The Truth About On-Again, Off-Again Friendships

Question: How do you know when to end a friendship?

Answer: When you get the sneaking suspicion that it never even began.

Last week I had the distinct pleasure of terminating an on-again, off-again friendship. For those not familiar with the terminology, an on-again, off-again friendship is a friendship that constantly ebbs and flows between being active and lying dormant. It is a friendship that is constantly in turmoil and seeks perpetual reconciliation. It is one characterized by constant upheaval and is similar to a romantic relationship where partners are on one minute then off the next. Over time the constant fluctuations and unresolved exchanges become extremely draining and can make you question whether or not a person is really meant to be in your life.

For me it became apparent that my ex-friend no longer belonged in my life after realizing that he moved and did not tell me. I knew we had our differences and oftentimes went periods without speaking, but to move and not tell someone where you are going is akin to abandonment in my eyes. And true, while we were not on speaking terms at the time, it still made me question the emotional authenticity of our bond.

I explained my grievances to this so-called friend, only to experience a barrage of manipulation tactics that sought to undermine my very real concerns. There was no genuine accountability for their role in us not speaking but rather veiled attempts to have me share the blame in order to avoid taking full responsibility for their misdeeds. For example, after telling this person how disconnected I felt from them after they entered into a romantic relationship, they said, “Well, my other friendships didn’t suffer,” thus implying that I was the one with the problem and that I had to somehow adjust my expectations to fit into their distorted version of what happened. The fact that their other friendships didn’t suffer and ours did is only a testament to the lack of attention and investment given to our friendship. Their other relationships were irrelevant to how they were behaving in our friendship; however, they used the comparison as a means to undermine my intuition and make me second guess my very valid feelings.

If I am honest with myself, I knew this person was not a real friend to me early in the relationship. Based on previous interactions, it became quite apparent that all I was to this person was “free therapy,” a cheap sounding board/listening ear privy to their occasional gripes and complaints. In hindsight, we enjoyed a functional friendship—nothing more, nothing less. I realize that when this friendship no longer served a function, I was disregarded and treated like persona non grata.

I think about what this friendship gave me and why I continued to stay in it for so long even after clear evidence that it was not in fact working. I realize that it gave me what I was used to—inconsistency. It fed my abandonment wound and complimented my father wound very well. Here was a man who I called “friend” who would sometimes not show up to events, who would not return my phone calls, who would ignore my texts, who would not communicate with me about how they felt about our friendship, and I would just pretend that this was okay. I would stuff my feelings and pretend that everything was fine. I was afraid of being seen as too emotional, too demanding, too overbearing. I was afraid that if I said anything, it would ruin the friendship. I was afraid of being abandoned again.

I realized after unpacking this experience just how much our untreated psychological wounds fuel the merry-go-round feeling associated with on-again, off-again relationships. Our commitment to these relationships is just a reactive reflection of our unhealed holes. In my case, choosing to continue dealing with a “friend” who was unreliable, undependable, and emotionally manipulative was a response to my unhealed places and was me replaying the unhealthy relational dynamics of my past and choosing the familiar over the healthy.

After much thoughtful reflection and dutiful self-assessment, I have since learned that being unsure about someone is a sign that should never be ignored. If you are unsure about your friendship and wonder if the person that you are sharing your time with is not really a friend, this is your intuition telling you that this person is not someone you should continue to engage with. You should never have to question whether or not someone is a real friend to you. If you do, then you already have your answer.

I have also learned that while no friendship is perfect, it should never make you feel devalued, unimportant, and expendable. Your friends are supposed to be your lifeline, your port in the storm, your healing. They are supposed to grant you peace, not be the architects of your agony. If your friend is constantly trying to compete with you, one-up you, embarrass you, emotionally and verbally abuse you under the pretense of it being “just a joke,” criticize you, disparage you, and demean you in order to make themselves feel taller, then you need to reevaluate whether or not this person is really a friend or simply a person with unhealed traumas looking to exercise their traumas on you.

Being in this on-again, off-again friendship has really been a wonderful experience, as it brought me face to face with my own unhealed wounds and taught me to begin to value my own friendship over the friendship of other people. I deserve a full-time friend, not one who feels the need to take emotional sabbaticals whenever difficulties arise. If you find yourself in one of these friendships, it could be a sign that you have not dealt with some underlying trauma in your own life as our relationships can oftentimes be a reflection of our unaddressed wounds and how we feel about ourselves. You deserve good, healthy, quality association. But you have to know that and refuse the tiltawhirl of these topsy turvy friendships that offer glimpses of excitement at the expense of genuine connection. You have to do the work and realize that in order to find a real friend, you have to first be one to yourself.

About the author

Luis Pabon

A fun-loving creative soul who enjoys various forms of expression.