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Ethical Dilemmas: When It’s Time To Pull the Plug on a Friendship

Hey Jude,

I have a friend who I’ve been close with for about twenty years. I’ve known her the longest out of all of my friends, and even though I’ve lived away from the city for much of the time we’ve known each other, we stayed in touch over the years and she is like a member of my family.

I moved back here a little while ago, and now that I’m back we have re-connected in a different way—we’re hanging out more regularly rather than only when I was back for vacations a few times a year. But things feel totally different. I’m not sure if she has changed or if I have, but I feel like we have nothing in common now. Actually, I feel like if I met her now out of the blue, I would never choose to be friends with her. I would run in the other direction. I don’t like who she is. I get enraged every time I’m with her and I dread seeing her.

She’s narcissistic and critical of me, and she makes me feel like I’m a child. It’s belittling. But she’s also going through a big life crisis and has been for the past few years. Is it wrong to distance myself from her, or to end our friendship, even though she’s in a “time of need” right now? I feel bad, but then again—she makes me feel bad about myself.

[female, 29]

Friendships can be trying, especially long-term friendships. Adding a shared history into the mix can cloud the situation, because you start to wonder if you should hang on to the friendship simply because it’s existed for so long. I think it’s a bit like couples who have been together for a decade or so and think, “I’m not in love with this person anymore. They don’t even make me feel good about myself. But we’ve been together for so long—is it right to throw this relationship away?”

But just like in romantic relationships, friends can outgrow each other. That may be what has happened with you two. A long-distance friendship is a different animal than a day-to-day one. It’s much harder for someone to be annoying when you only see them a few times a year. Maybe that’s because you don’t really “see” them when you hang out every once in a while—you only see bits and pieces of them. Like dating versus living together. Getting a fuller picture of your friend requires proximity.

So now you have the proximity, and you don’t like what you’re seeing. I think lots of people have been in that situation, and it’s a crappy one no doubt. You say she criticizes you and makes you feel bad about yourself. You also mention that—if you were to meet her today, you would “never choose to be friends with her.” That’s a strong statement. You’re not saying, “I wouldn’t choose to be as close to her” or “I wouldn’t choose to see her as often”—you said you would want nothing to do with her.

In many ways, our friendships reflect who we are. First, the people we choose to hang out with are people that we are “voting” for. We are saying “this is a person I choose to be around because they have X quality, and I like being around X and seeing it in others. So I’ll vote for it [X] by hanging out with this specific person.” Second, consciously or unconsciously, our friendships rub off on us. If Friend X is funny or honourable or creative, then sparks of Friend X’s humour or honour or creativity may fuel those qualities in us. The opposite is also true. If Friend X is cruel or bitter or selfish, then sparks of Friend X’s cruelty or bitterness or selfishness may fuel those qualities in us. Whether you realize it or not, you may be cultivating those negative traits in yourself by “voting” for them through your friendship with Friend X. Yikes.

Friendships also act as filters through which we see ourselves. This can be wonderful when we are in a friendship with someone that we respect and trust—someone that has our best interests in mind. I can think of two friends in my own life who I trust completely, and who have given me advice that is clearly in my own best interest—even if it was advice I didn’t want to hear. I know their only goal in giving me that advice is to help me live a better life and become a better person. And because I know and trust that they are on my side—that we’re in solidarity—I take their advice. Their advice helps me become someone that I am even more proud of.

But what if that advice comes from a friend like the one you’re talking about? If that friend came to you and said “you should do this” or “you should change X, Y, and Z about yourself,” would you? Should you?

To answer that we can look at what worthwhile friendships ought to be based upon. I mentioned trust above. Additionally, most philosophers agree that friendships are defined by mutual caring, at its most basic level and at the very least. So I’d ask you, does your friend care about you, and do you care about her? Specifically, does her treatment of you suggest that you have value as a person; is she empathetic towards you; does she care about things you care about because they are meaningful to you; does she have your best interest in mind; does she encourage you to grow and flourish as a person—out of pride rather than shame? And, importantly, do you do those things for her as well? If you answered “yes” to most of these, then my guess is that mutual caring is present. There is solidarity there. But if you answered “no”, then this “friendship” is in some ways already non-existent.

The whole point of having friends is that they contribute to our flourishing, and vice versa. They enhance our lives by giving us a sense of community and belonging. They are the people we CHOOSE to have in our lives—not because we’re related by blood, but because we see something in them that is appealing and of value. In turn, we hope they see the same in us.

Aristotle argued there are three types of friendships: those of love, virtue, or utility. It seems to me that what you have with the person you describe is neither a friendship of love, nor virtue, nor utility. It is destructive. And the fact that she’s in a time of need doesn’t make all that much of a difference—because would you truly be able to offer her empathy and love right now? If you dread seeing her, think she’s narcissistic, and she makes you enraged and bitter when you’re with her—I don’t think that you could “be there” for her in a way that she needs. AND THAT’S OKAY.

You have to figure out if you are going to keep feeding the fire here, or if you’re going to walk away. You can be honest with her and tell her what’s up, gently but clearly, in hopes of salvaging this relationship (and turning it into a true friendship of mutual caring), or you can bail. It’s not unethical to walk away from someone who does harm to you. As the Bible and the Byrds say, “to everything there is a season…” Nothing is meant to last forever.

Do you have an ethical dilemma you need help with? Send your question to heyjudeadvice@gmail.com.

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