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Posted on Sun. Feb. 17, 2013 - 12:01 am EDT

Friendships in crisis

Put space between you and a pal if needed – but don’t just desert

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When John Schell, of Fort Wayne, and his wife divorced in 2011, he noticed something he didn’t expect: Their mutual friends stopped returning his phone calls, or they’d go out of their way to avoid him.

While he was going through his divorce – what many therapists would call one of life’s biggest stressors – Schell found himself without the people he usually turned to for comfort and support.

“Typically what happens is friends may side with one person or the other, so you may lose an entire group of friends,” says Jan Eggiman, a Fort Wayne-based licensed marriage and family therapist and a registered nurse. “It’s a huge loss.”

Divorce is just one reason a friend may “break up” with another.

As people age and undergo new life experiences, the group of people they once depended on for love and support can change or, as in Schell’s case, disappear, leaving them to manage what’s left.

The late Ray Pahl, a British sociologist, found that two-thirds of 1,000 people surveyed named friends as one of life’s biggest stressors, according to “The Mixed Bag Buddy (And Other Friendship Conundrums),” an article in February’s “Psychology Today.” According to the article, many people admit to wanting to cut out at least five friends from their lives.

Eggiman doesn’t necessarily agree with the assessment. For one, she points out, multiple researchers have found that friends are necessary for happiness, so she was surprised at Pahl’s finding. Second, she wouldn’t suggest a person cut out his or her friends – as with Schell’s case – even if two are growing apart or the friend is causing bad feelings in the relationship.

Instead, she suggests changing the boundaries of the friendship. Instead of the platonic version of “Let’s break up,” maybe someone should take a step back – spend less time together, stop being available at an instant’s notice.

“Because a friendship isn’t like a marriage, it’s possible to set up boundaries,” Eggiman says.

Eggiman has never cut a friend from her life, she says, though she has altered some people’s roles.

“As I’ve developed and grown in my life, my friends have changed,” she says. “I help people. I will always be your friend. I’ve never really cut someone out of my life.”

If she did come across someone who was a toll to be around, she would encourage them to seek help rather than cut them out.

When patients tell her about problem friendships, there are a few common threads: Perhaps they find their friends too critical, or they feel a friend is being too needy. Often, they believe they are doing too much for someone and not receiving enough in return: They are the first to show up when someone has car trouble or offer to make dinner should financial strain occur.

“I’ve had people say, ‘This person used me. I was always helping them. They didn’t help me,’ and they began to see this friend as a drain on them,” Eggiman says. “The beauty of friendship is, they’re not family. You can choose them.”

People tend to form three kinds of friendships, Eggiman says:

•Close friends are the ones people share their innermost thoughts and feelings with, the ones they trust implicitly.

•The second tier of friendship is made of friends with whom people share interests and common bonds. They might not be the ones you bare your souls to, but they’re the ones you call for a weeknight dinner or to join a book club or bowling league.

•An acquaintance might be a co-worker or neighbor. You might go out for coffee, and you’d go to their funeral, but there isn’t that bond of closeness or even of shared interest.

What Schell started to lose after his divorce were those nearby friends with whom he can be social. He moved to the area from Massachusetts 16 years ago and has kept in touch with people there. But friends in the northeast can’t exactly meet up for a coffee or an early dinner with their friend in Fort Wayne.

And, he admits, it’s left him bitter.

“That friendship that was linked to being a couple was not a friendship that was linked to a specific person,” he says. “But if there was a specific person, it wasn’t me.”

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