I recently turned 30, and looking out over my 20s, I have come to realize (and resent) that a few of my old friends (from high school and college, the dearest ones) are no longer putting in the effort that I have made toward them over these many years (if in fact they ever did match my efforts).
I find myself going to their events or parties, celebrating their weddings and engagements, but I can’t seem to get them to reciprocate on the simple things, like getting lunch with me to catch up when we are all home for a holiday. I’m starting to feel not only unwanted and unloved by them because of this constant deflection, but angry and bitter, because of the many days (and many dollars!) I have lovingly sacrificed to celebrate with them in their happy times.
I know part of this feeling comes from still being single and childless, while most of my friends have gone on to marry and have their kids, which means I haven’t hit the society-sanctioned “important milestones” for celebration. But compared to the many, many, many showers, brunches, and bachelorettes I have attended, if I can’t even get them to come to my 30th-birthday party, what kind of friends do I have? Am I expecting too much of them now that they are officially “grown-ups” and I am not? Are my milestones not just as important as the official ones to them?
What set this off was my birthday party last weekend: One longtime dear friend was IN TOWN from Boston and told me she “couldn’t” come from Brooklyn to Manhattan to see me for drinks. She could have; she just didn’t want to. But it was my 30th-birthday party! I was a bridesmaid in this friend’s wedding last fall, and now I feel completely angry that I was blown off by her on what I considered an important day, especially since she happened to be local that weekend, which was a nice coincidence.
To add insult to injury, I saw on IG that she and her husband attended a 30th-birthday party last weekend, presumably because that other friend is more important than I am in the hierarchy. This friend sent me a gift, but I am still upset that she didn’t show when she was so close.
It feels like I’m always “begging” my friends for their attendance to my things when I give mine freely to their events. I see myself becoming a bitter old hag who isolates herself from her old pals, just so she won’t be disappointed and hurt anymore when they don’t make the effort. Which they don’t. Why should I continue to choose to attend the showers and put on the happy face at their Christmas parties when I can’t get them to do the same?
Also, my father has been undergoing cancer treatments, making my dependency on my friends ever-more urgent and emphasized. Is it better to just not expect anything of anyone ever? Am I overreacting to some of my friend group’s lack of effort to be there for me in my time of need, or do I need to start cutting them out of my life so I am not hurt by them not “showing up” for me anymore?
The Least Important Friend
Here’s something I didn’t want to face when I was younger, but that it feels less frightening to face now: People do exactly what they want to do. Sometimes that means they don’t show up. Sometimes their not showing up means that they’re awful, callous non-friends, and sometimes it means they just had something else they really, really wanted to do, and sometimes it means they’ve been blowing off plans with everyone for weeks and they don’t even know why.
I know it’s hard to deal with weak-sauce friends when you’re going through something as terrible as a dad with cancer. After my dad died when I was 25, I had many dark nights of the soul over the impoverished state of my friendships. A few friends called me and sent flowers. A lot of other friends didn’t do shit and seemed to avoid me when I returned to town. I started to define my absent friends as shitty friends. Then I started to think of ALL of my friends as shitty friends. I started to view people in general as disappointing and selfish. And I started to define myself as The Least Important Friend.
But I had already been doing that for years; when I look back now, I can see that. Even in high school, I always saw myself as the odd man out, the misfit, the one who didn’t belong. I looked at the easy affection that other friends had with each other and felt envious — even though I was just as close to most of them as they were to each other. I always suspected that I was the sidekick, less important, less powerful, and I would get left behind at some point.
I want to challenge you to use this terribly sad moment as an opportunity to look at the stories you’ve been telling about yourself for years. I guarantee you, they began before your friends started to blow you off. The extreme nature of your language — you have to beg your friends to see you, you imagine yourself becoming a bitter old hag — indicates that you have a thing for harsh stories about yourself. Look at your family life closely, too. By giving more than you really want to for your friends, are you re-creating some role you played in your family as a child? Are you still playing that role in your family, too?
As the youngest kid in my family, I always felt like a low-status follower type, but I always had to be “on” — entertaining, providing support, making everyone laugh. I felt like everyone’s happiness depended on me, yet I felt like no one really gave me the love I needed when I really needed it. So in friend groups, too, I’d define myself as an outsider. Everyone else had things in common that I didn’t — or that’s what I told myself. Everyone else loved each other more. This was maybe my way of staying safe, too. I wasn’t fully invested. Even when I loved and was loved by others, I didn’t openly express affection and devotion the way everyone else did. I was always prepared to bail on the whole group if I needed to. (That was also something every member of my family did. We all hid in our separate corners at the first sign of trouble.)
So it wasn’t JUST that my friends sometimes let me down. Because look: Friends are going to let you down. It happens. People do what they do. It still makes me angry, trust me! I can’t believe how people act sometimes. But you have to really forgive people for having preferences about what they want to do, and you do have to accept isolated incidents as much as you can. If it’s a deal-breaker for you, that’s fine. Stand up for yourself, for sure. But don’t use your anger as a way to avoid having to show up and be vulnerable and really tell your friend what you want from her. When I was younger, I took every single disappointment extremely personally, and I also held myself at arm’s length. I was overly servile but also a little bit combative and preemptively disappointed. I tried to please people way too much and sacrificed more than I wanted to (remember that singing-and-joke-telling youngest kid!), and I resented playing that role. But I very rarely asked for what I wanted from my friends. I didn’t deserve to ask, in my mind. I wasn’t important enough to ask.
When you tell me that you LOVINGLY SACRIFICED many days and dollars to celebrate your friends’ weddings, that sounds a little wrong to me. Weddings can be expensive and they can be a drag and they can be a total joy to attend. They can be all of those things. But the rule is, you show up or you don’t and you live with that choice. No one owes you anything just for attending their wedding. Saying that going to someone’s wedding is a sacrifice is like saying that throwing a wedding is a sacrifice. So many dollars and days that bride wasted on her wedding! And these ingrates are going to eat her $150-per-plate food and not even send her a wedding present? What’s wrong with them?
