Actions may speak louder than words, but when it comes to friendship, words can have a definite—and not always positive—effect. Two words that are potential relationship killers: “busy” and “sometime,” as in “Sorry, I can’t go out next weekend, I’m busy,” and “Let’s get together sometime.” These phrases may sound harmless enough, but experts say they can do real damage.
“We live in a world now where saying the word “busy” highlights that we are prioritizing all kinds of tasks, events, expectations, or other relationships as more important than our friendships.” says friendship expert Shasta Nelson, author of the upcoming book Frientimacy. “A friendship cannot stay healthy, fulfilling, and intimate if one or both people don’t take the time to nurture that friendship.” Sociologist Jan Yager, Ph.D., who has focused much of her research on friendship and is author of When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal with Friends Who Betray, Abandon or Wound You, agrees. “The reason ‘busy’ shuts people down, whether it’s a friend or anyone else, is that what someone hears is, ‘I’m too busy for you.‘”
The need for friends
We all know the benefits of having friends—they give us someone to laugh and cry with, and share meaningful moments together. Having friends has also been proven to help us live longer, cope with stress better and stave off serious illness. As we age, our friendships change—sometimes becoming more intimate and closer, or, conversely, drifting apart.
“Not all friendships, even very good ones, last forever,” says Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and creator of The Friendship Blog. “People change over time and may have little in common any more except a shared history.” Levine also points out that friendships need to be convenient. “It’s easier to maintain a friendship with someone who lives in your neighborhood, who works in your office, or who attends the same gym or adult education class you do than someone who has relocated to another country,” she says. Schedules play an important part, too. If one person is retired and the other is actively involved in a career, it can be tough to find common ground.
If you do find yourself drifting apart, it might be natural to use the word “busy,” as a way to avoid a bigger conversation about the friendship. “Saying you’re busy is actually a gentle way of saying no, suggesting that you would rather spend your time doing something else,” says Levine. “When someone constantly says they’re busy, it signals that perhaps the other person should back off—maybe the friend is too demanding or needy or wants more from the friendship than you do.” But in that case, you might need to have a real conversation about the friendship not working for you.
The problem is many of us use “busy” or “sometime” without thinking about it. It’s not that we want to end the friendship, it just might be that we’re overwhelmed with everything we have to do. If that’s the case, we should pay more attention to what we’re saying. As Dr. Yager puts it: “We make time for what we prioritize and who we care about.”
Set your priorities
If you’re interested in preserving the friendship, but truly are busy, there are other things you can say or do.
“Consistency is crucial to friendship, and lack of time is easily the number one complaint I hear from women about their friendships,” says Nelson. If you are busy, there are three things she says you need to communicate to your friend in order to maintain the friendship:
- Apologize and take responsibility. “Recognize that our lives are busy at our doing— that we are not victims to it,” she says.
- Affirm your friend. Let them know how much their friendship means so that it lessens the chance of them taking it personally or wondering if there is something wrong in the friendship.
- Offer up what you can do. What can you offer instead if you are swamped? Where can you make room? Figure out a time for the two of you to get together.
The best thing you can do is reach out even if it’s with a quick email or text to say you’re thinking of the person. “Even if getting together is days, weeks, or months down the road, you want to show concretely that you are never too busy for that particular person because they matter and their friendship with you matters,” says Dr. Yager.
If you’re on the receiving end
What should you do if you’re on the receiving end of a friend who says she is busy?
“Try not to overreact,” says Dr. Yager. “Think of the times in your life when you’ve been super busy and you were actually grateful that someone canceled because you were exhausted, overworked, and actually looking forward to ‘chilling out.'”
One more thing to consider: Have you been too busy for this friend lately so her actions are “pay back?” Maybe you forgot your friend’s birthday or didn’t call her when she was going through a hard time. Think about your own actions.
If you can’t think of anything you’ve done, and it seems like the friendship is off kilter, talk to your friend, but be gentle about it. Things might actually be okay and your friend truly is busy, but this may cause her to feel pressured. “Remember that friendship is optional and voluntary,” says Dr. Yager. “As much as we love our friends, most everyone has other obligations that have to go first including their spouse, their own parents, children, grandchildren, etc.” Getting together has to be something that comes from the heart, so be understanding, and if the behavior continues, then have a sit down and have an in-depth talk.