It's often what we don't do that trigger friends to flee.
When I was six my mom — a modern day renaissance woman with wonderfully eclectic passions — entered what I call her baking period. Like all periods before and since — from pottery making to HIV intervention in Uganda — she didn’t go in casually. She took up with her friend Rebecca (not her real name) to publish a real life cookbook titled Mad About Muffins.
They spent dozens of flour-covered weekends together in our kitchen, gooping and re-gooping recipes for the perfect banana-nut and blueberry-bran. Ovens glowing, they took meticulous notes on the proper proportion of pecans. I played underfoot with Rebecca’s son and remember the smells and chatter and waiting for a spoon to lick or crust to fall from the counter.
Then one day their muffin venture — and their friendship — came to a rack-crashing end. Rebecca called to inform my mom that she was going to publish their cookbook — alone. My mom wouldn’t get an acknowledgement, she said, never mind co-authorship as originally planned. “It was a total shock,” my mom remembers. “Maybe she didn’t need me anymore? Maybe she always considered it her project? I don’t know. But I know we weren’t the friends I thought we were. I was just so hurt and embarrassed. I couldn’t bring myself to speak with her again.”
If you’re really looking to ruin a great friendship, betrayal like Rebecca’s is probably your best strategy — it’s certainly the most frightening, hurtful and dramatic. It triggers one of our deepest human fears — that we can’t trust the world as we see it — which is why, from Shakespeare to Tarantino, betrayal plays so prominently in our cultural psyche.
Yet, there are certainly other ways to sabotage friendships equally important to understand — particularly behaviours we don’t intend, which are no less likely to erode trust or trigger friends to flee for safer distance.
Here are three such unintended friend faux pas (friend-pas!?!) with particular consequence. From our experience they are easy enough to avoid once you’re aware. Read on and hopefully it will help us all enjoy more confident friendships.
3 Signs You Might Be Accidentally Ruining A Great Friendship
1. You don’t initiate interaction
Friendship isn’t a passive pursuit best left to circumstance or fate. Sure we’ve all had — or heard stories about — friends we connect with only once or twice a year and can pick up with right where we left off. But the research shows these gems are rare and generally forged from previous meaningful time and experience together. Particularly during friendship formation, studies show interaction is key.
For example: research by pioneering Stanford Psychologist Robert Zajonc uncovered what’s been called the “mere exposure effect,” by which we tend to prefer things we stay familiar with. Work by Duke University psychologist Steven Asher suggests we more easily create close bond with people who initiate activities. And one of the key factors in our decision-making about friendship appears to be our perception of someone’s “availability.”
Basically, if you you don’t often connect with your friend, or only when they make the effort, or only if it fits your calendar, it makes sense that they’d lose confidence in your relationship. Do you have a friend who might be feeling this way?
2. You don’t know about your friend’s emotional state, deepest passions or current dreams
This might relate to the above, as it’s difficult to be in tune with your close friends without regular contact. But it can also stem from a failure to ask or listen.
What differentiates our close friends from everyone else is what they know about us — and what we know about them. And the fact that they stick around, despite it all.
Social scientists refer to the process of getting to know someone more deeply as the “dance of disclosure.” Slowly, over time we reveal ourselves as trust builds. The trick is that people are constantly changing and growing and it’s a friend’s job to keep up.
3. You haven’t told your friend you care
Friends are far more likely to forgive, understand and get past the particulars above if they’re generally confident where they stand. They are far less likely to second guess your friendship after a few weeks of silence or a rain-checked date, if they’re otherwise assured. The simplest solution is tell your friends outright how much they mean to you.
It’s not always easy or comfortable, particularly for men. But it’s a true game changer to sit down across a table and let someone know, however you’re comfortable saying it, that they’re in your lifeboat. That’s why it’s practice #10 in the Lifeboat guide.
So, there you have it, three signs you might be accidentally ruining a close friendship. None carry the weight or drama of betrayal. None destroy trust in a single, intentional blow. But no matter your circumstance or intent, over the long haul, all can trigger fears and lead friends to create distance.
An activity to wrap us up: get out your list of Lifeboaters and ask yourself how you’re doing with each and the 3 signs above — and if, in their shoes, you’d feel confident in your friendship. What do you think?
Stay tuned for more Lifeboat content to help you be better, get deeper and live more fully with your friends.
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