Friendships, and how to appropriately navigate them can be really tricky. Because on one hand, they don’t carry the weight and responsibility of, say, a marriage. But on the other hand, they’re a vital and formative component in shaping our character. So knowing how to best function as a good friend, even if that means pulling back the reins, is very important.
The decision to terminate a friendship really has less to do with them, and more to do with the boundaries you’ve set around yourself.
This term “boundaries” has moved from counselor lingo to a part of our everyday vernacular. This is due, in large part, to the breakthrough book Boundaries: When to Say Yes, How to Say No to Take Control of Your Life by Cloud and Townsend. If you’ve never read this, you should.
Anyhow, we all have, “boundaries [that] define us. They define what is me and what is not me. A boundary shows me where I end and someone else begins, leading me to a sense of ownership.” (from Boundaries, the book you should read)
Typically, when we’re pondering unfriending someone, it’s because somehow we’ve allowed them to get inside of the boundary. Or maybe, we’ve done our best to fortify the wall, but they’re doing all they can to knock it down. Either way, it feels like we’re losing control of our priorities and our life.
This can look a lot of ways: Maybe the friend is just too needy, maybe the friend is unkind and your emotions are constantly under attack. Or maybe the friend is great but you’re influenced by them in a way you wish you weren’t—and your moral boundaries are being challenged. Whatever the case, there’s something about the relationship that is toxic, and we know change must occur.
But what needs to change?
Option #1 – You Need to Change.
As you consider what it is about your friend that’s making you want to end the relationship, I believe it is wise to engage in at least a moderate dose of self-exploration. I’d ask you to consider the following question: Is my problem with my friend actually a problem, or am I over-thinking, over-critical, or in some way mis-wired to be over-sensitive to this issue?
By way of quick example: Growing up, I often felt that I wasn’t worth other people’s time. It’s a long story of why I was made to feel that way, but the end result is that by the time I reached maturity, I had some intensely skewed boundaries set up around time. So if someone wasn’t respecting me (or so I thought) by calling too much, not showing up, being late, etc., I’d turn the upset dial to a 9, when others in my position would be at a 2. Needless to say, my boundary was off.
Sometimes, our boundaries around an issue are formed responsively by hurt. And over time, we have to work to reform that boundary in order to give others a shot at loving us. So my question, as you think about ending this friendship is, have you thought about you?
However, the issue may not be about you changing, it may be what’s hiding behind the next door …
Option #2 – Your Friend Needs to Change.
There’s probably a reason you’re questioning if you need to end a friendship, and the reason isn’t necessarily you, it’s them. They’ve got junk (like all of us) that they’re either working through or totally ignoring. In either case, it’s affecting their ability to engage in meaningful, healthy relationships.
If this scenario rings true, you have to realize that neither you nor I have the ability to change someone. But we can consider to what end we should, or even can, help them walk through their journey. Additionally, we should ask what boundaries are being tested, and if we have enough endurance and resolve to keep our walls fortified even as we try to help them.
Which brings us full circle to the big questions…
Can I End a Friendship? Would Jesus be OK With This?
Yes, you can end a friendship. Some will argue that Jesus would never do that, but He did (see Matthew 16:23). Now, the friendship in this example ended up being repaired. But in that moment, Jesus put up a strong boundary that proved to his inner-circle, and to us, that if anything is going to get in the way of Him doing the work He’s called to do, He’s going to say something.
You must do the same. Because, at the end of the day, you aren’t supposed to be everything to everyone, you’re supposed to love people. And sometimes, loving someone means releasing them and allowing them the space to discover that God has more for them than the toxic situation they’re now a part of.
Maybe the failed friendship is due to your messed up boundaries, or maybe it’s due to their junk and unwillingness to change—or maybe it’s a bit of both. No matter the case, neither of you are called to save each other. And if you can’t refine each other, move forward and free up the emotional bandwidth for what God has in store next.
Eddie Kaufholz is a writer, speaker and podcaster and serves as a director of church mobilization for International Justice Mission. He also hosts and produces "The New Activist" podcast. You can find on Twitter @EdwardorEddie.