Wednesday 10 November 2021

Supportive Disengagement: How to Be There for Your Friend When They Need Space

I’ve written in the past about some of the roles I play in the mutually supportive friendship I share with Fran. It’s a topic we describe in detail in our book. I’ve written less about how friendships sometimes move through distinct phases. In this post, I want to discuss one such phase, which I call supportive disengagement.

What do I mean by that? Essentially, it means stepping back from the usual give-and-take dynamic you share with your friend, but being there if and when you’re invited in. It means providing encouragement and support when asked but otherwise getting out of your friend’s way so they can navigate whatever’s happening in their lives the best way they can.

I’ve written this from the perspective of the supportive friend, but it’s equally relevant if you’re the person needing space. Like any other phase of a friendship, supportive disengagement works best if you’re both aware of what’s happening.

What Supportive Disengagement Isn’t

It’s natural for friendships to ebb and flow. Sometimes you’re closer and more actively engaged; at other times, things get in the way, you connect less regularly or in different ways. Sometimes friends break up altogether. For someone like me whose sense of wellbeing is closely related to the state of their relationships, any lessening in a friendship — real or perceived — can be hard to handle. It’s taken time and a lot of inner work to learn how to respect a friend’s need for space without responding as though I’ve been rejected or abandoned.

Disagreements between even very close friends are not uncommon. Fran and I describe several in our book, and I’ve had plenty of disagreements with other friends. Issues are best dealt with at the time rather than ignoring them or putting them off until later. Supportive disengagement is not a substitute for working problems through with your friend. On the other hand, if a friendship has broken down altogether, there’s wisdom in accepting the reality of the situation. Fran has taught me it’s possible for a connection to end, and where necessary to be mourned, without resentment or bitterness. I’ve found this a healthy way to process endings. It’s helped me more than once to hold space for someone to re-enter my life if they want to, without expecting or needing that to happen. There is grace in this kind of acceptance, but it’s not supportive disengagement.

Supportive disengagement is for situations when your friendship is taking a break rather than broken, when disengagement is less than total, and — crucially — where the lines of communication remain open.

When Is the Right Time?

So, when is supportive disengagement appropriate? In short, it’s any time where the usual level of contact, support, or help is no longer possible, needed, or wanted, but neither of you wants the friendship itself to end.

For me and Fran, that’s included times when Fran has been travelling, most notably her three month trip around Europe in 2013. This severely limited how often we were in touch, the nature of our connection, and the support we could provide each other. We describe the challenges we faced and how we handled them in part three of High Tide, Low Tide. With other friends, it’s happened under a variety of circumstances. Perhaps they’ve been unwell; had other commitments which required their focus, time, and energy; or needed space to consider what they want from our connection. Whatever the reason, it’s been okay.

You might know or be able to guess why your friend needs space, but if they don’t offer an explanation don’t push for one. Your friend has a right to expect their need for space to be respected without having to explain or justify it to you.

Ground Rules and Expectations

It helps if you can talk things through in advance. One friend told me there might be times when she’d need space, and we discussed how we’d handle things if and when that happened. Fran and I spent a considerable amount of time discussing how we’d handle her travelling around Europe when we knew we’d struggle to stay in touch.

Be honest about what each of you needs and expects. The aim is to make things as easy as possible in what may be difficult circumstances. Reassure each other that you still care and that this is a stage in your journey as friends, not the end. Here are a few suggestions based on my experience with various friends.

  • Agree how often you’ll check in, for example, once a day, or once a week.
  • Decide how you’ll stay in touch, for example by phone, chat, or email. Is it okay for you to instigate contact, or will you wait for your friend to contact you?
  • Discuss what support might be useful, and anything that’s unlikely to help.

You may want to discuss how long the period of disengagement might last. Does your friend need space for a few days, a few weeks, or longer? How will you know when it’s over? Bear in mind that your friend might not know, or may be unable to give timescales.

What Does It Look Like?

Your role during a period of supportive disengagement can be summed up as follows:

  • Stay out of your friend’s way.
  • Don’t make things harder for them.
  • Let your friend lead.
  • Enable them to move forward, but don’t try to direct their path.
  • Do what you can, but don’t offer more than you’re asked.
  • Hold space when they need it. Give space when they need it.
  • Keep the connection open.
  • Be the friend they need you to be.

What this means in practice will depend on the nature of your friendship and what, if anything, you arranged in advance. If you agreed to check in once a week, don’t message or phone in between. If you agreed not to pester for updates, don’t pester for updates. If your friend asks for help or support, provide it without fuss and don’t push for more engagement than necessary.

