Do friendships last forever?

Many years ago I spoke to a woman who was thoroughly fed up with a friend of hers. She just didn’t enjoy being with him any longer. Though she had already decided to back away from him altogether, she still wondered if she should “forget the past and see what happens,” in spite of his high maintenance nature.

I told her about a ‘friendship test’ that an acquaintance of mine actively applies to everyone with whom he associates. The test requires that he be able to name at least ONE thing, no matter how intangible, that this person “does” for him. Does he genuinely laugh when he’s with the friend? Does he come away with amusement, insight—anything? Does he truly look forward to seeing the friend again? Does the friend have qualities that are admirable? If, after serious thought, the answer is no, then he ends his involvement with that person. He does so on the premise that life’s too short to associate with somebody out of guilt or some sort of indefinable obligation, such as “Oh, we’ve been friends for so long,” etc., etc. (By the way, he fully expects others to apply the same standard to him as well.)

Of course, I couldn’t tell the woman if her ‘high maintenance’ friend would pass—or fail—the test. Only she could look within herself to see if he had any qualities that she enjoyed or that somehow enriched her. Yes, some people are high maintenance, and small doses work fine with people like that. Indeed, if you look at things from his point of view, the “life’s too short” concept works both ways. Her friend may have (real or perceived) issues with her that might affect his behavior when they’re together. Eliminating somebody from your life is a big step, so I suggested that she try talking some of this out with him.

In my experience, one of the most common reasons people are reluctant to end their friendships is the long history of the friendship. When someone tells me that the ‘history’ is the main reason for staying friends with someone, I see it as a red flag for a deeper problem. Often, the deeper problem is too little regard for one’s own time—which translates into too little regard for oneself. Your time is really an abstract term for how you spend your life. Every minute that passes by is a minute you will never, ever have again. Isn’t that important?

Do we keep a car longer than it can drive, or clothing longer than it’s wearable? Unless they give us some sort of pleasure, we wouldn’t hold on to things for absolutely no reason other than ‘I’ve had it for a really long time.’ Of course, friends are more important than things—and that’s precisely my point. Why would you tarnish the ideal of true friendship by spending your irretrievable hours with somebody you now only pretend to like?

So how do you end a friendship? Wondering what to say is really just a distraction from the real issue. The real issue is refusing to waste your own time by perpetrating a fraud against somebody else. If you’re really so concerned about what to say to this person whose company you no longer enjoy, then why are you content with being a phony in his presence? Imagine how you would feel if you discovered somebody was pretending to be your friend out of pity, or for no other reason than your ‘history’ together.

Some people who have difficulty ending unsatisfying friendships tell me, ‘I’m not going to throw away all those good years.’ Ridiculous. How is throwing away your time in the present a reason for not throwing away the past? The past is past. It’s done. This includes the good and beautiful things too. The fact that someone whom you once liked turned into someone different doesn’t change the fact that he once was who he was, nor does it take away the good things you enjoyed.

Some may be concerned about ‘obligations.’ ‘But he still likes me. How can I end the friendship even though I no longer like him?’ Sorry: Your good experiences with someone in the past do not oblige you to pretend you are still having those experiences in the present. When you first become friends with someone, you don’t sign a contract obligating you to ‘be their friend forever, even if you no longer like or respect them.’ In fact, we can’t even get 50% of marriages to work, and they DO involve a contract!

In a lot of these situations, the issue ends up not being about friendship as much as letting go of the past. Well, the goal isn’t really to let go of the past. If something such as a great friendship is in the past, then you can—and perhaps should—always embrace it in your mind. But we live in the present, and it’s entirely possible that even greater friendships lie ahead. Let go, move on, and find them.