How to Talk About the Tough Stuff

Navigating the blurry lines and even knowing the ‘rules of engagement’ of adult friendships can be very complicated. We don’t have any guidelines on how to navigate difficulties that might arise in a friendship, what to do if we feel like we want a friendship to change or what to do if our friend suddenly changes their behaviour. Without any social blueprint similar to how we generally define ‘rules of engagement’ in intimate partner relationships, navigating expectations, feelings and change can be very confusing in friendships.

Every intimate partner relationship is different, and yet societally, we collectively have a sense of types of behaviours that are mostly acceptable or mostly unacceptable. If we are in a generally healthy and loving monogamous relationship, we have a loose guide as to what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour. We also generally know we have the ability to have a conversation about difficulties when they arise, even though this is not always easy to do. Society hasn’t outlined such a template, even loosely, for acceptable behaviour within friendships, when and how to have difficult conversations with friends, or what to do when we want to change what type of friendship we have. Navigating the complexities of adult relationships can be quite challenging.

This might be in part due to the wide-reaching term ‘friend’. The term ‘friend’ encompasses such a variety of relationships and no doubt this only amplifies the confusion. ‘Friend’ can describe a colleague-friendship you share first coffee with, a parent friend on your kids’ soccer team, someone you have known since childhood but haven’t seen in over a decade, the person you call when something wild happens in your day or anything in between.

To make matters even more blurry, it seems mostly acceptable that our friendships can shift from emotionally close to distant without even an acknowledgement of this change. We tend to generally accept friendships ebb and flow through life and a conversation, or even consent, isn’t required for the type of friendship or the closeness of a friendship to change. If we no longer want to have first coffee with the same person, choose to stand beside a different parent at the soccer game or have a big life moment and don’t tell our ‘bestie’, we are allowed to make these changes freely. We likely have valid reasons for making these changes and yet we might neglect the fact there has been an unwritten expectation, from our friend, that we will continue to act in the way we have. Past does not always predict future, and yet there is a certain level of expectation and predictability created from the way we interact with our friends. For x amount of time, our best friend Taylor has shared big news with us. Suddenly we hear Taylor got a new job through the grape vine and wonder why they didn’t call us to let us know.

We might wonder what we did and why they didn’t reach out to tell us. We might reflect upon the conversations we had in the past, the way we made a joke last time that landed a bit flat. We might start to see if we noticed a pattern of change with them, searching for any clues to understand this unexpected behaviour from Taylor. We might wonder when the last time we saw each other in a meaningful way and if they are starting to ghost us. We remember the last time we tried to reach out recently and they didn’t seem as engaged in conversation. They didn’t seem to have space or time to really listen when we shared about that fight we had with our sibling and were a bit dismissive about when we were talking about how our boss was so uptight.

I very much believe in freedom of choice and that friendships have a ‘season or a reason’. However, when our close friend does not call to share their big news- when they usually call us, can cause a lot of confusion! Without any conversation or even know-how-to have a conversation, we awkwardly move through our feelings trying to understand the changes in behaviour of a friend or former friend on our own. We wonder if we are allowed to ask ourselves why they didn’t call or what we should say when we call them. We wonder if we should call or text them. We piece together the information we have and often create, an often-self-deprecating story if we are the one left behind. We don’t have a clear system or any guidelines as to how to navigate these aspects of friendships and often there is confusion which leads to hurt feelings, misunderstandings and confusion.

When Friendship Changes

The word ‘friend’ covers such a wide range of relationships, it makes it challenging to talk about changes in friendship when changes do inevitably happen. Typically, when we are dating someone and considering the relationship becoming more serious, we have ‘the talk’. You know the one! The one where we acknowledge that we actually like each other and want to talk about being exclusive. We don’t do this in friendships. In friendships we ebb into a certain type of relationship without any conversation. We flow into a rhythm and a pattern with a friend and casually the relationship unfolds.

We grow into a comfort, as the edges of the relationship become more defined. We anticipate when we will see our friend next and what we might do together. We have fun remembering the good times we shared. We look forward to the future gatherings and creating more memories! Then, suddenly, our rhythm changes. We reach out to our friend in the same way we have before and don’t elicit the response we anticipate. We see them out and something doesn’t feel quite right. We look forward to sharing something with them and we don’t get the response we expect. We feel lost. We thought we had this friendship rhythm dialed in and now the unwritten rules seem to be changing. Even though we know friendships can change, somehow we are can be confused when we see it starting to happen in our friendship with our close friend.

We are unsettled and don’t know what to do. We did not have a big argument or disagreement. Yet, we also did not have an agreement defining how we would interact with each other. When we pause and notice the change in the relationship, we are hurt. We wonder if they are brushing us off because they don’t care about us anymore, if we did something to offend them. We might wonder if we let them down and that is the reason things are different.

The bottom line is we miss our friend and want them back.

