Upset friend
There could be various reasons for a friendship fading, including major life transitions, or a sense of hurt that one person does not wish to address, or they have simply outgrown the person. Image Credit: Shutterstock

When do you know that you’re the only one in a friendship?

It could be the monosyllabic responses, the unanswered calls or the restrained, polite conversations that aren’t going anywhere. A withdrawal in a friendship is just as painful as a relationship ending, as many would tell you. Twenty-seven-year-old Reema Sahni, a Dubai-based Indian expat still doesn’t know why a decade-old friendship slowly faded away over the course of six months. “I could see her pulling away slowly, but I kept doubting myself, and thinking it was an overreaction on my part,” she says.

The frequency of the messages slowly reduced, the cheery camaraderie that the two of them shared turned to polite, mildly friendly and then cordial, till it disappeared altogether. She seemed disinterested to hear anything about Sahni’s life, or work. The meetings reduced considerably, and when they finally did, it seemed awkward. Then she started making excuses to not meet Sahni, who finally stopped trying.

“There are little things in a close friendship that only two people know. You feel it strongly when it changes, and these little things are hard to pinpoint, because then you’re made to feel like you’re overthinking,” she adds.

It’s always the little things that hurt. For Judith Lee, an American-Dutch expat based in Abu Dhabi, it stung when her friend at work slowly stopped meeting her for their regular tea breaks. “She told me that she was busy, so I didn’t push it. And then she didn’t seem too interested in talking anymore, whenever I met her in the hallways,” recalls Lee.

The smiles suddenly became rather stiff and starched. “I don’t know when we became strangers, but we just did,” she says.

'Quiet quitting' a friendship

Person upset
People don't want to address the reasons why they have withdrawn from the friendship, as many fear confrontation. Image Credit: Shutterstock

There’s pain, confusion and inexplicable grief, when a friend withdraws from you as Kirin Hilliar, a professor in psychology at Heriot-Watt University Dubai, explains. She disagrees with the term 'quiet quitting' a term used for employees to slowly shut off from an organisation, when their needs aren't met. Nevertheless, a similar principle applies in friendships: If you aren't receiving the same element of reciprocity, and committment, the best thing to do is allocate your time else where.

There are a multitude of reasons why a friendship could fade, some of them being, your friend has outgrown you,  they don’t see the need to keep in touch, or perhaps upset with you for reasons that they find difficult to articulate. However, it could also be that they are going through a particularly tough time in their lives and find it difficult to keep up with their relationships, she says.

Nevertheless, you are left with more questions than answers. This gradual ending of a friendship can be psychologically damaging, as the person being left behind consistently questions themselves. “Some people find it particularly hard to get out of this negative narrative; they keep puzzling what went wrong. They will keep trying to understand what went wrong, even if the other person won’t give them a straight answer,”  says. Tania Wyne, a Dubai-based psychologist.

If a person is going through life transitions like marriage or having a baby, the friendship might need to be calibrated. Their priorities will be entirely different and that has to also be taken into account, despite a sense of grieving...

- Kirin Hilliar, professor in psychology at Heriot-Watt University Dubai

Why do people not find a way to put others out of their misery? Well, nobody wants unpleasant, ugly, conversations that address difficult, thorny issues. "People may choose to quietly quit friendships due to a difficulty in expressing themselves and communicating what they need or expect in connection," explains Rebecca Carter, a clinical psychologist based at LightHouse Arabia, Dubai. "Each of us inherently fear confrontation to different degrees, therefore may use this avoidant approach as a strategy to work through discomfort," she says.

Some question whether quiet-quitting is a form of intentional boundary setting, whilst others view it as a natural phenomenon which occurs during life changes and a shift in priorities such as starting a family, moving to a new city or embarking on a venture. "Nonetheless, quiet-quitting does not align with what is considered a healthy friendship which thrives off mutual emotional investment, open communication, honesty and consistency," she adds. 

The experts explain that there are always tell-tale signs that a friendship is fading, and if you catch that happening, you should try and address it directly, without mincing words.

Here are some signs:

When conversations become unnatural

Forced smiles, repetitive, “So what’s up?”, to break the monotony are clear hallmarks of a rather strained friendship. You begin to feel like you’re wasting the other person’s time, explains Lucy Gordon, a Dubai-based psychologist and friendship expert. There is no depth; the conversation seems perfunctory. It remains on the surface. “If you relate an anecdote, and the other person barely reacts to it or asks further questions, that’s a clear sign,” she says. You’ll see that your friend isn’t asking deeper questions or doesn’t flow, the way it used to.

