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Facebook era provides some real-life lessons on friendship

Is there a right way to tell a friend it is time to go?
/ Source: The New York Times

When Jeryl Brunner, a writer in Manhattan, was in her 20s, she had a friend who was just the sort of acquaintance people scoop up in their social net when they are young and trying to carve out a life in a new city. The friend was fun, outgoing and stylish, and always up for a night of dancing at Area, or a weekend jaunt to a Neiman Marcus outlet in New Jersey.

But as Ms. Brunner neared 40, the reasons for their spending time together became less clear. “It’s almost like we were in different movies,” said Ms. Brunner, now 46. “We didn’t connect on this fundamental view of what was important. I don’t obsess about material things. I’m the kind of person, if I had $100, I’d see a play; I’d have an experience. Her sense of joy came from owning a Gucci bag.”

She decided it was time to let her friend go. So Ms. Brunner took the “bad-boyfriend approach” and just stopped calling. After the friend made a few spurned overtures — and after some awkward conversations about why Ms. Brunner was always too busy to get together — the friend got the hint. Years later, however, the breakup still feels unresolved.

“I wish I would have handled it differently,” Ms. Brunner said. “I think you owe it to that person, rather than keeping them guessing.”

Is there a right way to tell a friend it is time to go?

Thanks to Facebook, the concept of “defriending” has become part of the online culture. With a click of a mouse, you can remove someone from your friends roster and never again see an annoying status update or another vacation photo from a person you want out of your life.

Not so in the real world. Even though research shows that it is natural, and perhaps inevitable, for people to prune the weeds from their social groups as they move through adulthood, those who actually attempt to defriend in real life find that it often plays out like a divorce in miniature — a tangle of awkward exchanges, made-up excuses, hurt feelings and lingering ill will.

Even the most omnivorous collectors of friends acknowledge that sometimes it is necessary to cross out some names from their little black book.

Roger Horchow is the Broadway producer made famous in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Tipping Point” as a pre-eminent “connector,” a social web-spinner whose hidden expertise is maintaining a vast network of friends. But even for him, some must fall by the wayside.

People start “dropping ‘starter friends’ from the early bachelor days, or early work associates, or early couples with little children like yours,” said Mr. Horchow, who wrote  “The Art of Friendship: 70 Simple Rules for Making Meaningful Connections” (St. Martin’s Press, 2006), with his daughter, Sally.

Psychologists consider it an inevitable life stage, a point where people achieve enough maturity and self-awareness to know who they are and what they want out of their remaining years, and have a degree of clarity about which friends deserve full attention and which are a drain. It is time, in other words, to shed people they collected in their youth, when they were still trying on friends for size.

The winnowing process even has a clinical name: socioemotional selectivity theory, a term coined by Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor who is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California. Dr. Carstensen’s data show that the number of interactions with acquaintances starts to decline after age 17 (presumably after the socially aggressive world of high school) and then picks up again between 30 and 40 before starting to decline sharply from 40 to 50.

“When time horizons are long, as they typically are in youth, we’re collectors, we’re explorers, we’re interested in all sorts of things that are novel,” Dr. Carstensen said. “You might go to a party that you don’t want to go to, but know you should — and it’s there you meet your future spouse.”

One thinks of Joan Didion’s essay “Goodbye to All That.” In it, Ms. Didion recalls a cab ride when she was 23 during which she tried to talk an older male friend into accompanying her to a party where there would be “new faces.”

“He laughed literally until he choked,” she wrote. She continued, “It seemed that the last time he had gone to a party where he had been promised ‘new faces,’ there had been 15 people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men.”

This is not, however, an issue that arises only as the temples start to gray. People approaching 30 — many of them dealing with life changes like marriage and a first child — often tend to feel overwhelmed with responsibility, so they lose patience with less meaningful friends, said Dr. Carol Landau, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University’s medical school.

The process does not always have to be painful. Annie Cardi, a 27-year-old author of children’s books in Boston, recently discovered that an old college friend and she were defriending each other simultaneously at a University of Virginia reunion when they were chatting with mutual friends and awkwardly discovered that neither had invited the other to her coming wedding.

“It wasn’t anything personal; we had just grown apart,” Ms. Cardi said. “It was actually a relief to have that conversation. It completely cleared the air, and neither of us left with bad feelings. I know that when I see pictures of her wedding posted on Facebook, I’ll be happy for her.”

But when the impulse is not mutual, it helps to undertake it with careful consideration.

“The first step before you end a friendship is to consider, very carefully and seriously, if you want to end a particular friendship or if you just want to wind it down,” said Jan Yager, a friendship coach and author of “When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal With Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You” (Simon & Schuster, 2002). “It will usually be a lot more pleasant to just pull away, and stop sharing as much privileged information.”

The passive approach can work, sort of. Marni Zarr, 46, a substitute teacher in Mesa, Ariz., employed it when she decided that a friend she had picked up in parents’ circles was starting to drag her down with her neediness and constant competitiveness. Ms. Zarr gave less of herself in conversations, stopped talking about her feelings, became vaguer about future aspirations.

“I took the route of distancing myself: not immediately answering texts,” she recalled. “I answered the important things, but not the ‘Hey, how are you doing, what’s up tonight?’ ones.”

While the passive approach worked, ultimately (slowly, the friend started to behave less like an intimate and more like a casual acquaintance), Ms. Zarr felt guilty about sentencing her ex-friend to a painful round of self-doubt.

