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We constantly talk about our partners and our breakups, our marriages and our divorces. But friendship — its beginning, occasional end, and every problem in between — can be harder to pin down. Many of the readers who write to Heather Havrilesky, the writer behind the Cut’s advice column Ask Polly, are looking for help navigating the less formal (but no less fraught) waters of platonic relationships. Read on for nine pieces of her best friendship advice.
A reader stricken by adulthood is troubled by feeling like she has no friends. How do you make friends when the people closest to you are scattered all over the country, or starting to make different life choices? Polly points out that many people in their late 20s feel this way, that it makes sense in a country as big as ours. And there’s a key difference, she says, between early 20s friendships and what comes after: “But as you get a little older, you know who you are and you don’t mind knowing people who don’t necessarily get you.”
How much should we reasonably expect from our friends? A reader calling herself All Alone describes her intense need to be among friends; otherwise, she says, she feels anxious and depressed — feelings she hasn’t confided in anyone about. Polly advises her to begin by being honest with anyone she truly wants to be close to. Because “as long as you’re not afraid of telling the truth, as long as you’re not fearful and angry and hiding, you’ll make more friends.”
Unfriended describes the ending of two friendships, the sharpness of which is made all the more acute because the two former friends are close. Polly acknowledges the difficulty of any friendship ending, explaining we often expect friendship to be a constant brightness, without the darkness indicative of any close relationship. This makes it difficult to handle a friendship problem, she says, like the one the reader faces. “Close friendships are only possible between two people who can listen,” she reminds us, “and be WRONG a lot and accept that they are imperfect, clumsy, impatient, and very flawed.”
The Fool writes to Polly because she feels as though every one of her friends is looking for what she can do for them, rather than just wanting to spend time together. Polly says this is bound to happen from people who have high standards of giving; when we think it’s normal to give everything we have to our friends, we’re mystified when they don’t do the same in return. “Don’t be a good friend anymore,” Polly advises. “Just show up, and ask that others show up for you.”
A reader writes to Polly while mourning the end of a close friendship. How can she move on from what the relationship used to mean to her? Polly says that she needs to take a close look at herself, and what her reaction to the friendship’s ending might mean. “There are things she has that you want, deep down inside,” Polly explains, “but that you can’t have or don’t have yet or feel conflicted about. Look closely at these things.”
Misfit writes to Polly describing a cherished friendship that’s faded over time. Polly gets right to the point: “You’re attracted to people who seem unlikely to need you as much as you need them.” If Misfit can learn to truly love herself as she is, Polly says, she can make more space for other people seeking the same kind of intense attachments.
A reader thinks about a troubled friend she knew in college. He drank too much and became abusive to the point where she gave him an ultimatum: Get help or end the friendship. Her friend chose to end the friendship, but should the reader have tried harder to help him? Polly expresses compassion for the alcoholic friend, but cautions the reader against feeling like she has the power to do more. “The bottom line is,” Polly says, “you have to judge people by what they do. Not by how charming they are over drinks, but by how they actually behave in the wild.”
Confused feels like an outcast within her group of friends from high school. Can Polly help her reframe her perspective on friendship? She should start by making some new friends, Polly says, ones that might be better suited for her. She should also realize social media’s fun house–mirror effect on friendship: “We have to find a way to bring the sharp edges and troubling complications and glorious moments of joy into a world that communicates with a series of popping-Champagne emoji and eye-roll memes.”
A woman whose friend has been romantically involved with several of her exes wants to move past her negative feelings. Polly wonders why the woman feels she needs to be at peace with the actions of a friend like this: “It’s really hard to end friendships, but it’s even harder to go through your life never drawing clear, hard boundaries.” There’s no reason to stick it out with a friend who’s not worth it, she advises.
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