I love this friend and am worried for her, but I feel that I have done everything I can to help her and that I can no longer watch what is happening to her. I’m a domestic abuse survivor so this is triggering, and I feel like I’m just waiting for him to cross the line to physical abuse or worse. She and I have not had a conversation in the last six years about anything other than my sending her money to leave him, so our friendship is entirely based off our college relationship and my and our mutual friends’ concern for her. She doesn’t have family or any local friends, so our college crew is her entire support system. It seems wrong to totally abandon her when she’s in such a bad situation, but the situation is unlikely to change and it’s negatively impacting my mental health. On the other hand, is it totally immoral to break up with a friend who is in a horrible situation? I don’t want to ghost her, but I also have no idea what to say to her the next time she calls. I wish I could promise that I’ll be there to support her, but that’s what I’ve been doing and it hasn’t worked. Any advice is appreciated. — Can’t Watch
It is not wrong to break up with a friend who hasn’t, for at least six years, reached out to you for anything other than help (and who has then exploited and wasted the help). It’s not wrong to break up with someone whose lifestyle triggers bad memories for you and whose choices frustrate you and cost you money. You can, if you want, leave this friendship with a clear conscience, and you can do so without even ghosting your friend. You can wait until she inevitably calls you again for help and then explain: “I have offered you help numerous times which has gone unused. I cannot afford to, financially or emotionally, offer any more help to you, but I can offer well-wishes and the hope that you are able to find the path you want and deserve. I send you love and wish you the best of luck.”
I do have to wonder, though, why you’ve continued for so many years a “friendship” that has offered you nothing. What can you possibly get out of it? Is it only guilt, nostalgia, and some sense of duty to help a fellow victim of abuse that has kept you in touch with this former college friend? I’m concerned that you’ve repeatedly drained your bank account for anyone, let alone someone who is no longer a real friend — someone with whom you have not shared any part of your life for years. This isn’t a heroic act; it’s irresponsible. And if this behavior is indicative of the way you conduct yourself in other relationships and friendships in your life, I would urge you to reconsider not just this specific friendship, but also all of them as well as the boundaries you’ve set in them.
I’m assuming you’re in your late 20s, a natural time to re-evaluate friendships in our lives. Are there other people to whom you find yourself giving and giving who do not give back to you or do not appreciate your investment of time and love and energy and money (not that you should be giving money directly to friends on a regular basis at all, but money is necessary for many of the ways we maintain friendships — plane tickets, vacations, outings and adventures, wine and take-out night, etc.)? If there are other people in your life with whom you have an imbalanced give-and-take, it’s ok for you to change or shift the status of the friendship. You don’t need an inciting incident to “demote” or even break up with a friend, and you don’t even need to let that friend know what you’re doing; simply quietly scaling back on our investments usually does the trick.
Between being a martyr and flat-out dumping someone is a lot of grey area where you have the freedom and leeway to define (and re-define) a friendship. There are lots of reasons why someone whose company we might have once enjoyed and whose memory brings us warm thoughts might not be a part of our lives in a significant way anymore. Maybe we’ve simply grown apart and no longer enjoy that person’s company. Maybe there are other people whose company we enjoy more and whom we make more time for. Maybe the friend no longer shows interest in our lives or who we are now. Sometimes, I think we keep certain friendships in an elevated position in our hearts and minds out of an obligation to the history we’ve shared with those friends. It’s a disservice to ourselves when we do this. It promotes guilt and feelings of failure, and it muddies the good memories we have the friendship when it was more effortless and natural.
I say let go of this friendship and cherish the memories you share of your friend while maintaining boundaries that protect your time and energy. Send good thoughts and well wishes, and then accept that any additional support you’ve offered (repeatedly!) in the past was not taken. You have been released of any feelings of guilt or regret. You’ve gone way above what you reasonably should have and it didn’t make a difference. It’s now time to move on, with a clear conscience, and focus on the friendships that continue to enrich your life.
If you have a relationship/dating question I can help answer, you can send me your letters at firstname.lastname@example.org.