Dear Thelma: Feeling hurt as my good friend is pulling away from me

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Dear Thelma,

I am a 41-year-old female, single and staying alone in the city. I have a pet.

I got to know E in 2014 when we were colleagues, and we became very close, even after he was no longer with the company. I even met his parents and at one point, I treated them almost like family.

E is seven years younger than me. He appeared to have a very low self-esteem and is timid. But because of his knowledge and demeanour, we clicked.

I was in a relationship with someone eight years younger than me then. However we broke up in late 2017 and I haven't found anyone since. I also used to confide in E on my relationship issues with this person.

Since the breakup, I have clung on to E and we would meet almost daily after work to feed the stray cats in our neighbourhood until late at night, as I cannot bear to go home to an empty house.

We also happen to have similar interests, such as books, religion and spirituality. On weekends too, we would meet up or go places together.

If we do not meet up, we would chat in WhatsApp most of the time. Both of us seem to enjoy chatting through WhatsApp.

About a year ago, E shared with me that he was disappointed with his overseas virtual friends (whom he has never met and has been communicating with through WhatsApp) because apparently, they had "abandoned" him.

In addition, at times I tend to be overly sensitive over his messages – he did ask me why I kept finding fault with what he said.

Of late, I find that E is beginning to change. He has become indulgent in spiritual stuff, i.e. praying for half a day, telling me that he has lost interest in daily life and wants to go to the Himalayas someday. He has refrained from being on WhatsApp and our chats have reduced.

To make things worse, recently he told me that he has lost interest in WhatsApp and that he does not want to have any attachments in life. He also mentioned that he has more household chores to do, hence spending lesser time on his phone. However, I sensed that the tone of his chats is not the same now but is more matter-of-fact and "cold".

I asked him how could I not be a special friend to him, to which he said he regards me the same as everyone else. He also did not bother to get vaccinated hence our dining out and going on outings together are abruptly cut short too.

As far as I am concerned, I have been a very good friend to him and his parents. I don't know what changed, but I am finding it difficult to accept it because, firstly, I have very few close friends (who hardly keep in touch) and I come from an individualistic family, hence I'm not close to my siblings, and my parents live in another state. Secondly, I am struggling in my job and, at times, I really need a trusted friend to share my frustrations with. Thirdly, I need company.

I confronted E on why he has become distant but I did not get an answer to my satisfaction. I am clueless as to what went wrong with our friendship.

Am I inadequate? Is it my fault that people who are close to me stray eventually?

If E is disappointed with his virtual friends, why make me the victim? I do not want to lose E, but should I let go of E to find his spiritual path in life?

Appreciate some insights from you. Thank you.

Going on 42 and lost

Dear Lost,

Thanks for your excellently descriptive letter. You are hurt and sad because a long-term friend is pulling away.

You have relied a lot on this person, bonding over the mutual feeding of strays and talking every day. You are lonely and want friends. Also, you are struggling in your job and have no one to share this with.

You don't understand why he is withdrawing. However, your friend has already told you. He wants a spiritual life, and to withdraw.

Your response to this is that you were close to him and his family. With respect, that doesn't matter.

Feelings of friendship and love have to come from both sides for a relationship to exist. If only one person has the feelings, the other does not have to reciprocate.

Also, friendships change over time. This is because our needs change as our life changes; it's part of human development.

In adult lives, friendships come and go. The people we were close to at school may disappear for decades, and come back to us later in life. Best friends made at one job may vanish when we change jobs, departments or careers. Sometimes we connect again; sometimes not.

Finally, until we retire, we tend to have quite limited time to socialise. So, for much of our lives, we really can't tend to every friend we have ever made. Some friendships survive on an annual lunch, while others involve a weekly or monthly chat.

Very few adults spend time with or talk to friends every single day. It happens during a crisis, but generally speaking, continuous contact is for partners, and perhaps a few family members like young kids and elderly parents.

Your friend has told you that his needs are changing, and he wants to spend less time with you, so you have to respect that and step back. Yes, it's hurtful and you'll miss him, but he has his path just as you have yours.

His distancing from his other friends is his business, and there is no knowing what happened there. Although you may be sympathetic, that is for him to deal with. I don't think he's taking it out on you. He was simply sharing his frustration.

That other statement – that he does not regard you as a special friend – was brutal. I suspect it came from exasperation. He told you his needs, but you kept pushing. So I think that was probably a bit of temper on his part.

Be kind and forgive him. We all say things we don't mean sometimes. You've had a lot of kindness for many years, so see this as a blip and move on.

Overall, you seem a bit unmindful about social cues. For example, your friend also said you kept finding fault with him and that this was a burden for him.

Good friends sometimes give each other a kindly and carefully worded heads-up over repeated problematic behaviour, but policing others is unacceptable.

I suggest you examine your behaviour and figure out if this is a bad habit you fell into only with him, or whether it's appearing in your other relationships. If it is a habit, then work on managing it.

Finally, for your future happiness, expand your social support network. As friendships come and go, and adults tend to have limited time to socialise, it's important to have a variety of friends.Join a couple of clubs, reach out to old friends to see how they are, and spend happy times with others. In the pandemic, many people have discovered they are lonely, so this is a good time to reach out.

If you find this problematic, consult a mental health professional to have a chat about relationship expectations and effective communication.

Good luck and I hope 2022 brings you lots of happiness.

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