A reader writes:
I have a friend, let’s call her Lisa, who I grew up with on the other coast and who I stay in touch with, mostly by text. In the last few months, our conversation lulled, due to some of my personal goings-on and, you know, the pandemic. I didn’t reach out to her, she didn’t reach out to me; that’s fine, I’m a pretty low-maintenance-friendship type of guy. But out of the blue a few weeks ago, I got a very lengthy handwritten letter from Lisa that started out conversational, and then pivoted to demanding why she hadn’t heard from me in months—a period that included her birthday that I didn’t make note of, which she Wasn’t Mad About, yet the letter went on about it for some length; and a death in my family that was kept relatively private, but she somehow found out about it, and was hurt I didn’t seek her out to talk to her about it. She said she thought I didn’t ask her to hang out enough the last time I visited her area.
The letter went on to say she was waiting for me to text or call, and when I did not, she decided I never would, and that I clearly did not value her friendship the same way she valued mine. Lisa said these things hurt her a lot, she has depended on my support, and wistfully listed off a bunch of our shared memories, but she also said she wanted me to know she would be “just fine. She’ll be just fine.” The letter asked generally how I was, but there was no allowance for why I might not have been in touch as much as usual, even as she was generally aware I was managing some significant life events recently, and also, lest we forget, the pandemic.
Generously, I think this could all be interpreted as “a person isolated in a pandemic has gotten too much in their head about a perceived social slight,” or “teenager who doesn’t understand boundaries yet.” But for some perspective from my side, we’ve been friends for decades, and while I’ve also sought her support in some tough times in the past, this is not the first time she has tearfully accused me of being a bad friend. She has also sent me lots of gifts over the years, for birthdays and other occasions as well as “just because,” and I wasn’t always in a financial position to reciprocate, while she comes from wealth. We’ve never been romantically involved, and I’ve always seen her as a friend.
It’s hard to overstate how blindsided I feel and how unfair this is. I don’t think I’ve given Lisa the impression we’re each other’s Person, or anything like that. And while I don’t think I’d die on the hill of “it’s good, actually, to miss someone’s birthday,” that doesn’t feel like an offense worthy of this very tortured letter (and none of these things feel that bad, really), particularly when she was the one who had noticed it was quiet and chose not to just send a text to check in, but instead to go straight to deliberately not contacting me as a test, to see if I’d reach out first.
I’m completely taken aback and unsure what to do. How is a person supposed to respond to a letter like this?
Having read the above email and also the several-page handwritten letter from Lisa that the OP is describing, I can confidently say… oof. If you got this letter from an ex, I’d describe it as “not great, but not shocking.” Coming from a friend, it’s…. a lot to take in.
I don’t want to give the impression that being honest with your friends about your needs or disappointments is universally wrong and bad—it’s not!—so let’s talk for a moment about why Lisa’s letter might be making you so uncomfortable and stressed.
Realizing that your understanding of a relationship is dramatically at odds with the other person’s view of it is fairly unsettling. It’s also strange to realize that someone has a lot of thoughts and feelings about you, when you… simply don’t think about them that much, or with the same level of intensity. Receiving a letter like Lisa’s is a bit like opening your door to discover that someone you haven’t spoken to in a while drove across the country for a week just to see you, and now expects you to let them crash on your couch for the next month. Sure they are your friend, but… it’s still out of bounds! In the case of Lisa’s letter, there’s a level of entitlement—both to your time and attention and birthday cards for the past several months (that include a literal pandemic!) and also to an explanation for why you didn’t do “enough”—that makes the whole thing feel bad.
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You say you’ve never been romantically involved with Lisa, but it’s hard for me to read her letter and think she has had only friend feelings for you this whole time. She might disagree, and say that this is how everyone thinks about all of their friends, but… I don’t think this is how everyone thinks about their friends, actually, and I say that as someone who thinks friendships are important relationships that can include a lot of intense emotions.
(I also think it’s worth thinking about how you’d react if a man had sent the exact same letter to a female friend; my *guess* is that you’d more readily view it as definitely not a friend thing.)
As for the “you didn’t say anything to me on my birthday” thing… look, in general, I think it’s a wise idea to release the people who are not your significant other or otherwise in your inner inner circle from all birthday celebration responsibilities. I admit I’m biased here, because my birthday falls during the week of August that everyone takes their last vacation of the summer and it’s been a non-event for my entire life. I've also had three different *best friends* misremember my birth date by a day and not say a word about it on my actual birthday and it was fine! I just… don’t care!
I think it’s fine for other people, including Lisa, to care deeply about a birthday, or even ask their friends to care and celebrate them, but I’m not sure that a not-close friend forgetting to send a birthday text warrants this kind of guilt trip or simmering resentment. (BTW, you can find some great, thoughtful advice on the topic of mismatched birthday expectations here.) The fact that she’s leaning so hard on the birthday thing makes me wonder if it’s even really about that, or if that’s simply something concrete and recent for her to peg other long-festering frustrations to.
