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QUESTION: I can’t seem to make friends who “stick.” My friendships seem to end either in a fight or in one or both of us drawing away. Why is this? Am I just a difficult person?


Answer: No, but it is possible that difficult circumstances have played a part in this dynamic in your life. People who had a lot to contend with in their growing up years often find making friends—or keeping them—difficult. There are a lot of possible reasons for this.


In some cases, people who have trouble with friendships had parents who were not friends with each other and may actually have been adversarial toward one another. These people never had the advantage of seeing how a friendship actually works: the trust involved, the give and take, the patience that is based on both self-understanding and compassion. And while siblings born into a conflicted marriage may befriend one another, these friendships can sometimes be based more on the need to have an ally than on deep liking or trust.


If healthy, mutually supportive relationships were not modeled in your family of origin, then you can definitely still find your way to them. It may simply require the learning of certain skills, as well as some thought about what a friendship really is.


It could be that you have put walls up for protection and that when someone gets too close, you become anxious and push them away without really realizing it. (Or the person you’ve been trying to befriend is doing this, or both of you.) People sometimes do this when they fear rejection. If they push away first, they won’t have to be on the receiving end.


While some people build walls, others have boundaries that are too permeable. They may feel that being self-revealing will create intimacy. The problem is, they have not waited to really observe their new acquaintance carefully in a variety of circumstances. Doing so can help a person decide if someone is really worthy of their trust?  


Sometimes loneliness causes people to make a beeline for what they hope is a close friendship, without actually “hanging out” in the acquaintanceship, buddy or casual friendship stages; however, these are all stages that need to be experienced in order to get to the close friendship stage. If you find that you do this, you might want to ask certain key questions, like “Does this person make time for me as I would for them? Are they as good a listener as talker? Do they show willingness to put effort and energy into the relationship? Would they be there for me in a crisis?”


People who have not been treated well by important figures in their lives do not always recognize when they are not being treated well by new friends. They tend to put up with a lot—until they get outrageously insulted, inconvenienced or abused. But if they haven’t learned to be assertive, the result can be an explosion of temper and hurtful remarks that cannot be retracted.


If you see yourself in any of the above, you may want to consider seeing a counsellor. Therapy may help you to gain insight into your patterns of relating: where they come from and how they get in the way of your having a more satisfying social life. But therapy is not always necessary. Learning patience and compassion toward yourself and others, communicating directly in a friendship as problems or misunderstandings occur, and deciding how much to share about yourself as you get to know someone are all things you can practice. Finally, there is much to be said for trusting your intuition and promising yourself that your decisions will more often be guided by its light.


Eve Abrams, M.A., R.C.C., works as a counsellor at Family Services of the North Shore in loss and grief services. She does one-to-one bereavement counselling, facilitates the Adult Grief Support Circle through Lions Gate Hospital and also works in FSNS’ Stopping the Violence Program. Questions? This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it or 604-988-5281.