Do You Have Fragile Friendships? 30 Tips to Turn Fragility Into Longevity

Do you have fragile friendships? I mean, let's get real here; What happens if someone doesn't reply to a text? What do you do if it's "too hard" to arrange a catch-up? Which of your invisible rules have you articulated to your friends? Are you flexible and generous in your interpretations?

Relationships can be tricky at the best of times, and often it's a lack of relational awareness & skill that leads to fragile friendships.

    PART 1: INTRODUCTION TO FRAGILE FRIENDSHIPS

    What Are Fragile Friendships?

    Friends fighting about polarising issues

    Fragile friendships exist only as long as it is convenient or comfortable for you.

    When your friend doesn't behave how you expect them to,  gives you robust feedback, or isn't available in the way you'd like, you decide to end the friendship. But it's more than that, not only do you end your fragile friendships but you tell a story to yourself about it being their fault!

    You might say things like;

    • They're too busy these days
    • They take too long to reply to texts
    • They care more about their new partner/kids/study/job
    • We're just too different
    • We've grown apart
    • They let me down

    What Causes Fragile Friendships?

    There are two main factors that influence whether you have fragile friendships, or relationships with longevity;

    • unreasonable or unarticulated expectations, and
    • the natural rhythms of daily life.

    The most common factor is unarticulated or unreasonable expectations.

    About six years ago my heart was broken by a woman who I thought would be a lifelong friend. I fucking loved that lady, she was funny & fierce with a generous soul. The blow out completely blind-sided me, and has become such a deep learning experience that I approach friendship entirely differently now!

    What happened? (Unarticulated expectations.) 

    Over the course of our friendship, my sporadic patterns of communication really pissed her off. I get it, you know? It's not gold standard behaviour and I work REALLY hard on it now. But the thing that makes me feel the saddest is that she never expressed that to me until she was so angry & resentful that we went from zero to a thousand in two minutes and the friendship imploded.

    So how do you know if your expectations are 'unreasonable'?

    Friend, you probably never will.

    I can tell you the kinds of things that frequently shatter fragile friendships, but the truth is you'll always find people who completely agree with you AND people who disagree. I think a better approach is to get really clear on what your expectations & desires are for your friendships, to communicate those clearly, and navigate that with each friend.

    Secondly, the natural rhythms of daily life...

    There are many facets to our lives and there is no such thing as balance; instead, there are ebbs & flows of time, energy, and attention.

    Sometimes your time, energy, and attention flows to a new high priority. It might be temporary (transitional events like moving house, starting a new job, meeting a new lover), or more permanent (having a baby, moving city, making lifestyle choices). That means that another realm of your life will experience an ebb of some (or all) of those resources. That's just how it goes!

    I can tell you for sure that every friendship will experience these ebbs & flows- sometimes your friend/s will be more focused on their health, their career, their family, and less focused on your friendship.

    Those with fragile friendships make ebbs & flows mean something about you, when it's not about you at all.

    QUIZ - Are Your Friendships Fragile?

    1. When my friend does something that I find frustrating or hurtful, I make a time with them specifically to talk it through.
    2. When my friend doesn't reply to a text, phonecall, or invitation, I follow up with them to check if they're okay (not to check why they didn't reply!)
    3. If I haven't seen nor heard from a friend for weeks, months, or even years, I assume they don't want to spend time with me & stop trying.
    4. When my friend and I disagree on something that is deeply important to me, it means that our friendship has run its course.
    5. I have friends whose opinions & approach to life are very different to my own.
    6. I've said the words "who even does that?!" to someone else, about a friend of mine.
    7. When I've had an argument or disagreement with a friend, it usually means that we drift apart.
    8. When a friend goes through a change in circumstances (has a baby, finds a new partner, moves cities) I stay in touch with them, even when I don't hear back from them for long periods of time.
    9. When a friend breaks our trust that's a deal breaker.
    10. If a friend gives me feedback that I think is inaccurate, inconsiderate, or badly delivered, I seriously think about ending our friendship.

    PART 2: BUILDING RESILIENT FRIENDSHIPS

    What Are the Elements of Resilient Friendships?

    A group of friends laughing and taking a selfie.
    Image from Canva

    The antidote to fragile friendships is to develop self-awareness & skills in;

    Flows (& Ebbs) in Friendships

    Relationships have a natural ebb & flow - there are times when you will feel really close & connected, and others where you might feel like there's much more distance between you.

    That's just how it goes in a life where we are continually juggling the competing demands of work, family, and lifestyle. It doesn't inherently mean anything about you, about others, or about your friendships!

    Allowing a friendship room to breathe is crucial to avoid fragile friendships.

    You can do that by committing to holding the truth that the world is ever changing, change is inevitable, and that people change.

    10 Tips for Friendship Flows & Ebbs

    To avoid fragile friendships you should assume there will be times when your friend has other priorities. Ideally they will let you know, or you are able to anticipate that likelihood as they are living through transitional events in their lives.

    You might notice that happening because you are feeling lonely, hurt, angry, or otherwise disconnected from them.

