We all go through periods when life has beaten us down, and this friend may have listened to us sob in our PJs over a pint of Häagen-Dazs—and so we think, “They’ve been there for me, so I need to be there for them.” The key difference is that this person’s life seems to be a never-ending train wreck, with the drama engineered through self-sabotage and then blaming the world, and with you always having to be the one to pick up the pieces.
2. “I’m sorry you feel this way.”
This statement is one of the vilest forms of passive-aggressiveness, and ambivalent friends use it often. On the surface, it appears to validate your feelings—something positive. However, what this phrase really does is make you feel bad for having your feelings. It’s a way to alert you that your feelings are not actually welcome in the friendship, and this person has no actual interest in caring for your emotional well-being.
3. “Me, me, me!”
Self-absorbed personalities aren’t necessarily always bad—these people can be entertaining and fun as long as you’re willing to tolerate them yanking the spotlight always. Whether grandiose and loud, or tugging at your heartstrings with another sad and exhausting story, these narcissists expertly find a way to hijack the focus onto them, no matter how disparate the subject matter is. You might not mind on the day-to-day, but these are the people who can easily turn toxic if you bestow too much trust on them: They may appear to listen to your woes by validating your feelings—before turning it into a competition. Prime examples include how they’ll tell you their pain is bigger or how much stronger they are (“How come I am not like that?” “I’m not scared of XYZ”). Eventually, you feel both listened to and wrong-footed. Is the front-row seat to all their grandiose stories worth it in the end?
So how do you walk away from an ambivalent relationship that drains you?
First, treat the relationship as a balance sheet—draw up the pros and cons, without considering the length. Sometimes, we can’t acknowledge the less desirable sides of others because we feel bad for thinking negatively. My friend and psychotherapist Jonathan Marshall recommends that you write down the worst thoughts you have about this person that you’d typically never say out loud. This exercise can heal your guilt and discomfort. “You can turn anyone into a good person,” he says. “But faith in people’s goodness is not going to protect you from being hurt.”
Next, enforce a clear boundary by telling them—even by text message—that you’re ending the relationship. However, if they often bombard you, are excessively dramatic, or just aren’t someone who would notice if you didn’t text, then it might be worth not saying anything at all. Just let them disappear—and if they do text you, only then should you let them know your decision.
More importantly, if you find that the majority of your relationships are ambivalent, perhaps it’s time to ask yourself what makes you prone to them. Sometimes, we over-give because we think people-pleasing is our life’s purpose; and indeed, it can feel good to be wanted or useful. Or we believe these relationships are all we deserve. Whatever the reason, know that you deserve healthy relationships that fuel your growth.
Friendship breakups are tough, but clearing space means you can nurture the truly healthy relationships that really matter. Just as art galleries curate their collections, your relationships must be curated for your well-being. As I always tell my over-giving clients, we give best when we give from a full cup. When we’re selective about our relationships, we have so much more to offer. Then, just as the great friendships rejuvenate, nourish, and support us, so can we do the same for them.