That’s not how it works. Have a wedding or don’t. Go to the wedding or skip it. Make your own choice and live with it. It’s true that people are assholes about their weddings. They get married in Bolivia and you’re supposed to cough up $6k to get there. They make you a bridesmaid with a bunch of terrible women you can’t stand. They expect presents when you can barely afford the plane ticket. This is our culture. It’s absurd. But you don’t have to go. And you can have your own event and register for gifts if you feel like it, too. You can do whatever the fuck you want. And when you do what you want, you’ll be more accepting when other people do what they want.
If you want people to know that your birthday party is very important to you and you want them to be there, send an invitation two months in advance with a personal note that says I REALLY WANT YOU TO BE THERE, NANCY. Email and ask if she can come. Follow up. You could even ask about possible dates to see when most friends can make it. You could even tell people: “Treat this like my wedding. This event is a big deal to me.” Ask for exactly what you want from your friends. Communicate clearly. I know it makes you feel vulnerable. That’s good for you, actually.
I worry that you won’t do that, because you’re stuck in a pattern of sacrificing too much and expecting too much. You’ve decided that people can either be amazing friends or they can get cut out. You are very attached to the idea of an unfair, insensitive, ungrateful mob of friends that you’ve given too much to. This story didn’t spring up out of thin air. This story began before you met these people. Trust me.
But are these high-school and college friends really people you love dearly and want to keep in your life forever? Do you care about them a lot, as individuals? Do you show it? Who do you love? Do you love being in a group or do groups do something weird to your sense of yourself? Which friends do seem to care? Why did your friend send you a present? Do you think she planned to go to the other party weeks ago, before you let her know about yours, and she genuinely felt bad but didn’t want to change her plans? Did you ask her? Do you talk to her often? Do you tell her how you feel about her choices, or would you rather expect a lot without saying so and then disappear without explanation?
I’m sure it’s more complicated than I’m making it sound. But the point is, you do have choices. You don’t have to sacrifice too much and then be treated badly. You don’t have to choose between caring too much and not caring at all (because you cut out every last bad friend). You can figure out how you feel about each individual friend in question instead of looking at them all like an undifferentiated mob of jerks. When your family life was pretty harsh — and based on your harsh language about yourself, I’m going to guess that it might’ve been — it’s so easy to turn individual friends, each with their own unique challenges and concerns, into an undifferentiated mob of jerks. Because that’s what a kid does when her family life is really stressful and taxing and no one is there supporting her and telling her to follow her heart and make whatever decision feels right to her. They all want her to simmer down and serve the group as a whole instead of stirring up shit. Lots of groups of friends function the same way. Lots of groups of friends rely on superficial bonds and a kind of high-fiving conformity. “We love each other so much!” they say as a group, but if anyone asks for something specific, something heavy, something deeper, it’s seen as awkward and uncool and unnecessary.
It’s not like every group of friends I ever had made sense to me. I followed people around sometimes without ever fitting in. I wasn’t just imagining things. I pleased people I didn’t want to please, people I didn’t care that much about. That’s what happens when you’re just playing your role. You want attention and respect and love, but you’re not really giving it out. And some people seek out neglectful friends the same way they seek out neglectful lovers: They can’t feel their feelings unless they’re being half-ignored and undervalued. Then they feel angry and lonely and sad. Those are the only feelings they know how to feel.
Sometimes in life, you have to stop and ask yourself, “Do I love this person or even like this person at all? Am I really committed to this friendship? Or am I just doing what I’ve always done?”
You’re an adult now. It’s time to look closely at how you behave and what you expect from the world. Clearly, not all of your friends have grown up yet. Having kids doesn’t make you an adult. Facing yourself and understanding what’s acting on you and knowing, for certain, what you want your life to look like: That’s what makes you an adult. Asking for what you want. Expressing your gratitude to the people who are good to you. Refusing to give too much to the people who aren’t good to you. These things make you an adult.
It took me sooo long to become an adult. I’m still a little childish sometimes. I still fall back into NOT asking for what I want and then getting all petulant and telling myself that people are bad and weak and they never go out of their way for anyone else.
But listen to me: People are not bad and weak. Many, many people are good and they will show up for you. Trust me. Some people don’t care about you that much. That doesn’t make them bad. Other people are busy, or they’re depressed, or they avoid you because you’re very intense and you expect a lot but you’re never that affectionate or soft or loving because you can’t feel your feelings that easily. Other people might go through a bad stage and then realize that they miss you like crazy, and they might become your closest friends in the long run. Try not to overthink every single perceived infraction. Try not to lump everyone together. Don’t lump yourself in with all of the Least Important Friends who care too much.
You can care too much and still be important. That’s a lesson that contradicts everything you’ve assumed so far, but you need to learn it in order to open your heart a little wider. You will have more friends, better friends, worse friends. You will have more parties, bigger parties, disastrous parties, pathetically half-attended parties. You must remember that you still matter, that your heart is still precious and important, even when people disappear and seem to be having fun somewhere else. Let your anger melt into sadness. Be vulnerable and admit that it’s hard to be single sometimes when everyone else seems busy all the time. That doesn’t make you unimportant. That doesn’t mean you will be a bitter old hag some day.
Most friendships are imperfect and frustrating, and you are very sensitive and easily hurt. Ask for more from your friends, directly. But be a better friend to yourself while you’re at it. Be your most important friend instead, the one who reminds you not to despair, the one who reminds you that life is long and friends come and go, the one who reminds you that everything you ever dreamed of is still possible, even now.
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