You Need Help: I Don’t Know How To Be a Casual Friend

Q:

So I feel like queers are especially hardcore about friendship and how it overlaps with our found family, but that intensity has led me to a dilemma.

I have a friend I leaned on a lot when I first moved to this area. We were really close (my therapist says codependent) but we have since drifted apart, and for very good reasons: we just aren’t very compatible as friends.

I am a give-my-shirt-off-my-back type friend who doesn’t like smiling at strangers and is essentially inherently confrontational as a person. She is every Midwestern stereotype there was, from equating being nice with self-sacrifice to “I don’t want to talk about politics” (and is also a very straight privileged white lady, incidentally), but with trust issues.

In any other scenario, I would let us drift apart and probably let the friendship die naturally, because we aren’t what the other person needs, but we work together, live within a 100 yards of each other, and have a venn diagram of friends. How do I live life with her in it? I don’t know how to be a casual friend.

A:

I love friendship more than anything else in the whole world. Platonic love is my North Star. But that doesn’t mean every friend and every friendship is a forever love, or a deep love. Treating friendship with the same intensity the rest of the world treats romantic partnerships means realizing that just as two individuals in a romantic relationship will grow and change, sometimes together and sometimes ultimately apart, two individuals in a platonic relationship will also grow and change, sometimes together and sometimes ultimately apart. And that doesn’t make friendship bullshit — it highlights exactly how hardcore and intense it really can be.

When I read your question, I saw two main threads. The first is that you are experiencing a friend breakup of sorts, but the realities of your life are making it so that you cannot completely cut this person out of your life. We can come up with some practical guidelines for you to manage this. The second is that you don’t know how to be a casual friend, and that perhaps some of the dialogue queer people have about friends, chosen family, and intense platonic love has made you feel as though there’s no space in our community or in your life to be casual about your friends. I’d like to gently push back and say that’s not so, at all.

But let’s tackle your current issue with this specific person first, because I would argue that you’re not looking for a way to be a casual friend to her. From your question, it sounds like you’re simply looking for a way to co-exist with her.

It sounds like you experienced a perfectly serviceable (possibly codependent, although my therapist always urges me against pathologizing myself, so I’d like to give you permission to use this terminology if it’s helpful but disregard it if it’s not) close friendship of convenience with this woman when you both needed it. But now that you’re more settled in your life, you see that you’re not compatible. You seem to recognize that in other circumstances you may drift apart, but in your current life iteration, that’s not possible. What to do?

The bad news: When someone we don’t like very much exists in our neighborhood, our workspace, our friend circle, our life, we kind of just have to suck it up. The good news: That doesn’t actually mean you have to be friends, casual or otherwise. It’s okay to be just neutral with a person. It sounds like you want to be neutral with your former friend. That will take some work and some boundary-setting on your part, but it’s doable.

In this situation, it’s likely that some of your actions have already indicated to your former friend that you’d like to change the terms of your relationship. If you used to be extremely close and you’re feeling more distant from her now, you’ve probably called her less, initiated hanging out less, been less interested in the minutia of her life and been more closed off about what you share with her when you do talk. Is this sort of like ghosting a friend? Honestly, kind of. Do I think ghosting is great? I don’t. But do I also think some people – especially during a pandemic, but also always – communicate better with their actions than they do with their words? I do. And do I think sometimes the kinder move, if you’re really just not feeling a connection anymore, is to take space from the person rather than list all their flaws to them? I think I do. I welcome disagreement in the comments if folks feel differently – but I’ve been turning these ideas over in my head all year, and I know there are friendships where I have drifted away from a person because I simply no longer felt aligned with them, and I know I’ve experienced friends doing the same with me. And while it does not feel great, it does not always warrant a major conversation. Sometimes our relationships just ebb and flow. So it goes.

But what if your slow fade confuses your former friend, or what if she reaches out to ask, what gives? In this situation, I believe you have to use your words. It’s okay to want to change the terms of a relationship, but the people we connect with in this life deserve our honesty. It can be very hard to tell someone, I don’t feel close to you anymore. Sometimes we have a reason and sometimes we don’t. It’s even harder when we have to keep co-existing with the person. But your former friend deserves to understand the reality of your current relationship, just as a former date or love deserves that. Who knows – being honest with her about why you no longer feel close may inspire her to rethink some of her behaviors and beliefs.

Remember in elementary school when you didn’t love all your classmates, but the teachers said everyone had to be allowed to play tag at recess and you couldn’t exclude anyone? That’s kind of how things are at work. I’m not sure what your job is, but it’s completely fine to be co-workers with someone and not close with them. You can be respectful and polite, inclusive and professional, without being buddies. In your neighborhood and friend group, it’s also perfectly okay to be polite and friendly but not actually friends — in your personal life (rather than your professional life) it’s even okay to sometimes exclude people (thank god we are no longer in elementary school!). Just because she lives close to you, doesn’t mean she has to be granted access to your time or your life. I have plenty of neighbors I wave to every morning but don’t hang out with or feel super close to. And just because you have overlapping friends, it doesn’t mean you need to remain friends, either. In large friend groups there are always some people who are closer and some people who don’t even like each other; unless someone is being actively harmful, it’s okay to have friendships – even deep friendships – with people who like someone you don’t like. In large communities and friend groups, that’s inevitable.

Which brings me to the second thread in your question: is there space in queer community to have casual friends even though we as a people are hardcore about friendship and found family? As I said at the beginning of this answer, YES. The beauty of friendship is that every single connection we make is an individual relationship, with its own set of rules, its own shared language, its own natural rhythms, its own schema. No two friendships are identical and that’s wildly gorgeous. But in light of that, I would say our lives as queers can be filled with intense deep familial friendships, and also can be filled with easy breezy casual friendships, too. You say you don’t know how to be a casual friend. This is much like dating, where you can establish the depth of a connection by matching your words and actions with your intent and desire. Do you want to go deep with a friend? Show up. Offer support in times of crisis. Text every day. Go on friend dates. Spend time together. Integrate each other into your lives. Plan for the future. (Lots of things it sounds like you already feel comfortable doing.) Do you want to remain casual with a friend? Well, then you won’t want to follow your script for deep friendship! You can still show up for a casual friend but maybe you’re not the #1 support person. Perhaps you don’t text every day, or when you text it’s just to share silly memes. Maybe you never hang out IRL and never intend to do so. Do you know what I mean? We have casual relationships in our lives by setting boundaries around what it means to remain casual and then staying true to those boundaries. For your specific scenario now I think the shift to “casual friend” or to be honest “co-existing humans” from “close friends” is best done through words backed up by actions. Remain cordial but don’t worry about going out of you way to keep a friendship flame alive. And for your larger question about casual friendship in queer community, consider what the difference between being a close friend and a casual friend is to you and try to align your actions with those desires when you connect with new people. But I definitely think queers can celebrate casual friendship — I invite you to practice making some new friends and setting those casual boundaries, and see what happens. Soon you’ll have enough pals in your circle you won’t even be thinking about your old friend, and when you do see her, you can just smile and wave and move on with your day. Casually.


You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.


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Vanessa

Vanessa is a writer, a teacher, and the community editor at Autostraddle. She used to be hot and fun but now she’s mostly hot and sad. Find her on twitter and instagram.

Vanessa has written 360 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. Vanessa’s advice is, as ever, spot on — it reminds me of when my therapist told me that there are “friends for a reason, friends for a season, and friends for life” and that no one kind of friendship is better or worse than the others, they’re all just different and it’s okay sometimes when things have run their course.

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