“She went to friends of ours and asked: ‘Do you know what’s going on? Is Marni upset with me?’ ” Ms. Zarr recalled. “The friends just said, ‘Oh no, she’s just really busy.’ I was. Anyone can be busy. But when you really want to have people around, you make time for them, even if it’s a few minutes.”

Mr. Horchow, who at 83 has been carefully adding and dropping friends since Franklin Roosevelt was president, prefers the gentlemanly approach.

“At any age, dropping a friend is a delicate matter and should be handled kindly,” he said. “You don’t want to have to make a pronouncement that your friendship is declining or over; you don’t want to have to say anything. If asked why you haven’t seen each other for a while, be vague. ‘I’m just so busy’ or ‘I’m traveling a lot.’ ”

Indeed, honesty may not be the best policy, Dr. Landau of Brown said: “Remember that white lies are O.K. in the service of not hurting feelings.”

The passive approach works with friendships in which the bonds are tenuous, said Jeff Newelt, a social media consultant in Manhattan. In his line of work, he considers it his job to make friends, but a couple of years ago, decided he needed to prune the overgrowth.

His solution was to divide his social base into two categories: “linear” friends (lasting relationships based on a deep connection) and “nonlinear” (situational friends based only on shared past experience, like an old job).

“I had some work friends where we used to go out after work, to blow off steam, for the sake of bonding as a team or because someone was my superior,” Mr. Newelt, 40, recalled. “After I left, these people still pursued my friendship. I did not hate them. I liked them. So I dropped them. Not harshly, because I like them; I did not want to hurt feelings. I just said I had other plans when they asked me to hang out, each time, time and time again, repeatedly, and they got the point. There was no conversation, no gnashing and wailing.”

But not all friends (or ex-friends) will go easily. By the time she was in her mid-30s, Carolyn Miller, an office manager in Norwalk, Conn., found herself unwilling to put up with an old friend’s domineering ways, so eventually she sent her an e-mail listing her grievances and asking for space. The friend called her and begged her to reconsider. Ms. Miller stood her ground.

A few weeks later, when Ms. Miller’s grandfather died, the friend sent her a letter saying, oddly, that he had been a wonderful veteran (he had never been in the service), and not long after that, an invitation to her wedding. When Ms. Miller sent back the enclosed card declining the invitation, the friend called her and asked why.

During that call, Ms. Miller knew it was time to administer the friendship equivalent of the lethal injection. “I wish you love, joy, peace and happiness, but this friendship is over,” Ms. Miller recalled saying. “I said goodbye and hung the phone up. I met another friend for drinks that night and honestly, I was sad. I divorced a friend.”

Dorree Lynn, a psychologist in Washington, recalled that one woman she pulled away from because she felt they no longer shared the same values responded by spreading gossip in their social circle.

“There were rumors about me, that I had become a snob,” she said. “It was brutal.”

TO avoid backbiting and lingering bad feelings, many relationship experts recommend the same sort of direct approach that one would employ in a romantic breakup. To get around nagging questions, an honest letter, or even an e-mail, is the minimum (forget texting; that’s just cruel). A heartfelt face-to-face talk is better, said Erika Holiday, a clinical psychologist in Encino, Calif., who has discussed relationship issues on television shows like “Dr. Phil.”

“Schedule a time where you can sit down with them,” Dr. Holiday said. “It’s not about putting the other person down, but telling them, ‘You don’t fit into my life, you’re not on same path as me.’ ”

A trial separation can soften the blow.

“You might also want to suggest a cooling-off, or a revisiting your friendship in X number of weeks or months,” said Dr. Yager, the friendship coach. “Your former friend will probably put more time and energy into the other friendships that are working and will forget about contacting you in time.”

Such a direct approach ultimately may be effective, but it still engenders the same pain and awkwardness as an actual breakup, said Erika Johnson, a blogger who lives outside Boston. A couple of years ago, she found herself running a cost-benefit analysis of a friendship from her early 20s that was starting to grind her down.

Every new choice she made in her life — whether it was to return to graduate school or move to the suburbs — was greeted with dismissive scorn by the friend. Ms. Johnson decided to end the relationship with a telephone call.

“My main point was that life is very short and fleeting, and I value my happiness enough to eradicate the negative energy,” Ms. Johnson recalled. For months, the ex-friend continued to try to contact her. Ms. Johnson felt terrible, especially as mutual friends would tell her about the pain she had caused the woman.

Eventually, however, the reports from the mutual friends started to change in tenor. The old friend had been doing a lot of soul-searching after the breakup, they said. The mutual pain might have been worth it, Ms. Johnson concluded — to the point where she might consider another attempt at friendship with her.

Which raises this question: is a friendship ever really over?

More than a decade before social networking Web sites introduced “defriending” into the vernacular, Scott Laing, a strength and conditioning coach in Toronto, attempted it in real life. He had enjoyed going to bars and pool halls with a certain friend when he was in his 20s, but now thought he and the man were growing apart. As an endgame tactic, Mr. Laing, now 46, seized on an extended trip to Europe as an opportunity to put both physical and emotional distance between the two of them. He sent a couple of postcards over the course of three months, then nothing. It was over, he thought.

Last spring, however, he was surprised to find that the friend was reaching out, for the first time in 15 years. He friended him on Facebook.

This article first appeared in print on January 29, 2012, on page ST1 of the New York edition with the headline: It’s Not Me, It’s You.