It’s harder without ground rules because you may have little idea why things have changed, what’s being asked of you, or how long it will last. Nevertheless, respect your friend’s need for space and accept things are going to be different for a while.

What Does It Feel Like?

Even if you understand your friend’s reasons, it’s natural to feel some degree of hurt or loss. This is especially true if you were previously in touch a lot, as I tend to be with my close friends. It may seem as though you’re being ignored or cast aside, but in my experience, that’s not what’s going on. You’re being asked to be a friend under circumstances many would struggle to accommodate.

If you’re used to your friend being there for you, it can feel scary to lose their support. Remind yourself that it’s not because they’ve stopped caring. They need all their time, energy, and focus for themselves at this time. This is something I learned with Fran. It’s captured in our motto “Care but Don’t Crowd. Share but Don’t Pollute.”

“Care but don’t crowd” reminds me to be there for Fran when she needs me, but not to nag her to tell me how she is doing, or pester her for attention. She deserves and needs her own space. “Share but don’t pollute” is no less important. We are friends and I value her insight and support [...] but it is important not to share simply for the sake of it, or where doing so would drain her of energy she needs to keep herself well.

Ultimately, it’s unhealthy to rely on only one person or relationship for support, so use the time to expand your network. I’ve written about this previously in a post titled Team Marty (Because No One Can Be Everything for Everyone). Above all, focus on what you can gain from this experience.

It’s a Gift!

One of my all-time favourite short stories, J. R. R. Tolkien’s Leaf by Niggle, ends with the words, “It’s a gift!” Although it may not feel like it, supportive disengagement can be both a gift and a blessing.

They say you only appreciate something when it’s gone, but supportive disengagement offers the opportunity to appreciate your friendship without having to lose it first. It can also serve as an antidote to codependency, which is a situation where two people become dependent on each other to an unhealthy degree. It’s a particular risk if one person tends to provide support and care for the other. Spending time apart helps you see what’s been going on, and if necessary reset things when you reconnect.

Your friend has trusted you to deal with the changes to the connection you share and handle your needs while they attend to theirs. Take the opportunity to focus on your other friendships and relationships, to learn about yourself, and to explore your need for connection.

How to Re-engage

It’s one thing to successfully navigate a period of supportive disengagement, but what about when it comes to an end? There’s no guarantee things will be the same as they used to be. You may pick up again with calls and meetings, but you’ve lived through this period apart. You may feel closer for the experience, or it may seem there’s ground to make up. Whatever the circumstances, approach things gently, rather than leaping in and expecting things to be exactly as they were before.

Fran’s Europe trip is a good example. She returned physically and mentally exhausted, but couldn’t rest because she had to immediately start looking for a new place to live. It was an extremely traumatic time for us both but in a way that helped us to re-engage. There was no time to ponder if we were okay because we were thrown back into things straight away.

We knew in advance when Fran would get back from her trip but what if there’s no specific date you can point to on the calendar? How do you know when to start reconnecting again? Take your lead from your friend. If they start picking up with you again, go with it. Take the call. Agree to a meet-up. Talk about whatever your friend wants to talk about, and go from there. If it feels like things are returning to normal, that’s probably what your friend intends, but don’t take that for granted or assume their need for space is over. If in doubt, ask.

It’s reasonable to ask what happened while you were apart and share how things were for you, but accept that your friend is under no obligation to meet your need for understanding. Invite them to share but respect the fact that they may not want to talk about it yet, or at all.

It can feel as though you’re starting again from scratch, but that needn’t be a problem. Approach it as a new chapter in your friendship. Enjoy exploring what works for you now, built on all you’ve shared in the past. As one friend said as we reconnected, “I will always treasure the memories we shared. And so will you.” We’ve gone on to build many more.

I’ll close with something I wrote in my journal during a period of supportive disengagement. I’d been struggling to handle the changes in our friendship, which felt very much like being pushed away, but realised I didn’t have to look at it that way.

I can choose to celebrate the positives in all this and let go of all the rest. I can be the person who hears what my friend wants and needs, and works with her to enable things without fuss or complaint. I can be here while she’s going through what she’s going through. THAT is what I am being offered. THAT is the friend she needs me to be.

In that moment I understood that accepting a friend’s need for disengagement and supporting them through it is one of the most profoundly caring acts we will ever perform.

Over to You

In this article, I’ve explored supportive disengagement, which is where a friend or loved one needs to disconnect from you for a time but doesn’t want the relationship itself to end.

Have you found yourself in that situation? Have you ever needed to pull back from someone or ask them to give you space? How successful was it for you? How did it feel? Did you re-engage afterwards? We’d love to hear from you.


Photo by Ansgar Scheffold on Unsplash.


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