    Here's how you can navigate those times;

    1. Name your experience, your feelings, and what you are making that mean. For example "Billy hasn't wanted to play with me for a month, and I am feeling lonely. I feel a bit sad, and it reminds me of other times friends haven't wanted to play. I'm telling myself a story that I'm not important to Billy because if I was he would make time for me". This is the story of fragile friendships.
    2. Process your feelings. This is relational work in action; to practice good emotional hygiene by taking responsibility for working through hard feelings instead of taking it out on others. Fragile friendships direct blame for feelings towards others.
    3. Identify the most generous interpretation of their actions. "I've moved house before, and it's really stressful. There's so much to do and so many things to remember, that I can totally understand why they would be distracted from doing social things" or "I've lost touch with friends before and it can feel really awkward or embarrassing to get in touch again, I can see why it's hard for them to reach out" or "I've had friends who were really unkind when I made a mistake before, and it felt awful. I'm going to choose to be patient". Fragile friendships assume the worst.
    4. Remember you never know what is really happening in people's lives. If they are struggling with their mental, physical, or emotional health they may not be able to reach out. Perhaps they are having relationship issues, or have experienced bullying, stress, or violence. This (probably) isn't about you. Fragile friendships make everything about you.
    5. Let them know that you miss them, and you're here when they're ready to connect. Choose an interval that feels comfortable to you, and reach out to them regularly. That might be as simple as a weekly meme or reel, a text or voicemail once a month, or an email update every couple of months. Fragile friendships believe people owe you an explanation.
    6. Let them know you miss them, and that you are feeling hurt. Perhaps they don't realise that you're feeling this way. Do be sure to do this in a way that centres your friendship, let's them know they're important to you, and creates a space to talk about what's happening. Fragile friendships presume people can read your mind and know how you feel.
    7. If you've done this for quite a while, consider simply reassessing your circle. Friendships are fluid, and it's normal to have people move between circles of best friends, friends, and acquaintances. From time-to-time it's healthy to reflect on your friendship circles. Perhaps this friend isn't your bestie right now, but you still love their company and can be friends who see each other less often? Fragile friendships expect constancy in relational roles.

    Flexible Friendships

    Some friendships may feel "high maintenance" to you. That's because their expectations are different to yours.

    This just means you have different desires, expectations, and lifestyles. It's healthy to nurture relationships with many different types of people; some will cost you more energy than others. It will take more effort for you to engage with them because it doesn't feel effortless or easy.

    To be clear, if you only have friends who are "easy", you're probably a bit of a dick. It also suggests that you're likely to have fragile friendships because it's inevitable for two individuals to discover differences, and if you haven't engaged with those challenges you're probably just cruising.

    If that's the case I really encourage you to explore what's happening as the greatest opportunities for deep connection arise from navigating complexities in a challenging relationship.

    10 Tips for Flexibility in Friendships

    To avoid fragile friendships you should assume that you will find things about your friends that are fundamentally different to you.

    You should also assume that at some point they're going to let you down badly.

    That isn't because they suck, it's because finding the gap in your expectations and their behaviour is inevitable. You are different. They are human. In fact you will also let them down, but perhaps you will experience that as their 'unreasonable expectation'. You see?

    Here's how you can develop flexibility;

    1. Get really clear on your logistical sweet spot in your friendships. What's your preference for frequency of time together? How long is okay for you to respond to a text? Do you want time just the two of you? Or are group activities okay? What kinds of things do you want to do together? What helps you to know that you matter to them? What are your invisible friendship rules? Know that this is your preference only, not the gold standard for how to be a friend. Fragile friendships assume personal preferences are 'normal' and reasonable.
    2. Communicate those desires clearly & often. Don't demand your friend does those things, just make sure they know your preference. For example, I say to friends "I'd love to catch up with you for coffee regularly, every 4-6 weeks is my preference (but less often is fine too!) How does that work for you?" Or, "I don't really like to go out in the evening because by then I'm usually pretty tired. In the mornings my brain works best! Are there any times of day you prefer?" It doesn't have to be onerous, a little transparency early & often can really avoid the worst of misunderstandings. Fragile friendships presume others know what you want (and if they don't do it, that it's deliberate & malicious).
    3. Get curious about your friends' sweet spots in their friendships. What's their preference for frequency of time together? How long is okay for them for you to respond to a text? Do they want time just the two of you? Or are group activities okay? What kinds of things do they want to do together? What helps them to know that they matter to you? What are their invisible friendship rules? Know that this is their preference only, not the gold standard for how to be a friend. Fragile friendships assume they already know what others want.
    4. Clarify their desires clearly & often. Don't presume you know all the things. You might not have it quite right, and your friend (and friendship) will change! For example, ask them "it seems like you're annoyed with me if we only see each other every couple of months, am I missing something? Would you prefer we spend time together more often?" Or, "I've noticed that I usually call you during the day on a weekday, but you usually call back on a Saturday morning and we keep missing each other! What is the best time for me to call you?" It doesn't have to be critical, a little check-in early & often can really avoid the worst of misunderstandings. Fragile friendships assume they understand others, and don't seek clarity or confirmation.
    5. Know your own limits and maintain good boundaries. While you are developing friendship flexibility you might find yourself saying yes, or compromising, more than you would like. Get really clear on what is, and is not, working for you then take responsibility for making that happen. For example; I don't like to go out in the evening (because chronic fatigue means I pumpkin at 7), but sometimes it's super fun to go out for a dinner, or go see a show, or do something different. To make this okay I make sure that I have plenty of recovery time afterwards (a few quiet days) and no social engagements for the following week. That's how I maintain flexibility with my friends preferences for evenings out at public places, while still taking care of my own time, energy, and attention. AND I don't get resentful (about being asked or saying yes) or guilty (about not replying or saying no). Fragile friendships abdicate responsibility for their own needs, and blame others for over or under functioning.
    6. Experiment! Flexible friendships require you doing new & different things, and your own preferences & priorities will change throughout your life. An orientation towards experiments means you can try new things, have fun (or hate it!), learn things, and keep that conversation flowing between you. Fragile friendships are afraid of change.
    7. Surface relational conflict. Pretending that everything is fine, or allowing your friendship to slowly drift away, is the classic behaviour in fragile friendships. Instead, check in with them. That might sound like "hey, I've been feeling a bit anxious about how things are, and the story I'm telling myself is that you don't want to see me as often. Could we talk about what's going on for you?" This is a key behaviour to allow you to develop relational resilience. Fragile friendships don't want to rock the boat, and pretend things are 'fine'.

