I'm a disappointing friend. Is that okay?


I had this in my messages a few months ago.

“Just curious if you ever written anything on being the disappointing friend? I am that person. I’m really good at making friendships in the moment, but I over promise and under deliver.”

The question was from Jane, one of my Facebook friends. She’s a busy mum of plenty of kids who do plenty of activities. She also works a pretty full load, not to mention church activities.

Jane finds that for a while, she might be working alongside with someone on a project or an activity and gets on really well with them. A new friendship is formed. But once the activity or project is over, she can’t seem to keep up with that person any more because she’s busy doing other things. She’s also an introvert, so when she gets even three seconds of unscheduled time, she breathes a sigh of relief and does something on her own.

“I just can’t maintain many intense friendships,” Jane says. “Which makes me really disappointing. And people have told me so.”

Jane’s message came to me back in August, and I promised her I’d write something on the topic. It’s now November, and I’m only just getting to it. Does that make me a disappointing friend? Probably. (Sorry, Jane…)

How to be a disappointing friend

I loved this cartoon by Mari Andrew which popped up in my Instagram the other day. It’s almost exactly right for this topic.  Follow Mari Andrew here.

I loved this cartoon by Mari Andrew which popped up in my Instagram the other day. It’s almost exactly right for this topic. Follow Mari Andrew here.

Friendships are funny things, aren’t they. Unlike, say, a marriage, expectations of friendships are mostly undefined and ‘understood’ between two people (… or more than two. So many of Seinfeld’s sitcom episodes focused on the unspoken expectations of his friendship group.)

You might expect your friends to always be available for a phone call or a message-session, either for giggles or rants. After all, you’d be available for every single one of them at a moment’s notice, right?

You might expect your friend to turn up to your place once a year for your pre-arranged catchup. Or to return your calls. Or to go out to dinner every month. Or to advise you on important outfits for exciting occasions.

Whatever. Everyone has different expectations. And that’s the point.

When I don’t meet your expectations of what our friendship is or should be; when you don’t meet my expectations of how our relationship is going to go, disappointment strikes. And sometimes it strikes hard.

Disappointment hurts

It’s very possible that I’ve been a disappointing friend, but in my memory only one person has ever told me so (and we mended the friendship pretty quickly). I have, however, been disappointed by a friend - and wow, it felt bad.

The problem really happened at the beginning of the friendship. From everything she said, it seemed she liked me as much as I liked her. We just seemed to click - and we verbalised it early on. We spent time together - lots of it. But as years passed, and our lives took different turns, we began to see less and less of each other. She’d agree to meet, but then at the last minute, be unavailable. She’d ask ‘when can we catch up’ but then cancel, or be vague as to a future date.

At first, I was willing to overlook the not turning up, but as time went on, it became silly. The final straw for me was when she turned up (finally) over an hour late and told me she’d just couldn’t get out of another conversation with someone else.

“You find out who your friends really are”

Katie, a friend who spent time in a psychiatric ward recently, and Helen, who lost a baby a few years ago, tell me that disappointment in friends is a very real thing when you’re facing extremely difficult circumstances.

Some friends literally cut off contact with them when tragedy struck. Their reasoning, when asked later was, “I didn’t know what to say. I didn’t want to get it wrong.” Both Katie and Helen felt burned by many of the people they had previously been close to.

When you face significant crisis, it’s interesting to see which friends stick around, and which disappear. Adversity really does show us who our friends are. It’s worth asking the question of ourselves: when our friends get into a terrible situation, would I drift away, or would I stick close and go the extra mile for them?

How to not be disappointed

To a certain extent, we need to protect our hearts from facing constant disappointment. This is only natural - we don’t want to be ripped apart again and again. And yet, equally, we don’t want to build stone walls and avoid friendship altogether.

With maturity and age, I’ve learned to let many of my expectations of people go, and accept the amount of friendship they are willing to give me. If I don’t need their friendship, I can be more thankful for what friendship there is.

Understanding the different types of friendship is important too. We are simply not able, as humans to be super close to absolutely everyone. Nor is it healthy to try to be. We can have a large number of ‘friendships’ and a smaller number of best friends. The expectations will be different in both cases.

Making allowances for other people’s situations and personalities helps us to forgive them when their expectations are not the same as our own. Jane’s new friend may have been an extrovert who could think of nothing better than to hang out with people constantly. (She also may have been younger, and with fewer children or commitments… if this is you, try to find friends at a similar life stage who have more time to give.)

Read the room. Just because you’re getting on well with someone in one situation doesn’t mean that this relationship is going to be transferable to general life. Tread carefully. Invite them to catch up, by all means, but if it’s not going to work out because they are too busy, let it go.

If you’re the friend in crisis, remember that not everyone has the emotional maturity to care for people who are facing terrible situations. You will, because you’ll have been through the fire in your life. It might take your friends years before they can face disaster straight on, and develop the grit to support someone else through it. They may never get there. Forgive them… and go and love others who need it.

Realise this: there are always people who are looking for friends. If you’re mourning the loss of your friend, have a good cry. It’s more than likely not personal. Then take a look around you and be a friend to someone else.

How not to be disappointing

Be friendly, but not too friendly, if you’re not prepared to invest the time and energy into a brand new best friendship. Go slow. Be a Jane Bennett, who shows less than she feels, rather than a Charlotte Lucas who shows more.* You can be kind and polite and loving, without promising your inner-most soul.

Lay out your situation early on. Jane needed to casually discuss her many children and their frantic lifestyle, as well as her preference for solitude to regather her sanity. My disappointing friend should have said, “I’m so much more interested in pursuing my career than in catching up with you for lunch.” Alternatively, she just could have said, “Hey, let’s catch up once a term” and done it, instead of cancelling every second week.

Do what you say, and say what you’ll do. Don’t over-promise. But definitely don’t under-deliver. If you think you’re at risk of promising too much, as yourself why you’re doing it? What thoughts or beliefs do you need to examine?

Finally, this:

After several years of mourning the loss of my disappointing friend, I was very prepared to give her up, and never see her again. It was then, randomly, that I was invited to one of her significant (big-zero) birthday parties. I didn’t say no, but I went, not really knowing what to expect. It was a smallish gathering - about 20 people all together. I struck up a conversation with someone who looked mildly anxious.

“How do you know our mutual friend?” I asked. “From work?”

“No,” she said. “We went to school together.” She craned her head around, as if she was trying to catch a glimpse of the birthday girl. “We were so close. But I hardly ever see her now.”

I had a little a-ha moment. I wasn’t the only disappointed friend at the party. In fact, I was willing to bet that most of the invited guests were carrying some level of hurt, hoping that this might be the time when they could renew their friendship with my friend.

The fact, is, we reap what we sow.

We get what we give.

If we’re willing to live with the consequences of that, that’s fine. If we’re happy with a smaller number of friends, lots of time on our own, and the results of the things we pursue in the hours in our day, then okay. I really mean that - it’s okay. Sometimes people are going to be disappointed with what we can give. As long as we’ve done our best to be clear, while still being kind, that really is perfectly alright. We just need to know what we’ve gained, and what we’ve given up.

If we’d prefer to have more friends, specifically more best friends, and yet we’re not prepared to invest time and energy in them, then we need to think again. Personally I find this challenging. I’m task oriented and I don’t find it naturally easy to just ‘hang out’. After writing this post, I’ll be thinking about how I can spend more time with people as a normal part of life.

What are your thoughts? Have you had a disappointing friend? Have you been a disappointing friend? Regrets? Or none? I’d love to hear from you.

*gratuitous Pride and Prejudice reference. Why not, I say?