The Humanist Dilemma: How Can I Drop out of a Three-Way Friendship?

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How Can I Drop Out of a Three-way Friendship?  I am in a group of three friends. Although we live very independent lives, decades ago we made a pact to celebrate each other’s birthdays each year, and we’ve been doing that with dinners three times a year ever since.

For the past number of years (like ten), I’ve been dreading it. While I’m best friends with “Hillary” and see her frequently, I really can no longer stand “Melanie” even in the course of just three meals annually. Melanie and I always had a lot of friction, causing me to back off of the friendship a number of times before I introduced her to Hillary. Melanie is chronically unhappy with her job, has problems with her family, and exhibits anger issues. She gets belligerent if I complain about anything in my life because she has it worse. She gets belligerent if I mention something that’s going well for me because things are going badly for her. Everything seems to set her off. She claims to love me but acts as though she resents me. Although those traits have always been obvious and irritating to me (also, but less so, to Hillary), both of them seem to want to keep the threesome going.

Since the last presidential election, it’s all been much worse, as Melanie voted differently from the other two of us. It’s not that I can’t get along with anyone who supported that candidate. It’s that, for Melanie, it’s a big chip on her shoulder. She blows up if we say anything about politics, accusing us of thinking she’s dumb and despising her for her views. I must admit, it’s self-fulfilling—I am now convinced she’s hopelessly unreasonable and illogical, and I don’t like being around her.

A couple years ago I told her how I felt about her outbursts and hostility, which is directed toward me more than Hillary, and that I didn’t want to do the birthday dinners any more. She was crushed and abjectly apologetic, acknowledging her behavior and promising not behave similarly in the future. I felt bad that I distressed her and that I’d thrown a monkey wrench into a long tradition, so we resumed the dinners.

The first couple times went OK but we were all on eggshells, tiptoeing around the elephant in the White House. Last time, Hillary—to my chagrin—actually brought up politics, and all the vitriol was unleashed again. After that, Hillary and I managed to let two birthdays go by on the pretext that we were busy and would get back in touch, which we never did. Now another birthday is coming up and Melanie’s been repeatedly texting both of us about getting together. When I didn’t respond, she contacted Hillary to see if I’m ok, and Hillary asked me what I wanted to do about the situation. I told Hillary that I don’t want to do a dinner again. Although Hillary had been in agreement about disbanding, now she says she’d be fine with resuming, and that I should call Melanie and have a heart-to-heart about what’s bothering me.

But I already did that once, gave her another chance, and now we’re back in the same place. Although I hate to be the one to break a long-standing tradition, I also don’t want to continue doing something that’s supposed to be fun but isn’t. If I call or otherwise communicate to Melanie what’s bugging me, no doubt she’ll be upset, apologetic, and eager to try again. I really don’t want to keep going through this cycle.

—I Just Want to Ghost

Dear Ghost,

This is just like breaking up with someone for behavior they promise not to repeat, getting back together, and the behavior starting right back up again. Some relationships need to end, including ones that are unsatisfactory to just one party. The other party doesn’t get a vote. Even two other parties.

It’s possible Melanie is just going through the motions because she doesn’t want to let the tradition die. More likely, she sincerely does want to keep it going, even if it’s more inertia than friendship at this point—and probably has been that way for far too long, at least for you.

I don’t think you owe it to Melanie to go into how the same objections you cited when you tried to break things off before, especially since there’s nothing new to add. As you note, that will most likely elicit the same response, and if you give in, you’ll be right back to tense dinners. Isn’t insanity doing the same thing and expecting a different outcome? Consider what you’d accomplish by perpetuating this, versus what you’d accomplish by putting a stop to it.

As a (former) friend, it’s kinder to respond than offer nothing but radio silence—but just with a terse email or text, such as “Can’t do it–really busy,” which in few words speaks volumes (at least to someone tuned to hear it). If Hillary wants to fill Melanie in, that’s fine. While she’s under no obligation to speak for you, it’s her prerogative if she wants to remind Melanie of your previously stated, still operative gripes. As for speaking for yourself, you’ve given Melanie ample explanation and opportunity already, and she just doesn’t get it—or she simply isn’t compatible with you. My impression is that you’re prone to being cajoled into trying again. And again. So I don’t think it’s productive for you to re-open the door by enumerating your objections one more time, even if you feel uncomfortable about not explaining. (It helps to recognize that you’d feel just as uncomfortable explaining.)

You don’t need Melanie’s—or Hillary’s—permission to drop out. The remaining two people can continue to celebrate two birthdays, or not. Try to offset any feelings of guilt with feeling good about finally withdrawing from a dysfunctional dynamic. Celebrate that instead of birthdays.