To be clear, I think it’s totally OK for people to reach out to old friends and say some form of, “Hey, I haven’t heard from you in a while and I’ve been pretty sad about that. I miss you and I wanted to see if everything is OK—if you’re OK, if everything with us is OK, etc.” Lisa also could have texted something like "It's been a while! Want to catch up properly soon?" and then, through the course of that conversation, tried to suss out whether there was some reason you’ve been less available lately. She could have acted from a place of vulnerability and curiosity, opening up a conversation and communicating her hurt and disappointment in good faith.
Instead, she wrote out a loooong list of slights (!!), attempting to make you feel extremely bad at the same time she was insisting said slights weren’t a big deal and that everything was fine “I guess”… communicating every step of the way that it was deeply not fine. I feel pretty strongly that if you ever find yourself sending someone an itemized list of grievances, it’s OK—good, even—to fully own the fact that you’re upset, that you’re hurt, that this is actually not fine with you at all.
Before you respond to Lisa, it might also be worth doing some reflecting on your own behavior here, and the friendship as a whole, to better understand how things might have gotten to this point. I say this not to blame you for being the receptacle for someone else’s very strong feelings, but because I find it’s helpful for me to post-mortem situations like these to better understand the role I played in what happened. Did she make other attempts to push past your boundaries earlier on that maybe you dismissed as not a big deal? Did you do anything that might have led her to think you were interested in her romantically, that could be at the root of her expecting more? Does she have a history of boundary-crossing with romantic partners or other friends? Maybe this is a really out of character one-off incident, but if, on further reflection, you realize that this isn’t the first time you and Lisa have had a major mismatch in expectations, or it’s not the first time she’s done this to someone in your friend group, that’s something to think more about.
So, what to say to her now?
As much as you might prefer to ignore this letter and just start talking to Lisa again like nothing happened, or go with a “I've just been so busy—want to FaceTime this week?!" to smooth things over as quickly as possible, you kind of have to acknowledge the letter directly, and talk to her about how it made you feel. (If you were so creeped out by this that you never wanted to talk to her ever again, that would also be your decision to make. I’m generally pretty anti-ghosting, but sometimes choosing not to engage with someone further is the only safe/healthy option, especially if you’re dealing with someone you barely know and/or who has a long history of boundary violations and creepy behavior. I don’t think that’s the case here, but I wanted to mention it all the same.)
What to say
I’d start by addressing Lisa’s main complaints, with whatever explanation is true, like so:
- "Hey, I got your letter the other day, and wanted to think about it for a little while before I responded to you. First, I want to say that I wasn't intentionally blowing you off. [I am finding that I have less time for friends in general these days, but it has nothing to do with you personally/I know you and I haven’t been as close as we used to be, and not for any particular reason…just one of those things about getting older, I think/it can be hard to keep in touch with long-distance friends who you don’t see regularly these days.] I’ve been mostly OK with the level of contact we’ve had for the past couple of years, and didn’t realize it was bothering you so much.”
You might also want to acknowledge forgetting the birthday, since that’s a major sticking point:
- "I am really sorry that I forgot your birthday; since we haven't been in close touch like we were before, I'll admit that it wasn't top of mind."
I wouldn’t spend too much time on the above, though, so you can instead focus on the core issue: you and Lisa’s expectations of each other are massively misaligned, and you’re not going to be able to meet her needs.
- “I care about you and about our friendship, but I have to admit, I was pretty surprised by a lot of the things you said in your letter. I thought what was happening was pretty standard people-getting-older-settling-down-talking-to-friends-less late 20s stuff, but I’m getting the sense that for you, it was a much bigger, more serious betrayal. To be honest, I feel pretty uncomfortable about all of this; I wasn't intentionally freezing you out, but this letter made me realize that we're kind of on different pages and are not really interested in the same level of friendship here.”
And if you did come to the conclusion that something you did (or didn’t do) played a part in all of this, that’s a good thing to own up to here too. Offer that genuinely—i.e., “I’ve realized I should have done [thing] sooner, and I apologize for not [communicating better/being more direct/sending mixed signals].”
From there, listen to what Lisa has to say with an open mind. She might say that you two aren’t misaligned at all, or that she wrote that letter during a low point in isolation and feels differently now, or that she’s actually OK with you two not being as close going forward now that she knows what’s up. (Trust your gut on whether this rings true to you.) She might also try to make you feel guilty—telling you you’re a bad friend who has really hurt her.
I do think it’s important to be pretty resolute in the boundary you’re establishing here, and the level of friendship you want. Lisa’s made it pretty clear what her needs are—which is, ultimately, fine and good, even if the way she communicated it was not your fave!—and you don’t feel like you’re in a position to meet those needs, something that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
This conversation is probably not going to be terribly fun for either of you. It’s never easy to disappoint a friend, and being told that someone you care about can’t give you the thing you want is not something most of us enjoy. But ignoring the way this letter made you feel and pretending everything is cool isn’t doing either of you any favors, and is likely going to lead to more stress for everyone in the long run. So be kind and gentle, but also firm about what you’re comfortable with and able to give.
Rachel Wilkerson Miller is the author of The Art of Showing Up: How to Be There for Yourself and Your People. Follow her on Twitter.