    Feedback in Friendships

    Your friends will let you down, disappoint you, and make you wonder why you were ever friends. That's not because there's anything wrong, this is just the nature of relationships.***

    We presume we are more same than different (which is true) and then feel shocked or hurt when we discover the inevitable differences between us. Friendships over time will encounter; polarising opinions, broken trust, unmet expectations, disappointments, and other human experiences that arise from contrasts in our beliefs & behaviours.

    The key to navigating with friends through those storms is to build a high level of skill in giving & receiving feedback, and a gentle consistent approach to sharing it.

    10 Tips for Feedback in Friendships

    To avoid fragile friendships you should assume that your friends will do things that you don't like, and neglect to do things you prefer.

    That isn't because they suck, it's because finding the gap in your expectations and their behaviour is inevitable. You are different. They are human. In fact you will also let them down, but perhaps you will experience that as their 'unreasonable expectation'. You see?

    Here's how you can develop feedback skills & routines;

    1. Learn to receive feedback. Ohhhh friend, this is the work of a lifetime. We're socialised to deflect positive feedback, and defend negative feedback. We're schooled to believe there is a 'right' way and a 'wrong' way to do things. All of that sets us up for a giant fail when it comes to receiving feedback. At the heart of receiving feedback with grace is a growth mindset, and approach to life as an iterative experiment. Look for the kernel of truth. Process your emotions. Consider the perspectives of others. Integrate. Repeat. Fragile friendships respond to feedback with patterns from the drama cycle.
    2. Get curious about your friends' experience of friendship with you. Request feedback! You can ask "what do you like best about our friendship?", "what do you think are my best qualitites as a friend?", "what do you find challenging about our friendship?", "what could I do to better support you?". Fragile friendships lack the resilience and courage to ask relational questions.
    3. Clarify feedback early & often. Check that you have the meaning of the feedback, and hold space for your friend to explore their way through their feels with you. Get clear on what they would like instead. Fragile friendships assume their interpretation is accurate, and don't seek clarity or confirmation.
    4. Communicate your feedback clearly & often. Feedback isn't ever calling out, and is rarely about Big Things. Most of the time it's a simple communication about what you like & don't like! Do make sure you give positive feedback frequently, it is even more important than the negative. Fragile friendships don't allow others insight into our own experience.
    5. Develop good emotional hygiene. Process your emotions before you bring yourself to a feedback conversation. It's appropriate to feel emotional in a feedback conversation, AND it's important not to be immersed in, or ruled by those emotions in that moment. Fragile friendships allow emotions to run the show. 
    6. Learn to give feedback. This too is a lifetime skill, and one of the bravest things you can ever learn to do. Giving clean high quality feedback is a gift! Learn to share your message without emotional hooks. Brené Brown has a great checklist for giving engaged feedback here. Fragile friendships give feedback as an emotional lashing out or blaming.
    7. Get curious about your experience of friendship with others. Consider your emotional responses in relationships. What are the needs, desires, and dreams that are not being fulfilled? Where did you learn to need, want, or yearn for those things? How could you fulfil yourself? How could you invite fulfilment? Fragile friendships expect others to meet our relational needs, desires & dreams.

    ***The caveat here is: if these things are happening frequently across your friendships, or frequently in one, it's time to get a professional perspective on your friendship dynamics. It doesn't automatically mean anything, you know? But I can't cover all the permutations & possibilities here...

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    For full transparency you should know: This transcript has been edited to optimise the SEO on my website. That means that I have emphasised some words or phrases so that the article is more likely to appear in a google search. In this article "fragile friendships" has been optimised. I only do that in a context where the meaning will remain the same.

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