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The Jewish Ethicist: Growing Apart

The Jewish Ethicist: Growing Apart

Should I tell my old friend that we just don't have anything in common?


Q. I'm an older person with a longtime friend whom I just no longer enjoy visiting. I just feel we no longer have anything in common. I'm constantly making excuses to her why I can't visit, like saying I'm too busy, and then feeling terribly guilty. Wouldn't it be better to just honestly tell her how I feel?

A. It's sad when old friends drift apart, but it's also very natural. We continue to grow and develop throughout even the longest lifetimes, and sometimes people just grow apart.

Still, we can't deny that this process can be very traumatic for some people. While being honest and open may seem like the most ethical course of action, it's no coincidence that sometimes we refer to someone as being “brutally honest”. Our sages point out that even the Holy One Himself is sensitive to excessive bluntness; when Sarah expressed wonder that she would have a child, given that “my master is old”, God related this statement to Abraham as “For I have grown old” (Genesis 18:12-13).

So just telling how you feel in this case is probably not the best solution. Even putting the friend off as you are doing now is better than total openness. The fact is you probably are quite busy and at least there is an element of truth in the answer. And you have avoided making an undiplomatic and unambiguous statement, which could be very traumatic for your old friend.

Still, we have to be sensitive to your distress as well. You feel that you are trapped by your past friendship into a kind of ongoing charade. You need some kind of solution.

One thing I can recommend is that while you shouldn't be too open with your old friend, you should be honest with yourself. The real reason you visit this person is not as a gesture of friendship but because you feel you have an obligation to help her. That's why you feel guilty about your excuses. One strategy which can be very helpful in these cases is to make a psychological “switch” and decide that the time you spend visiting your friend is not “friendship time;” it is “chesed” time -- time devoted to acts of kindness to others.

Perhaps you already give a few hours a month to chesed endeavors, such as visiting an old age home or hospital, or volunteering in a charity bazaar. Your visits to your old friend are also a very special act of loving kindness that she appreciates, as long as they are carried out willingly and lovingly. Decide how much time you can devote wholeheartedly to this particular chesed -- whether one afternoon a week or one phone call a month. Then do your best to stick to it. Perhaps you will even want to announce your plan to your friend: "Sophie, I know that I have been spending less time with you lately; I am going to try to have lunch with you at least twice a month".

This approach could be very helpful to both you and to your friend:

It can be helpful for you because instead of feeling trapped you have put yourself in control. You are voluntarily deciding how much time you can devote to your long-time acquaintance. And instead of feeling that you are living a lie, you are being completely honest with yourself: this is an activity I am engaging in order to help others.

It can be helpful for your friend because she cannot help but be conscious of the difference between time spent willingly and time spent begrudgingly. A small amount of time given whole-heartedly has more meaning for the recipient than a long time spent impatiently!

The Talmud tells the story about a renowned scholar, Rav Pereida, who customarily tutored a very slow student. This pupil couldn't absorb the material unless he reviewed it with his teacher four hundred times. While generally Rav Pereida was patient with this student, one time he was anxious to finish so that he could perform an important mitzvah. Alas, this time despite the four hundred reviews the student had not absorbed his lesson! When Rav Pereida asked why, the youngster replied, “All the time I was worried, any second the teacher is going to leave!” As a result, all of the reviews were done without the proper concentration and serenity. Rav Pereida had to go back and review the lesson another four hundred times – this time patiently and successfully. More generally, Jewish law and tradition consistently emphasize the critical importance that help to others always be provided willingly. Our sages tell us that if a person gives charity grudgingly, he loses his reward. Giving to others of our time or money both generously and cheerfully requires finding the ideal balance between improving our attitude and tailoring our commitments to our ability.

SOURCES: Babylonian Talmud Yevamot 65b, Eiruvin 54b. Shulchan Arukh Yoreh Deah 249:3. See also Ahavat Chesed II:20; Igrot Moshe EHE IV:26

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The Jewish Ethicist presents some general principles of Jewish law. For specific questions and direct application, please consult a qualified Rabbi.

The Jewish Ethicist is a joint project of and the Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem. To find out more about business ethics and Jewish values for the workplace, visit the JCT Center for Business Ethics website at

JCT Center For Business Ethics

Copyright © JCT Center for Business Ethics.

May 24, 2003

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Visitor Comments: 7

(7) Anonymous, June 10, 2003 12:00 AM

Invite her to share your new interests

An old friend and I grew apart because my interests changed. It wasn't the friends fault. We just didn't share common interests. When she asked me to do activities that I no longer enjoyed I simply told her that I was no longer interested in the activities. Then I asked her to do activities that I did enjoy. We eventually found some common ground.

(6) Anonymous, May 27, 2003 12:00 AM

The other side

I was the recepient of a long-time "friend" who informed me that we had drifted apart and that I should have a nice life. Yes, we may have drifted apart, but that didn't mean our friendship had to end, just the dynamics of the friendship. We had a lot of shared history, and now I don't have that friend to share it with anymore and it has tainted the whole relationship. You shouldn't end a relationship like this - you just need to acknowledge the change in dynamics and look for what is still positive in the friendship and embrace that.

(5) Larry, May 27, 2003 12:00 AM

Torah Still Relevant

R. Meir's sensitivity to the human issues and his knowledge of the Torah have once again produced a meaningful and thought provoking answer that shows how relevant Jewish teachings are today.

Certainly, I agree with Devorah and Ellen that discussion might be appropriate, but I got the sense from the description of the problem that it was beyond this. It seemed possible to me that the friend can't change anything at this stage of life and the discussion might just harm her.

The situation reminded me of one my wife and I discussed with our daughter. At the university Hillel house where she spends a lot of time, there are people who reach out to her that she doesn't want to spend more time with. She's very friendly and people sometimes interpret this as her insterest in more friendship than she wants. Furthermore, some do not read the ordinary lack-of-interest social clues, like "I'm too busy" so they keep trying to the point that it gets awkward. Essentially we advised her to gently say something like, "I think you may be reading me wrong; I want to be friendly with you, but not to be close friends." While this has the potential to hurt the recipient to some extent, we also felt that the honesty was necessary and that by giving the person something to hang onto (the "friendly" part) it would hurt less. Did we advise her correctly?

(4) Devorah, May 27, 2003 12:00 AM

It would not make me happy but I would rather know than pursue someone in whose eyes the relationship is dead - how humiliating.

(3) Devorah, May 25, 2003 12:00 AM

Why not open an honest discussion?

While you don't have to be brutally honest, you could say something like, it seems we are growing apart, have yo noticed? And see where the converesation goes. You may find that it opens up a new aspect of the relationship that may be more fulfilling. I'm sure she has noticed that something has changed if you keep putting her off (this never fools anybody). I wouldn't want somebody to promise to have lunch twice a month with me because they feel obligated - I would rather have the opportunity to re-enliven the friendship, or let it die a natural death. And I disagree that putting the person off is better than openness - it's actually rather insulting, similar to the "I'll call you" line after a date instead of just saying I'm not interested and letting the person get on with their life.

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