When friends let you down

Jane Murphy / 13 April 2016

So your friend wasn't there for you when you needed her most? Here's how to take stock of what's happened and decide whether it's time to say goodbye.



We all rely on our friends for emotional and practical support when times are tough. So when a close friend doesn't respond in the way we'd hope and expect, it can feel utterly devastating. Before you get eaten up by sadness and anger, however, it's important to put things into perspective and work out what's really happened here. Yes, your friend may be at fault. But there could also be a lot more to this situation than meets the eye.

Related: how to make new friends

Why friendships matter

Everybody needs good friends. In fact, not having a strong social support network can pose a significant threat to your health and mortality risk, according to recent research at Brigham Young University in the US.

Researchers analysed data from a variety of studies including more than three million participants. Their conclusion? 'The effect of loneliness and social isolation is comparable to obesity, something that public health takes very seriously,' says lead author Julianne Holt-Lunstad. 'We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously.'

Numerous studies have shown that close friendships make us better able to cope with stress and anxiety: for instance, feeling emotionally close to a female friend encourages the release of stress-busting hormones, a University of Michigan study has found. And strong social ties can even boost chances of surviving cancer, according to a 2012 study published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

Related: health benefits of friendship

Before you end the friendship...

With so much at stake, it's natural to feel hurt when a friend doesn't appear to be there for you in your hour of need. But before you break off all ties or launch into a scathing personal attack, it's a good idea to stop and ask yourself a few key questions.

First, did she definitely know you were having a tough time? The hurt you're feeling now could all be down to a breakdown in communication. Perhaps you have a tendency to underplay things, for example, and just expect the message to magically get through. No matter how close your bond, your friend isn't a mind-reader.

Second, were you clear about what you needed from her? Some people are better than others at picking up signs or taking hints. Either way, we tend to prefer to be given specific tasks, rather than trying to second-guess what's required of us. Let's say you want a lift to a hospital appointment. It's far better to ask a friend outright if she's able to oblige, rather than moaning about having to take the bus and just hoping she offers.

Finally, is she genuinely in a position to meet your expectations right now? Have you asked her how she's feeling recently? Maybe she's having a tough time, too. Even if you've always been there for her in the past, it doesn't mean she's equipped to do exactly the same for you. Everyone has different health issues, family and work commitments, finances and – crucially – views on how to get through a crisis.

You may be the kind of person who likes your friends to check in every day during the tough times. But someone else may fear those daily visits or calls could get annoying, and so choose to ease up and give you some space. It doesn't mean she doesn't care or that she isn't thinking about you. Again, it all comes down to clear, honest communication.

What happens next?

So, all things considered, you're still hurt and feel the need to let your friend know? Fine – but do bear a few pointers in mind.

It can be tempting to fire off an email or text, setting out your complaints in no uncertain terms. Write it down, by all means – but do not press 'send'. Do so and you'll run the risk of further misunderstandings and upset. After all, you can't control when and where your message will be read. Indeed, using text messages in an attempt to work out differences is associated with poor-quality relationships, a Brigham Young University study found.

And don't resort to passive aggressive hint-dropping. If you value your friendship – and of course you do, or you wouldn't be feeling so hurt – you both need to talk through what's happened in person or over the telephone. Be honest, stay calm and remain open to seeing things from your friend's perspective. 

There's every chance she had no idea she'd let you down – and if you can clear up any misunderstandings now and plan how you'll cope together in future, you'll probably soon be laughing about the whole silly mix-up.

Related: 8 tips for making friends and building friendships

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