get over it” fast enough, they found many of their friends were no longer there for them. “You’re no fun to be around anymore,” one of my friends was told when they tried to get together with someone. “I’m sick of hearing about how you can’t get over your divorce. It was already six months ago, you’ve got to get over it.”
We all know that it’s challenging to spend time with people when they’re in a bad space. Maybe your friend might be in a deep depression, or they may be having an experience that is triggering for you personally. Or you’ve just had enough of rehashing over and over and over again about how their husband is a jerk, especially when you pointed that out prior to the marriage.
What do you do?
First you may want to consider if the current crisis has just shown you that the friendship should have ended a long time ago. Sometimes we limp along in relationships with people who we’d never start a relationship with now, only because we’ve already invested so much time. If there’s truly nothing good left in the friendship, or it’s been all one-sided for as long as you can remember, then maybe it’s good to let it go.
But if the relationship is important to you and you want to maintain it, consider how you can be there for the person while still protecting yourself. Set limits. Figure out how you can be there for your friend without getting totally sucked into drama or feeling like they’re an energy vampire, draining you of all your life force.
Maybe that means you only talk to them once a week. Or you talk on the phone but don’t hang out live. Or you mostly text. Maybe you do things that take their minds off their troubles but minimize interaction, like go to the movies, or have coffee instead of dinner. Figure out what works for you.
If you care about the person you need to be there for them, in whatever way you can. It’s pretty devastating when you’re in a crisis, or having a low period of your life, and you realize someone you thought was a good friend has abandoned you.
Sometimes, at the lowest point of your life, someone listening to you, or just saying they care about you, can make all the difference. You don’t have to understand what they’re going through, you don’t have to agree with how they’re handling it, it doesn’t matter what you think about the situation itself, you just need to see them, hear them, trust them as the narrators of their own experience, and let them know they matter. And hopefully, the next time you are having a bad time, they’ll be there for you as well.
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