How To Respond When A Friend Is Distancing Themself From You

Have you ever wondered why most people don't work twice as hard to protect their friendship as they do with a romantic relationship? It's probably because, in the popular imagination, it's easier to find new friends than a new lover. People call you a social butterfly when you're seen going from one friend to another. But when hand in hand with multiple lovers, they think you're a libertine.

Like love, a friendship needs lots of hard work, but it only takes one misunderstanding to fizzle out. The way a friendship runs its course is usually as quiet as a mouse. There's no confrontation, begging, shared obligations to discuss, or vainglorious promises. It usually starts with one person distancing themself from the other. They leave their friend on read, refuse to justify their behaviors, and decline invitations to hang out. This behavior of shutting down suddenly is not mature in any given relationship; it leaves the other person feeling like they're in an unofficial break-up and wondering what they've done wrong.

If the estranged friend takes it personally or leaves the situation, that friendship will certainly crumble. However, if this friend means a lot to you, it pays to be patient and try to reconnect with them instead of avoiding them. Everyone has an ego. But to be in a lasting relationship, you should wean yourself from this coping mechanism. Here's how to respond when your friend is distancing themself from you.

Reflect on yourself

To borrow a quote from C. Terry Warner: "Honest self-understanding liberates us from our stuck emotions." If you've noticed a dramatic change in your friend's behavior and it hurts you, you first need to reflect on yourself and look back on certain situations where you might have inadvertently offended them.

We often unknowingly fall into the trap of taking the people close to us for granted. When someone becomes a part of our inner circle, we expect them to understand us and look past our shortcomings. Instead of thinking about how to treat them better and checking in on them, we put so much time into looking out for ourselves. If you always treat yourself as the number one priority in a friendship and your friend as a sidekick, it's only a matter of time before they turn away from you.

Once you've realized where you're wrong, send your friend a heartfelt apology over text or email. You can tell them you're sorry for not treating them as they deserve and hope they can give the friendship a second chance. By expressing your regret, you can foster open communication with the other person and work on mending your connection. It also provides the other person an opportunity to process their own emotions.

Don't take it personally

If you see a cold reaction from your friend, do not be quick to get offended and show your disappointment. It's not always about you. Maybe your friend is going through a rough patch in their life, and they just want to be in isolation for a while to process their emotions. Or, they're preoccupied with work and family obligations and don't have time or energy to tune in to you. To verify, you can check with your mutual friends to see if they have had a similar experience. If your friend keeps a distance from everyone in your group because they're in too much of a daze, then you have nothing to worry about.

Instead of bombarding your friend with messages asking them why they're not keeping you in the know or spreading toxic positivity, try to put yourself in their shoes. If your friend is the type who prefers not to talk about their challenges and go at it alone, you can say something like, "I'll be right here whenever you need to talk," or "You'll get through this. Just let me know if you need anything."

Give your friend space

If your friend wants some space, give them some space. Being away from each other for a while doesn't necessarily mean you'll lose the person. Having a time-out helps your friend to process their emotions and work through their issues at their own pace. At the same time, it allows you to explore your individual interests, embark on activities that enrich you, and learn to become more independent. Friendship is an integral part of life, but don't let it get in your way of getting a life. Space can also soothe tension and help you realize the importance of each other.

Besides, you don't have to hang out with each other all the time to maintain your friendship. Distance cannot drive a wedge between two secure friends. If you want to keep in touch without making your friend feel uncomfortable, plan a month or two in advance for a coffee or movie date. "Just don't disappear without a trace," says counselor and professor Suzanne Degges-White, via WeightWatchers.

Ask your friend what their problem is

Silence and distance can mean lots of things. Maybe your friend is angry at you. Perhaps, they've outgrown the friendship. Or they just need some time to recharge. If you're the type who wears your heart on your sleeve and really cannot stand feeling ghosted by your besties, you can communicate with them and get to know their perspective. If the distance is due to personal issues, such as a low social battery or financial difficulties, give them some space and assure them you'll be there for them. 

Most of the time, distancers prefer not to explain their action. Even when you know they're not being honest, you'll have to go with whatever justification they offer for the absence and refrain from questioning the legitimacy of it. Distancers don't like to be pursued and guilt-tripped. If you show understanding and compassion by not pressing them, they'll feel encouraged to open up to you when ready.  

