Being upfront with friends: values and friendships

Two girls on boat landing having an argument
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Estimated reading time: 9 minutes

Most people have strong values about friendships. But they don’t always follow those standards. Are you upfront with friends when there are problems? Or are you passive and pretend everything’s fine?

Friendships can be great sources of comfort. Unfortunately, they can be great sources of frustration too.

Different expectations

Often two people view their friendship differently. But each assumes the other sees it the same way they do. Neither realises they have different expectations.

Different values around friendships can lead to problems – and the resulting frustrations may affect how you behave.

Being honest about problems can be difficult. But it’s better than letting them fester out of control. Then you might act against your values with respect to friendships, as Jenna does in this example. 

Jenna and Barbara

Jenna arranges to go to the cinema Saturday evening with Barbara, a friend from work. Then on Saturday afternoon, another colleague Drew asks Jenna out to dinner. Jenna’s desperate to hook up with him. But she’s already cancelled on Barbara a few times recently.

So Jenna pretends to Barbara that she has a stomach bug. Later that evening as Jenna and Drew leave the restaurant, Barbara and another friend bump into them.

Embarrassed, Jenna apologises. Understandably, Barbara doesn’t answer.

1 Guilty self-justification

All Sunday, Jenna rehearses excuses to justify her behaviour. By Monday morning, her anger and guilt relating to her own behaviour are overwhelming. So, rather than apologising, she shifts the blame and snaps at Barbara.

Jenna is being dishonest and disloyal to Barbara. And yet she usually prides herself on being honest and supportive. She says she believes in always being upfront with friends. 

Now she’s lying openly and being rude to Barbara. What’s going on?

Does she see the gap between what she believes about friendship and the way she’s acting? 

2 Gap between values and behaviour

Jenna’s guilty reaction suggests she does know. She can see she’s not acting in line with her values. But is she deliberately setting out to hurt Barbara? What could be behind her thoughtless behaviour?

Jenna’s views

In reality, Jenna’s been avoiding Barbara for months. Barbara relies heavily on Jenna for support. At work, she constantly complains about being stressed. She often asks Jenna to help her with tasks. Barbara also wants Jenna to go out with her a couple of times a week, as she doesn’t have many friends. 

1 Jenna’s avoidance

Jenna likes Barbara, but feels overwhelmed by her. She’d prefer to see Barbara less often out of work. And she wants Barbara to mix with other people.

Sadly, Jenna’s been too scared to tell Barbara how she feels. She doesn’t want to upset either herself or Barbara. So she’s persuaded herself that it’s kinder to  avoid being upfront with her friend. But can she see how her conscience is letting her down?

Because now she’s caused the very thing she wanted to avoid. Barbara is hurt and confused by Jenna’s actions.

2 Jenna’s guilt and anger

Not only that, Jenna feels angry and guilty for what she’s done. But she doesn’t like feeling bad about herself. So she turns the blame back on Barbara.

That makes her tell herself Barbara just needs to “get over it.” After all, all she did was cancel a few get-togethers. Why should Barbara be so annoyed?

3 Discounting Barbara’s feelings

In effect, Jenna is criticising Barbara for being upset. However, deep down Jenna knows this is unfair. Whatever Barbara feels is very real and valid to her. And no-one has the right to discount her experience.

Unfortunately Jenna is still evading the real issue. She doesn’t want the discomfort of telling Barbara the truth. So she chooses to totally ignore this possibility.

However, Jenna’s actions make her seem uncaring. Sadly, that was never her intention. But her frustrations with Barbara led her to behave badly.

Being upfront with friends

How can Jenna salvage the situation? What could she choose to do differently?

1 Define the friendship

Firstly, she needs to decide what kind of friendship she wants with Barbara.

How much contact out of work would she like? Is she willing to help Barbara so much at work? And is she willing to remain Barbara’s only social support?

2 Set limits

For Jenna, knowing her own limits is important. Somehow she needs to let Barbara know these. To do that, she must accept the need to be upfront with Barbara.

Sure, it’ll be embarrassing. But if she’s kind and empathic, it may be less distressing.

3 Be assertive

So Jenna needs to learn to be more assertive. In that way, she could say clearly how she felt. Then she wouldn’t have to use fake excuses to avoid the issue. She could also gently offer to help Barbara widen her social circle.

4 Review past choices

Lastly, Jenna could review her choice to accept Drew’s invitation. Of course she wanted to grab the chance of a relationship with him. But she did have a couple of choices.

a) First choice point

Firstly, she could have explained the situation to Drew. She could have told him she couldn’t let her friend down. After all, she’d made this commitment already. It wasn’t right to ditch Barbara, even though she wanted to go out with Drew.

Explaining the situation would have shown greater respect for Barbara.

Drew may have been disappointed by her decision to go out with Barbara. And he may have told Jenna to forget the whole thing. That was a risk she‘d have to take.

