Friendship reached its sell-by-date?

We all have different kinds of friends. There are people you could still phone at 3 a.m., because your dog is missing or your partner has left you for a none-too-intelligent gym instructor. These are the wonderful people who, in many ways, make our lives easier and more worthwhile. If we are lucky, that is.

The really good friends
There are those who can remember when we kicked the pre-school teacher, those who recall our first date more clearly than we can, those who wept with us when we received our Matric results, those with whom we smoked secretly, those whom we kissed, those who took our side when no-one else would, those who worked with us, laughed with us, listened to us, attended funerals of family members and those who helped us move three times.

Unless you have not changed at all since the age of five, you have also had the experience of suddenly realising that a particular friendship was no longer working for you.

The old schoolfriend you haven’t seen in ages
Peoples' lifestyles, values, interests and behaviour can change - and so can those of your friends. Most people have had the experience somewhere along the way of having lunch with an old school friend, only to realise that the conversation had dried up after reminiscing about schooldays. And then silence. You frantically try to keep the conversation going, but you are flogging a dead horse. Even though you feel guilty, your situation is still understandable. You and your school friend live on different continents and your lives bear about as much resemblance to each other as an aardvark to an amoeba.

But what to do about the person who has been a friend for the last ten years and in whom you have not merely lost interest, but also gained irritation?

Signs that you’ve had enough
The signs are usually easily recognizable and relatively universal. The minute you put the phone down after having accepted a dinner invitation, you feel angry with yourself for not being able to think of an excuse quickly enough. You see the friend in the supermarket and you duck in behind the mountain of toilet paper on display. You hear the friend has also been invited to the picnic on Sunday by your host and you feel despondent.

If you recognise any one of the following patterns in your friendship with this person, it could be heading for serious trouble:

  • They have told other people things we told them in confidence;
  • They do not really listen to you and what you say, they merely await their turn to talk;
  • Unless it was of a scandalous nature, they do not remember what we say to them from one visit to the next;
  • They talk incessantly about themselves, but show signs of discomfort when we want to discuss anything that is important to us;
  • They subtly try and put us down, so that we always feel slightly inadequate after seeing them;
  • They tell us horrible things other people have said about us;
  • They never give us compliments, because they feel too insecure within themselves to let go of the limelight for ten seconds;
  • They cannot let the conversation go to the realm of real feelings or vulnerabilities - they stick to the anecdotal or the scandalous;
  • They are no longer on the list of people we would call in a real crisis.

If one or more of the above things can be ascribed to your friend, what do we have enemies for?

As things are always easier to get into than out of, how do we go about crossing this friend off the Christmas list? This can be a decision that can take years to make and could be rather painful, as different friends/acquaintances often represent different eras of our lives to us. Once the decision has been made, however, how does one take action without causing the Third World War?

Getting rid of someone in your life
Firstly, a blowout is never a good idea, unless you want to save the friendship. A confrontation shows that you still care enough to fight.

Secondly, if it is dwindling, why not just let it die a natural death? Chances are that your friend might also be feeling that she is not getting from you what she wants. Not all of us can do drooling admiration for too long if we never get a compliment in return.

Just don't return those calls and have a quick repertoire of excuses handy for turning down invitations.(Visiting an ageing relative in hospital is a good one, as you come away sounding holy and there is little chance she will want to accompany you). Things will die a natural death eventually as you are making it too much hard work for the other person to maintain the dwindling friendship.

Then there are the diehards. Those about whom you feel slightly guilty, but whom you would not have chosen as friends if you had met them now, instead of twenty years ago. These are the people with whom you played in sports teams, shared lift clubs and did duties at school bazaars. Your children were friends and you were thrown together constantly. But now the sports teams have disintegrated, the lift clubs are no longer necessary and your children have not spoken to each other in a decade. And you realise that you don't have all that much in common.

This is a tough one. If the natural death- technique does not work, see if the backburner might do the trick. See the friend once a year and then both of you can say that you really should get together more often. If this does not work, you could always call in the big guns and criticise her indirectly about something. No one likes being criticized. Franklin P. Jones said, “Honest criticism is hard to take particularly from a relative, a friend, an acquaintance or a stranger.” Your friend will share this sentiment.

The important thing to remember is that each person is responsible for their own lives. We can and must be there for friends when they need us, but keeping a friendship going past its sell-by-date is doing no one a favour. In the time you spend with this person, both of you might have made other friendships that you might have found more rewarding. And the last word belongs to Oscar Wilde: "Know him? I know him so well that I haven't spoken to him in ten years." - (Susan Erasmus, Health24, March 2005)

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