If you have ever had a close friend who suddenly became very ‘busy’, you might have wondered about whether the friendship was changing and if they were legitimately ‘busy’. You might have noticed a growing distance in your emotional connection and an ever-growing distance in between the visits you have. You wonder what has happened and what has changed. You try to remind yourself life has truly been busy for your friend and they have had a lot to juggle lately. You allow 48 or 72 hours to go by without a text response (compared to the 2 minutes to 2 hours previously) and jump eagerly to respond when you finally get a text back. You patiently wait for any indication they would like the friendship to continue. You pretend you aren’t hurt and try to be understanding. You wonder what you did wrong and overcompensate to try to ‘be better’ – whatever that means!

Friendship ‘Breakups’ Are Just As Hard

Break ups and heartache are really hard. We feel lost, confused, and disoriented. We grieve the loss of any relationship, especially when it is a close friend. When we lose a close friendship, grieving is complicated. It isn’t usually clearly defined as over as much as a change has happened and the way you used to interact is dramatically different from how you interact now. We don’t have clarity of an end and we hope that this is just an ebb or flow and that we will reunite with our friend again soon.

We maybe never formally came out as best friends, but we shared big life events with our close friend for as long as we can remember! Why wouldn’t they have told me about their new job, we wonder. Without any guidelines we blindly navigate awkward conversations and confusing feelings. We spend time wondering what we can say, what we expect from them and our friendship, and whether it is even okay to expect something from our friend.

Of course, when we zoom out, we know our friend has other people in their life they are close with. We know they are allowed to tell other people about their big life events! We know they are allowed to celebrate with other people. And yet, we can’t help but wonder why they didn’t call us. We want to be excited for them, and yet we are simultaneously hurt. We doubt the legitimacy of our hurt and try to focus on their good news.

Without any guidelines or initial discussion about what type of friendship we are going to have, it can be really confusing as to what we ought to expect from our adult friendships. We don’t have annual reviews with our friends to check in and possibly revise the friendship guidelines. We assume we will continue to be close with someone we are close with. Why wouldn’t we! And then – something is different. It can be subtle, and yet we notice it because we know our rhythm of friendship with this person.

The Tough Stuff

In friendships, when we hit an awkward patch, we seem to have a few options.

  • Have a conversation that results in positive change.
  1. We don’t talk about it and move through it on our own.
  2. We pretend like it is all okay and try tolerate the behaviour.
  3. We decide friendship off.

It is true that some people don’t want friendships that are too much work. This sadly means, we don’t always talk about the tough stuff in friendships. We allow and excuse behaviour that doesn’t feel okay to us. We take space if what a friend is asking for is too draining. We ghost our friends if we feel they are too much work or there are conflicts we don’t want to deal with. We lose friends instead of being willing to ride through the tough stuff together and have long lasting relationships.

We are often told it is the type of friendships we have that matter and not the number of friends. If we have friendships where we are honoured, respected, supported and in alignment with the other person in terms of what the friendship is – we might have a keeper on our hands! When we consider the many people we have in our lives, we might start to prune the people we spend time with if we are more drained and hurt than filled up by interactions with them.

Unfortunately, reflecting on who our friends are and the types of friendships we have might mean we lose a few people. However, having a friend in our lives who doesn’t really seem to be a ‘friend’ can be draining and not worth the energy out.

How do we have conversations about the tough stuff in a friendship?

Step one: Ask permission to speak.

This can be helpful because it prepared the other person to know you want to talk about something important and also ensures they are willing to engage in a meaningful conversation with you, if they give you permission.


Step two: Find a neutral and agreed upon location and time to meet.

This can be helpful because if we are in a space that is comfortable to only us, they may feel attacked and less secure. If we are in their space, we might feel less comfortable. If both parties agree to the location, again we have a more even playing field with less power dynamics at play. It may sound subtle, but it can be important.

Step three: State the difficulty using ‘I’ language, ensure space for them to share, practice good listening skills, and mutually agree upon a resolution forward.

We want to be mindful whenever we bring up conflict with another, the other person might feel attacked and go on the defense. We can do our best to mitigate a defensive response if we are gentle, mindful of our language. We also want to ensure equal space to hear out their side as well. Going in with curiosity instead of stating facts can also be helpful. Using language such as “I am confused” or “Help me understand” can be great openers.

Step four: Ensure a check in about the conversation after an appropriate time.

A conversation like this might need some space to breath. After having the conversation, you and your friend might have other thoughts and feelings that arise. Ensuring we circle back to the hard conversation means we truly care about the friendship, the other person, and we want to move forward together in a mutually agreeable way. Note how they are important to you and you wanted to check in and see how they are doing.

Step five: Revisit the previous agreed upon resolution again if necessary.

If a new foundation has been agreed upon and it is breached for whatever reason, or old behaviours start slipping, we can gently remind our friend about the previous conversation and what was agreed to or discussed.