If we live long enough, and make and keep enough friends, we’re bound to encounter neediness. But while we’re more likely to recognize when someone else is being needy, it’s important to recognize that everyone –including us — experiences times of deeper need at some point in life.
We may, for example, go through a stressful scenario — a job transition, the loss of a loved one, a divorce, a work conflict — that causes us to need extra support for a time. And the ways we reach out to people in our worst moments may sometimes come off as needy. With this in mind, it’s important to try to support our friends when they endure similar life stages, knowing that we may eventually need to be on the receiving end of their support.
There are friends, however, whose neediness is not confined to just a few life stages. Their approach to friendship may be consistently demanding and draining. These friends don’t just hit a crisis now and then; they always believe that they’re in crisis.
Friends in this category may text, call, email, or message us on social media multiple times in a row or an excessive number of times each day. When they are communicating, they may drag the conversation out longer than necessary or send unusually long emails detailing their needs and worries. They may repeatedly drop by our house without notice. They may constantly ask what we’re doing or about whom we’re spending time with. And they may push us to hang out all day and all night, rather than wrapping things up after a few hours like most people would.
While some people may recommend completely cutting ties with these needy individuals, in most cases it’s usually possible for us to maintain the friendships while adjusting how we interact.
Below are a few suggestions for creating healthy boundaries while maintaining a friendship:
Suggest other support options
When we encounter people who see us as confidants or advice givers, our first instincts may be to be flattered. But if they constantly need to vent in detail, providing hours of analysis about their own worries, it can get exhausting fast.
When friends develop this tendency, one of the best things to do is express support while connecting them to other resources for help. For example, we could say, “I hate to see you going through this, but I feel like I’ve reached the limit of my expertise. Have you ever considered seeing a counselor, going to a support group, or talking to Human Resources?” Offering to help them find a book or person who can provide some of the information they need allows us to be helpful without being responsible for them.
Be intentional about time spent together
While we’re inevitably going to end up hanging out and talking sometimes, it may be helpful to mix in activities that take the focus off just talking. Go see a concert, take in an open mic night, watch a movie, bowl or work out together. Each of these activities keep us busy and interactive, but usually breaks up the long, drawn-out discussion sessions.
We might also specify ahead of getting together how much time we have to hang out. “Can’t wait to go bowling. Just an FYI, I can be out until around 8:00 tonight because I have some other stuff I have to do.” We may also decide it’s easier to draw limits when we drive separately, and meet somewhere, rather than riding together everywhere we go.
Choose to interact online or over the phone in healthy ways as well
If we set some guidelines for ourselves ahead of time, we’ll be able to more naturally manage our interactions with these friends in need. For example, we may decide not to answer texts after dinner when we’re spending time with our family. This may mean we need to explain, “Hey, sorry for the delayed response. Was trying to spend time with the kids after dinner last night.”
We might also decide to limit the length of time or number of times we talk on the phone. Setting a 20-minute limit can be helpful, for example, especially if we offer an explanation that helps our needy friends understand that our exit isn’t personal. “Oh my goodness. I can’t believe how time flies. It’s already been 20 minutes and I have like 87 more things to do tonight. Let’s catch up more later.”
Although we may feel bad the first time we set limits, it’s important to reframe our acts as choices we’re making to benefit both of us. By saying no or setting limits, we’re actually protecting our friendship, not diminishing it. After all, if we just continue on being drained and exhausted, it will eventually destroy the friendship and make us resent our friend.
By being intentional about our boundaries, we can be honest about our own needs, which is more loving than the alternative — dishonestly pretending we like the way our friendship is going when we don’t. Friends need space to grow, so inserting some balance will ultimately help us experience a more happy and enduring friendship.