Adapted from a recent online discussion.
Friend who can't reciprocate wants to bow out
Anonymous: Just received an e-mail from a close friend asking to be discharged from our friendship. She said she regrets it very deeply, but she has a child with terrible health problems that consume most of her time and emotional energy, and she has begun to feel like all she does is take from her friends without giving anything back. She would rather end our friendship than feel guilty about not being able to return my efforts.
To be honest, I have been frustrated about our friendship, which has felt uneven for a long time. I'm not sure what to say. Please help?
Carolyn: Well, either you feel up to giving to this friend without any foreseeable return from her except her company (and maybe the sense of doing a selfless thing), or you don't — be it because you don't enjoy her company that much, or you're pretty drained yourself for your own reasons, or you reject her premise and believe her take-take-take position isn't defensible, sick kid or no.
However you see it, I think you need to be true to your feelings on this one. If you don't see yourself getting past the frustration, then accept her gracious exit. If instead her acknowledgment of guilt wipes your frustration slate clean, then respond with genuine absolution and say you're there for her with no expectation of being paid back. You know — friendship.
Either way, she seems to know what she wants, and she's ready to be honest about it.
Los Angeles: Re: Anonymous: This is a major "bang head on keyboard" for me. A child with terrible, all-consuming health problems has to take priority. If it were me, I'd make a pot of spaghetti, and a nice basket of pretty paper plates, and matching plasticware and a nice note. Maybe the mom is depressed and overwhelmed and needs friends who aren't demanding. I encourage Anonymous to support from a distance . . . it's not about you.
Carolyn: I agree, but this will only work if Anonymous wants to be this friend, and has this kind of friendship inside. Not everyone does, hence my answer. The struggling mother doesn't need to have someone around whose heart isn't in it. That's just more work for her.
One-sided friend: Re: A.: I am the mother of a child with terrible health problems that take up most of my emotional energy. I think the poster's friend was, as you said, ready to be honest about what she couldn't give, but I think maybe you should have pushed Anonymous to keep trying — with no strings attached.
The loneliness and frustration of having a sick child can't be helped by cleaning house of associations with others; that's a recipe for permanent despair. The friend with the sick child is probably depressed, and her trying to cut ties is a big red flag. Also, if Anonymous knew about the child's health situation and still indulged in feeling resentful, she needs to grow up and count her blessings.
Carolyn: And boil water for spaghetti, since you're right — and bringing dinner is a simple, thoughtful way to start exploring ways to help a struggling friend without running up her guilt tab anymore. Anonymous, consider yourself pushed.