Anonymous asked realsocialskills:I have a friend with depression who frequently cancels plans or doesn’t message me back, and even though I know it’s because she has a limited amount of emotional energy and not because she doesn’t care about me, I end up feeling really neglected and hurt every time. We’ve talked about it and she knows how I feel, but it isn’t getting better. I keep thinking I might have to just stop talking to her to protect myself from getting hurt, but that feels mean. What do you think I should do?realsocialskills said:I can’t tell you whether or not you should keep talking to this person, that’s a deeply personal decision.The first thing I want to say is that it’s ok to decide you don’t want to spend time around someone who regularly hurts you, even if the reasons they hurt you aren’t entirely their fault. Your needs matter.That said, I think part of the problem might be that you are expecting things from your friend that aren’t possible right now, and that it might be possible to salvage the friendship by changing your expectations.Here’s a dynamic that may or may not resemble what’s going on with you, between friends I’ll call Cathy and Debra:
- Cathy and Debra are in a culture in which the assumption about how friendship works is that Good Friends regularly make and keep plans, and answer each other’s messages in a timely manner
- Debra has major depression, and isn’t currently capable of doing either of those things
- Cathy wants to think of Debra as a Good Friend and give her the benefit of the doubt, so she keeps trying to make plans, and sends messages assuming that she will get prompt replies
- Debra wants to think of herself as a Good Friend, so she keeps trying to make plans even though she’s not actually capable of keeping htem
- Debra can’t actually keep most of the plans or reply to most of the messages, so she doesn’t
- This hurts Cathy’s feelings, because she’s counting on Debra to act like a good friend, and Debra is doing things that signal that she doesn’t really care about or respect Cathy
- Neither of them talk about Debra’s actual capabilities, or make plans taking them into account
- They keep assuming that, somehow, being Good Friends and trying will solve the problem
- And meanwhile, it doesn’t, and Cathy gets more and more hurt
If this is what’s going on, I think that making stuff better has to start from the assumption that, no matter how much your friend cares about you, she’s not currently capable of doing some of the things that you currently think of as central to being a good friend. If depression means she can’t do those things right now, no amount of talking about how much this hurts you is going to fix that. If those kinds of conversations gave depressed people more abilities, no one would be depressed.
That might mean that you can’t be very friendly to one another right now, or it might mean that your understanding of how friendship works needs to change to account for her capabilities. I don’t know which answer is the right one for you. Both are possible.
But, as far as shifting understandings and assumptions:
- I think your current assumption might be that replies are more-or-less automatic
- And that if someone doesn’t reply, it’s because they’re actively withholding a reply
- Which is the case in some kinds of relationships, but it’s probably not what’s going on when your friend doesn’t reply
- Replies are probably really, really hard for your friend right now, and she’s probably often not up to making them
- So, with this friend, it might make more sense to assume that not replying is the default, and that sending a reply is something hard that she does when she’s up to it
- What if when you sent your friend messages, you assumed something along the lines of “My friend will probably like getting this message, but she will probably not be able to reply to it this time”?
- I think it is not a good idea to keep making plans that you will be upset if you friend breaks
- If she’s not capable of keeping plans reliably, then making them and expecting them to be kept just hurts both of you.
- So what if you didn’t make plans, and instead only did things spontaneously on rare occasions on which she was up to replying immediately to suggestions?
- Or what if you made plans with the assumption that she might not be able to keep them, and found a way to be ok with that?
- Eg: inviting your friend to a group activity, and still going and having a good time with the other people if she cancelled?
- Or making plans to go to a movie, then going by yourself if she wasn’t up to it?
- Or planning to go over to her house, but assuming that there was a good chance she wouldn’t actually be up to it, and not making that plan often enough that it would prevent you from doing other things that are important to you?
All of that said, I don’t know what you should do, and I’m not telling you that you have to keep talking to this person. I’m saying that, if you do want to try to keep interacting with them, I think this might be an approach that could make it possible to do so and still feel ok. But it might not be. What I have suggested is not going to work for everyone, and that’s ok. It does work sometimes for some people, though.
Any of y’all have other suggestions?
My friend and I have a friendship that works b/c we’re both like this. Basically, we did the meetup suggestions above. We both planned to go to group things, events, movies, etc, but if the other didn’t go or was late, that was fine.
Another thing that worked for us was taking the friendship online. We kind of commuted our friendship to an 80% online friendship. We text several times a week, go on each others’ tumblrs to keep up with what we’re doing, and comment on each others’ creative blogs. It helps us keep up with out lives and keep that connection in a low-pressure way.