On the other hand, Jenna’s loyalty to Barbara may have impressed Drew. And if he really liked her, he’d have asked her out another time.

b) Second choice point

Secondly, Jenna could have explained the situation to Barbara. Barbara may have wanted to go out with Jenna anyway. Or she may have suggested another time. She may even have admitted she was annoyed at Jenna cancelling so often.

By being upfront this way, Jenna would again have shown respect for Barbara. In addition, she would have kept her own integrity intact. At least she’d wouldn’t have lied. And it could have led to them both speaking more openly.

Refusing to be upfront with friends

Sadly, Jenna chooses to evade talking directly with Barbara. And she withdraws from her at work as well. She stifles her guilt at being dishonest with Barbara.

Instead, she justifies keeping quiet by telling herself it avoids unpleasantness for them both. But now, she’s abandoned her values around friendship. And until she changes her behaviour, she’ll keep on feeling guilty.

Friendships change

Friendships are never static. It’s inevitable that some long-standing friendships will eventually fade away. On the other hand, casual acquaintances can often get closer.

Much depends on common interests. Many people have outgrown friends who were once close.

Sometimes the two of you develop differing views on life. Or work, housing or family circumstances have pushed you apart. Understandably, these friendships gradually die a natural death.

That’s life.

But it can still cause sadness on both sides. One or both may mourn the loss of that relaxed closeness.

1 Deal with problems early

What if one person doesn’t know the other is unhappy?

Problems arise when two people view a friendship differently. As with Jenna and Barbara, this can drift on for a long time. Then both sides may feel distress and confusion. Far better to be upfront with friends, and discuss the situation early on.

Find out what each expects from the other. Then both can adjust to a more balanced friendship. Both people like to feel they’re getting what they need from the friendship.

2 Clarify unbalanced expectations

But problems can arise in unbalanced friendships. For instance, if one person mostly gives and the other receives support. Over time, that style of friendship is doomed.

The person giving feels resentful and put upon. The receiver starts to become dependent on them, and might feel let down if they don’t always get the support they want.

3 Change your behaviour

You may have made several attempts to sort out a friendship. If you’ve had little success, consider changing your behaviour. Let your friend know what’s upsetting you. Be clearer about what kind of a friendship you’d like to have. Otherwise you’ll become more and more resentful.

If a friend asks too much, you’ll start to withdraw from them anyway. Avoiding them won’t really fix the issue though.

On the other hand, perhaps you’ve let a friend know they’ve let you down. In that case, pressuring them may hasten the end of the friendship. They may be happy as things are. Far better to clarify how much contact each of you wants, and see if you can compromise.

Learning assertiveness

Either way, it’s better to be upfront with your friend. Let them know you’ve been unhappy with how things have been between the two of you. And that you’ve noticed that they may also be unhappy.

Suggest you meet somewhere quiet to work out what’s wrong. Tell them you’d like to keep the friendship if you can; that it means a lot to you. But you’d like to know if you’ve offended or upset them.

1 Use neutral language

Prepare what you want to say in advance. Be neutral rather than emotional.

Try to state your thoughts in terms of “I” and “we.” This doesn’t sound as accusing as “you” statements. And it can help the other person to feel less defensive.

Version 1 – Assertive

For example: We see a lot of each other both at work and in our spare time. I’m wondering if we could see each other a bit less outside of work. Could we make it once a week instead of two or three times?

Then we’d appreciate our time together more. I’d also like to take up painting, and catch up with some other friends too.

This sounds better than:

Version 2 – Accusing

You want to go out too many times even though you see me a lot at work. Could you make it once a week instead of two or three times? Then you’d appreciate your time with me more. And you’d let me take up painting, and see other friends too.

The first version sounds much kinder and less accusing. Therefore it may be accepted more readily than the second example.

Notice that there’s little emotion in the first version; you’ve stated what you would like to happen without blaming the other person.

How helpful do you think the next version would be?

Version 3 – Aggressive

I’m sick of seeing you so much out of work. I’m fed up with you demanding we go out two or three times a week. You monopolise all my time and I can’t do anything I want. Learn to stand on your own two feet, for heavens’ sake! I’ll go out with you once a week and that’s it.

 2 Avoid being accusing or aggressive

Version 3 is aggressive and nasty. It’s completely unnecessary to speak like this. You can state the same information more neutrally, and probably get a better response.

Being assertive isn’t the same as being cruel or accusing. It’s also not being overly apologetic, or passively ignoring the problem.

It’s stating clearly what you think the problem is. Then describing how you feel about it, and lastly stating clearly what you’d like to happen.

But there’s no blaming or criticism.

Assertiveness leaves room for respectful discussion. The other person needs to feel they can state their feelings and wishes as well.

One or both parties may want to think about the issue for a while. Then you can agree to discuss it again later, and with luck reach a solution you both agree with.

 3 No regrets

Being assertive means you’re more likely to be heard. However it doesn’t mean you will always get what you want. It just makes it more likely the other person will be receptive. And being assertive means you won’t be ashamed of your behaviour.

You’ll be living up to your values by being clear and tactful. Being upfront with friends and staying true to your values will help avoid misunderstandings.

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