science of us

How to Tell If You’re Being a Neglectful Friend

Photo: H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

One sunny Saturday, I met one of my best friends, whom I’ll call Laura (not her real name), for lunch. We were halfway through our French fries when she asked me a question.

“Can I get your opinion?” asked Laura. (My answer: “Always.”) Her predicament: She’d recently canceled dinner plans with another friend, one she sees regularly, to work late. And now, it seemed, that friend was pissed.

“She just sent me a long email telling me that she’s tired of me being flaky and blowing her off,” Laura concluded. “How do I even respond to that?”

If I’ve learned anything over the years, it’s that email is a bad way to communicate anything besides flight reservations. But I also didn’t get why Laura’s friend felt entitled to her time. They already hang out on a weekly basis — and considering Laura’s work-life balance, which I know to be nonexistent, that’s already a miracle. Besides, it’s tough to prioritize a friend you see frequently over, say, a looming deadline.

But I also understood where her friend was coming from. Laura’s canceled on me at the last minute in the past. It sucks. And, when it happens repeatedly, it can be downright demoralizing. Is it me? Is it her?

Some friendships don’t require in-person dates, and can instead survive on frequent texts and the occasional phone call. That’s the case for Liz (also not her real name), who lives several time zones away from both her best friend and her family. When she comes home for the holidays, she tends to prioritize the latter.

“She gets mad at me because I won’t offer to spend the entire weekend with her,” says Liz of her friend. “I love her, but she doesn’t know when to leave — and it changes the dynamic when she’s around for days on end.”

From the perspective of Liz’s friend, it may seem like Liz squeezes her in for a quick visit when she’s home — and that may not be enough for her. Or her friend’s expectations may be too high.

Probably, though, it’s a combo of both.

“It’s pretty rare for two people within a friendship to have the exact same expectations, time allotments and boundaries, let alone have them match all the time consistently,” says clinical psychologist Andrea Bonior, who hosts a weekly relationships live chat at the Washington Post. “In general, the more respectfully and honestly you can communicate, the less stressful it will be for everyone involved.”

And it is stressful — not just the conflict itself, but all the second-guessing that comes with it. Is one of you being a neglectful friend, or a reasonable person who has a lot going on? Is the other one too demanding, or just showing that they care? Figuring out can be as tricky as having those tough conversations. Here’s your how-to for doing both right.

Weigh both sides of the story.

Think of this as an exercise in empathy: “Ask yourself what’s going on in their life right now, and whether you’re being as empathetic as you should be,” Bonior says. “Are you cutting them the slack that you would want them to cut you in that situation?”

Then, ask yourself whether they’re trying to send you a message that they’re no longer as invested in the relationship. “Are they now always ‘busy’ when nothing has ostensibly changed in their life, or they say they don’t have time to hang out but you can tell by their social media they’re going out as much as ever?” asks Bonior. You don’t want to go so far as to assume that your friend is icing you out, but it can help shed some light on whether or not this is an issue even worth bringing up.

Figure out what kind of friendship you have.

Everyone has that friend they only see once in a blue moon — but when you do get together, it feels like nothing’s changed. (Your tip-off: Someone utters, “Wow, we’re so old!” at any point.) “Some friendships do beautifully with long periods of no contact,” says Bonior. “The two parties pick up right where they left off — no frustration, guilt, or explanation needed.” Other friendships fare better with constant contact, and without it, you may feel like you and your friend are out of sync or not as comfortable together as you once were. That’s totally fine — and normal, as people grow older and further apart — but it could also reveal that you need more face time than you’re currently getting. It’s fine to consider which friendships require more care and feeding as you figure out how to allocate your time.

Assess what you want from a friendship.

If you’re constantly avoiding your friend — or it feels like just another task on your to-do list — you should probably figure out why you’re MIA. “Ask yourself this: Is this a phase that can be due to some sort of temporary reason — like your friend is stressed and a bummer to be around, your time feels more precious than usual due to a slammed schedule, or your friend is going through a new life phase that you can’t necessarily relate to or are jealous of? Or is this the beginning of a new pattern?” says Bonior.

Some people stay friends out of guilt, because they feel like it’s the right thing to do, or because they think you’re not really friends unless you’re friends forever — none of which are really good reasons to keep investing in the friendship. Like romantic relationships, friendships don’t suddenly become unimportant or worthless just because they’ve ended. And, if it turns out you just have a lot on your plate or are working 24/7, you don’t have to break up with your friend. Instead, consider taking a temporary break from it until you can get back to where you were. (Here’s a guide to friendship breaks, if you need it.)

Try to find a middle ground.

You probably don’t keep an updated ranking of all your friends (or so I hope), but odds are, you spend more time with some than you do others. And while a friend could be your end-all-be-all, you might be just a part of her close group. “Are you their No. 1 who they want daily text contact with, but they’re your number 7 whom you’re fine seeing only once or twice a month?” asks Bonior. If you don’t line up, a) welcome to the club, and b) try to find a middle ground. This only becomes an issue when you can’t find a happy medium between your needs and your friend’s willingness or ability to meet them — which leads to the next point.

Ask for what you need.

If you feel like your friend is flakier than usual — and you have no explanation as to why — you should just talk it out. Yes, it’s an awkward conversation. But it’s better than saying nothing and silently resenting them. Bonior recommends choosing a private, relaxed place — so, not over email — and using a lot of “I” statements versus those that assign blame. And come from a place of sympathy and thoughtfulness (e.g. “I really would love to see you more, but I don’t want to push you if your life is moving in a different direction. I just wanted to understand so that I know what to expect”). The sooner you bring it up, the sooner you can go back to things like gossiping on a weekend afternoon over a side of fries.

How to Tell If You’re Being a Neglectful Friend