Don't flip your lid

If you ask your friend what their problem is, and they reply by calling you out on something that you did that drove them away, how would you react to that? Do you still want to keep them close? Confrontations are uncomfortable for everyone and may be much more so when they occur among friends. Your friend speaking up could mean you've bummed them hard, and they don't want to put up with it anymore.

If you know what your friend said is true, acknowledge your mistake, apologize, and let them decide how they want to continue the relationship. But if you disagree with your friend, explain why. No matter how you feel about the situation, try to be as unprovocative as possible and not let the conversation get too heated. If your emotions run high, postpone the discussion to when you're calmer. People can say things they don't mean when they get too hot under the collar, which can cause the relationship to end on a negative note. Remember: intention is the most important thing. If you want to keep the relationship, do your best to explain your intention, let the other person decide, and have no regrets.

See if you can fulfill your friend's unmet needs

An effective way to catch your friend's attention is to make them feel special. It can be a surprise party for them, a bouquet shipped to their home, or a barbershop quartet sent to their office singing a catchy jingle. Good surprises make people feel happy and make a great conversation piece. And when they feel someone cares about them enough to exceed their expectations, they are more willing to let go of grudges. 

Another thing you can do is to find out about your friend's unfulfilled needs that may have led them to withdraw from you — and try to meet them halfway. Maybe your friend is a social media-obsessed influencer, but you rarely like or comment on her posts, which might make them feel that you do not appreciate their interests. If that's the case, start liking their posts, showing them that what matters to them matters to you too. Or, maybe your friend has lost their job and is coping with financial struggles. As subtly as possible, you can help them locate new job opportunities or offer to loan them some money to help them tide over.  

Don't be disheartened if your friend dismisses your initial attempt to help them. Keep checking in on them every few weeks to let them know you have nothing but good intentions.

Seek help from a mutual friend

Having a mutual friend helps to open up the avenue to reconnection. A mutual buddy can also help you see things from a different angle and provide a constructive outlet for stressful feelings between you and the other person.

If the person has a reason to withdraw from you that they can't tell you, they might open up to that friend that you have in common. If you find it hard to confront the distancer yourself, you can seek insights from a mutual friend to cross-check what's happening and how you should handle the situation. This mutual buddy might clue you why the other friend is giving you the distant treatment and advice on rekindling your friendship. 

You can also ask your mutual friend to help arrange a house party or a brunch where you and the other friend can meet and talk things out over a good meal. If there's tension between you and a friend, having a mutual mate there will help alleviate the awkwardness and make you feel more confident.

Consult your friend on a challenging matter

If you think your friend is withdrawing from you and don't know how to address your concern, pretend you're dealing with a puzzling situation at work (or personal life) and ask for their advice. Questions are perfect conversation warm-ups.

A 2017 study by Harvard University researchers published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology suggests that asking more questions is the key to increasing likeability and strengthening interpersonal bonds. People tend to take a shine to those who demonstrate a genuine interest in them by asking questions about their lives and way of thinking. It makes them feel important. For instance, you can tell your friend that you've been considering relocating to Paris and hope to get their input on the matter.

Or, your boss is giving you a hard time at work, and you wonder if your friend has any suggestions for dealing with that. Just make something up. The goal is to ease them into a heart-to-heart conversation. When they talk, listen attentively, frequently nod to encourage them to continue, and keep the questions coming. Once they get in the groove and the ice is broken, try to shift the topic to their personal life, how they've been doing lately, and whether there's anything you can do to help.

Set realistic expectations

Although trying to get closer to an emotionally distant friend is a good thing, you should have realistic expectations. Rome wasn't built in a day. You can't expect a heart-to-heart chat with your friend and expect them to be all chummy with you again the next day. You've done your part. The ball is now in their court. Pushing them when they're not completely ready or demanding a proper closure will only make them drift further from you. This is especially true for friends with avoidant attachment styles.

If the person is determined to end their relationship with you, and they're just using a temporary break as an excuse, there's nothing you can do about it. You have to brace yourself for the fact that they might never call you back, and you'll never be friends again. In this case, leaving the situation and getting on with your life is better. "It's easy to blame ourselves when friendships don't work out," clinical social worker Laura Rippeon tells PsychCentral. "Make sure to give yourself a break and treat yourself with kindness and compassion as you navigate through the hard stuff." To get over a friendship ending, explore your hobbies and engage in exciting activities where you can meet new people and create new memories.