If a close friend, who once spent hours talking to you about your relationship hassles, barely shows interest in your life, the friendship is experiencing a shift, says Gordon. You should never feel like that you need to make a desperate effort in a friendship, and if you start feeling like that, then there are high chances that something is wrong, she says.

They avoid spending time alone with you

Another clear sign is that they make excuses to avoid being with you alone, explains Wyne. They always want to meet with someone else, or in groups.

This holds true for Melanie Keyes, a Dubai-based British expat and entrepreneur. Her closest friend for over a decade would suddenly make excuses to not meet her alone; she would always bring someone else along. “It’s not even something you can ask directly, though I did try. She just kept saying, the more, the merrier?” says a confused Keyes. The friendship frayed, needless to say. Keyes still doesn’t know what she did to upset her friend, or what ended their relationship. And as she says, she didn’t want to keep pursuing her.

Sometimes, people fear co-dependency in a relationship or a friendship and wish to set boundaries. Image Credit: Shutterstock

You can’t be vulnerable with them anymore

When you feel as if you’re overburdening a friend by sharing problems, even if it’s minimal, that’s a red flag, says Wyne. A quiet-quitting can also be seen in terms of withdrawal in terms of emotional investment. They don’t share the little details with you about their lives anymore; you’re left with a birdseye view of what’s happening in their life.

Perhaps, this stings some people more than others. In the case of Medha Ramanathan, an Abu Dhabi-based homemaker, she found it particularly hard when her best friend closed the door to his life completely. “I think, when you’re close friends with someone, you get so deeply absorbed into their routines, and they get immersed in yours. So, when that suddenly changes without any explanation, and there’s just silence, it can cause a lot of grief,” adds Ramanathan.

Of course there are caveats to this, as Wyne explains. Sometimes, people fear co-dependency in a relationship or a friendship and wish to set boundaries. “Undoubtedly, there are better ways of doing this, instead of just quiet-quitting. You need to talk and be honest with the other person,” she says. She does add: You need to evaluate yourself too and your actions as well. A friendship goes both ways. 

How do you address your friend quiet-quitting a friendship?

You need to talk to the person, the moment you see them withdrawing. Image Credit: Shutterstock

Well, as the psychologists explain, you usually can’t stop someone from quiet-quitting you, but what you can do, is try to talk to them first.

“It doesn’t matter if you feel that the signs are small and you’re afraid that it’s an overreaction. You felt it, that’s what is important. Quite often, you just might have the right instinct,” says Gordon. “Ask them, without being aggressive. Put it in a way that you really want to save the friendship, and you see a rift forming,” she says. At least you tried, instead of being left with regret that you actually never asked, because you were afraid.

As Hilliar points out, take a step back and re-evaluate the friendship. However, if you feel that you have done something wrong, ask what you can do to rebuild that trust. How can you give the person the space? As she notes, if a friend is moving away emotionally, don't suffocate them. Look at whether you have emotional support too, or are you just dependent on this one person? Ask yourself, whether you can rely on other support? 

If your friend is going through life-changing transitions like moving to a new city or having a baby, and has slowly faded out of touch, you also need to understand that they have different priorities now. “We are always caught between our responsibilities and relationships,” says Wyne. It does hurt, yes, but you can try in a gentler manner, to ask how they’re doing and check in on them. If they’re too caught up in their lives, try to give them space.

Carter gives some actionable tips:

1) Validate: It’s never easy to experience uncertainty or unforeseen change in your friendships, therefore you may be feeling grief, sadness, rejection, confusion and even anger. It’s important to acknowledge and validate your own feelings – without judgement.

2) Reflect: Spend some time reflecting on the bigger picture. Take a helicopter approach and observe; Is this friend dealing with personal challenges? Are they struggling with new responsibilities or life transitions such as a new job, moving cities or supporting family? Is this a consistent and familiar pattern or just a current phase?

3) Communicate: Initiate a conversation and ask. This may feel daunting however it creates space for new insights, shared feelings and clarity. Ensure the conversation is honest and direct, without blame or judgement, and prepare to gain more understanding or accept that no matter how much you ask things may remain as they are.

4) Acceptance: Focus your attention on accepting the circumstances in your friendship, remembering that you cannot control how others feel and behave. It may be useful to unburden yourself from the desire or need to ‘figure it out’ and find the reasons why, and instead accept what is with a lot of compassion for yourself.