It's not you, it's we: Help for assessing a strained friendship

Two experts advise on the questions to ask ourselves and our friends in these times.

Two experts advise on the questions to ask ourselves and our friends in these times

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

Last year brought both a global pandemic level of change and tough conversations about social issues and injustice. The conversations some of us have been having with our friends have veered into divisive territory — quite different from the standard question of old: "What do you want to do when we meet up on the weekend?" Even casual conversations can end up exhausting, as one pleads one's case, perhaps seemingly for the millionth time, for why one believes x, y and z about the pandemic, racial inequity, climate change. The list goes on.

Unsurprisingly, not all of our friendships will feel as if they are working for us, and equally, we might not be working out for our friends, which raises thoughts about the viability of the relationship. I'm not talking about judging or being judged by friends, but figuring out if both people within a friendship are having their needs met and what to do if that's no longer the case. As a Black woman living through 2020 and its continuing aftermath, I welcome help in exploring my friendships and the roles I play within them. So I asked a clinical psychologist and a racial justice educator, two experts who can help with the particular challenges some friendships are facing right now, to share their insights.

Needs assessment

When it comes to assessing the quality of our friendships, racial justice educator and author Rachel Ricketts said we need to understand our needs and get a clear picture of our relationship dynamics — something she discusses in her book, Do Better: Spiritual Activism for Fighting and Healing from White Supremacy. "[It] starts with a long and honest look at ourselves as much as the friendship," she said. "What are my values? How do they or don't they align with my friend's values? ... How do I feel after being with this person? Who has more power and privilege in the friendship? How does that manifest and in what ways does it cause myself and/or my friend harm?" 

Toronto-based clinical psychologist Julie Erickson also notes that an assessment is key, something she thinks we do regularly in fact. "It's important to acknowledge that we may be implicitly assessing the quality of our friendships more often than we think," said Erickson. "But it's helpful to make some of these implicit rules of friendship more explicit so that we can actually assess our needs … [and communicate] these things to other people." 

Expectations in tough times

If 2020 was an unprecedented year, as it's so often referred to, it brought with it unprecedented challenges and hardships too. Given that, what's realistic to expect from our friendships in times like these? Change, for certain, said Erickson. "Friendships might become closer if we've been able to look at our friends during this time as a source of support," she said. "For other people, friendships might feel more distant ... perhaps as a result of physical distance, say, or maybe as a reluctance to reach out and seek support from others ... or maybe friendships are feeling a bit more divided because of differences in opinion about critical societal and political issues that have come up."

Regardless of the moment, Ricketts notes the importance of friendships that honour the entirety of our selves. "No matter what year it is, we all deserve friendships that honour the fullness of who we are, including our lived experience, ancestral stories and histories, and acknowledgement of the impact that white supremacy, anti-Blackness and other forms of systemic oppression have on our lives, particularly for those of [us] most oppressed by those systems," Ricketts said. She was also frank about the fact that being clear about this expectation can mean some friendships will have a future and some won't. "As a queer, multiracial Black woman ... I learned to stop prioritizing white comfort in my friendships with white women, and most of those relationships ended as a result."

Difference of opinion vs. difference in values

But what do we do if it's not just a difference of opinion? What does it mean for a friendship when you discover a difference in how each of you view and experience the core issues of the past year? According to our experts, it depends.

For Erickson, it's how big those differences are that's important. "Regardless of what type of difference it is — whether it's a difference in opinion, in interests or in values — it's more the magnitude of that difference that matters, as well as how you talk about the difference and to what extent your friendship is impacted by [it]," she said. 

When it comes to a difference in opinion and values around anti-racism, Ricketts said there is no leeway. "If someone close to me makes an argument or holds a position that denies my lived experience as an oppressed person — or any oppressed person's lived experience — then that is denying my [or] their [humanity]," she said. "And that's not an opinion. It's an act of violence."

Both experts agree that while it's possible to maintain a friendship in which divisive topics are declared off limits, it might not be beneficial for the people involved. Ricketts encourages us to think about what that would mean. "If you are ... Black, Indigenous or [a] person of colour, I would strongly urge you not to engage in friendships with [folks] who are not willing to discuss, acknowledge and address issues that are part and parcel of your [humanity], as well as being critical to our collective liberation," she said. "The personal is political. Whether you're discussing race and racism or not, you engage with it every single day — including in your friendships." 

If friends do decide it's better to set boundaries, Erickson provided some advice. "If you want to create boundaries around this, you could say something along the lines of, 'I know when we disagree about x, I feel more distant from you. I do appreciate hearing about your opinions, but do you mind if we table the conversation about x for now?'" she said. 

Press pause or walk away

Is it possible to take a break from a friendship? If we reach that point, should we just wish each other well and walk away? "It will be different in every situation, for every person," Ricketts said. "But I suggest pushing pause or walking away if you find your friend is unwilling — unwilling to recognize … [and] to take accountability … or unwilling to cease behaviours that cause yourself or those most marginalized — particularly Black and Indigenous women and femmes — harm." 

This idea was echoed by Erickson who, at the same time, acknowledged the importance of recognizing the natural ebbs and flows of friendships. "This is ultimately a very personal decision, but a few factors that someone could weigh … [could include things like] conduct from a friend which runs counter to your principles and values … [and] the presence of emotional abuse or physical abuse [which] could include things like harassment, manipulation, use of threats, or attempts to isolate the other friend," she said, noting these would serve as grounds for walking away. Barring serious issues like these, she reminded us that most of us are likely not at our best right now. "I think we need to be extra kind and generous," she said. "But it's still potentially helpful to let a friend know that your friendship isn't where you'd like it to be. But then give them some time to respond and reassess to see if there are further changes that have [to be] made in a few months' time."

Celebrating friendships

Friendships are always going to have their ups and downs. But if a few have been bumpy in the past year, hopefully others have been a much-needed source of joy. Both Erickson and Ricketts agree on the importance of showing gratitude and thoughtfulness toward the friends in our lives who make us feel good about ourselves and whom we enjoy being around. "We celebrate anniversaries with partners and significant others. So why not celebrate the time of year when you first met your bestie?" Erickson said. It can be as simple as reaching out and letting a friend know how much you appreciate their friendship. "This year has been trying and traumatizing, to say the least," Ricketts said. "So bestowing wise compassion and patience on ourselves and our friends during this season is a celebration in and of itself." 

Abiola Regan is a Vancouver-based writer of poetry and fiction. When she's not writing, she can be found co-hosting the parenting podcast Gaining Mom-entum.

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