A healthy friendship consists of friends who nurture each other to grow and develop their own interests instead of doing everything together. When Lynn and I first met, we quickly discovered we knew many of the same people, shared similar interests, and enjoyed each other's company. But soon I noticed Lynn making more and more demands on my time, energy, and emotions.
At first, I enjoyed the constant attention. I was flattered Lynn wanted to spend so much time with me and wanted my input in various areas of her life. However, if she found out I had plans with another friend, Lynn expected to be included. It placed me in an awkward position, and I became increasingly irritated.
I also discovered Lynn felt neglected when I didn't initiate contact as often as she did. To be honest, her constant phone calls started to drive me crazy! Soon every call from Lynn felt like a guilt-laden accusation that I wasn't keeping up with the pace of our friendship. The more I tried to back off, the more Lynn edged forward. I felt smothered—and I resented it.
My friend, Elizabeth, who operates a small home-based business, experienced a similar situation with her friend, Joan.
"I'd just be starting my workday when Joan would drive up, ready to sit and visit. I tried to drop hints that I needed to get to work, but she never picked up on them," she says. "I hurt Joan's feelings when I finally came right out and told her it wasn't working out for her to come over so often. And even though she stopped coming by so often, I still cringe every time I see her."
Smothering puts a tremendous strain on friendships that otherwise seem to "work." The irony is, smotherers need friends, yet their actions drive away those they long to be close to. Sadly, many never realize people aren't rejecting them but rather their smothering ways.
Is there hope for friendships we'd really like to save? As Lynn and I learned, there are ways to ease the grip of a stifling relationship and turn it into a healthy, enjoyable one.
Decide if the relationship is worth saving
It's tempting to let go of a smothering friendship—and sometimes that's necessary. Tolerating possessive or overbearing behavior out of guilt or a desire to be needed may work for a short time, but true friendship needs a solid foundation on which to build.
Ask yourself if your friendship has redeeming qualities you value. If you can get beyond your friend's dependency, is there other common ground that's worth cultivating?
Despite my frustration, my friendship with Lynn had qualities I treasured. We built each other up spiritually, and our times together were often filled with spontaneous laughter and fun, like the day we purchased kites and bubbles and spent an afternoon kicking back at a park. Deep down, I knew salvaging our friendship was worth a try.
Be lovingly honest
Since confrontation doesn't come easily for me, I first opted for a passive approach. I kept a cool distance, hoping Lynn would figure out the source of our trouble. Wrong. Not only did she fail to decode my strategy, she panicked at my standoffish manner and became even more possessive. I knew then I had to be kind but direct, out of consideration for Lynn and for myself.
Before I confronted Lynn, I mentally sorted through the things that made me uncomfortable so I could clearly convey them to Lynn. My stomach knotted as I faced the prospect our talk might not turn out the way I was hoping and praying it would. What if Lynn became angry or felt rejected? What if she was unwilling to allow me the space I felt I needed?
After some initial chit-chat, the moment arrived. First, I apologized to Lynn for withdrawing from her instead of being honest about my feelings. Then I listed specific ways she was especially dear to me. I let her know I valued her as a friend, and because of that, I wanted to tell her about some things that bothered me. I told her I felt overwhelmed by her attention and expectations, and went on to share those things I knew were contributing to the problem. I also acknowledged I had allowed myself to be smothered by not speaking up sooner.
As I held my breath, hoping Lynn would understand, she started to cry. I felt terrible—but then something happened. Through her tears, Lynn poured out a past of rejection that compelled her to need others too much. She told me she'd experienced the same problem with other friends, but that those people had abandoned the relationship instead of trying to work things out. She hadn't even realized she was smothering me. She was lonely, and thought the more time we spent getting to know each other, the closer we'd become.
I learned, through my experience with Lynn, how important it is to be gentle yet upfront. Let your friend know it's because you value her friendship that you're being honest. Reassure her that you want to remain friends, but directly and lovingly communicate that you need space.
Set reasonable boundaries
Although it was awkward, Lynn and I talked about what we both wanted—and didn't want—in our friendship. For me, constant contact, lack of freedom to make plans that didn't include Lynn, and feeling obligated to be her exclusive friend were patterns I was unwilling to continue. However, we agreed to experiment with negotiable points—such as the amount of time we'd spend together—until we found what worked best for us.
Each person's perception of the quantity of time that should be committed to a relationship can greatly vary. Friends naturally like spending time together, and it's a compliment to have someone enjoy your company. But when and where should you draw the line?
Getting together regularly was important to Lynn; it gave her a sense of security in our relationship. So we chose one night each week to meet for intercessory prayer and to feast at our favorite Mexican restaurant. Knowing we could count on "our time" took the pressure off always having to be together.
Pray about how much time you can honestly spend with your friend. Lynn and I both were single at the time, so setting aside an evening a week worked for us. If you're married and have children, you'll need to respect your family's needs and wishes. Let your friend know that if this friendship is to work, you'll have to be flexible.
One woman I know had friends who consumed her time with telephone conversations. Her solution? When the phone rings, she automatically sets a kitchen timer. This self-imposed limit helps her balance telephone time with family time and other responsibilities. It also helps her friends get to the point more quickly during their phone calls, knowing she doesn't have hours to chat. Find what works for you in your situation.
Pursue independent interests
No two friends will share all things in common. A healthy friendship consists of friends who nurture each other to grow and develop their own interests instead of feeling they must do everything together. Help your friend discover her talents, and encourage her to pursue the things she enjoys. While she may find the independence frightening at first, a little success will probably leave her feeling energized.
For the most part, Lynn and I were able to respect our agreed-upon limits in the days, weeks, and months that followed. But breaking negative patterns and adopting new ones can be frustrating, and Lynn's tendency to smother and my instinctive pulling back took time and conscious effort to overcome.
Old habits die hard, so make a commitment not to give up too easily. Even after addressing the problem, you may find it takes some time to strike a balance you're both comfortable with. Recognizing you're making progress toward a healthy friendship can help you both hang in there during the transition.
Over time, Lynn and I developed a secure, mutually enjoyable friendship that we still share. Although we're now separated by several states, our closeness remains. When we call each other with happy news or for a sympathetic ear, we're able to talk with depth. And despite the miles between us and segments of time that we're not in contact, there's comfort in knowing we're always there for each other. We're friends in a healthy, pure sense of the word—as God intended friends to be.
Janet W. Bouy is a freelance writer who lives with her family in Georgia.
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