‘Can’t stay long’: How to deal with friends who won’t make time for you

'Can't stay long': How to deal with friends who won't make time for you

No matter your age, relationship status, financial circumstances, or tendencies towards introversion or extroversion, research consistently shows that strong social ties are critical for health and happiness.

Women’s friendships have been found to be more intimate and better sources of social and emotional support than men’s. Women also tend to prioritise and maintain friendships into older age more frequently than men, which some hypothesise increases longevity.

Krasi Kirova, a registered psychologist at Wattletree Psychology, explained that reciprocity is a defining feature of a healthy and beneficial friendship. Naturally, friendships don’t always have to be a perfectly even split of effort, as each friend’s available time and energy will fluctuate over time.

That said, friendships ideally have a reasonably balanced level of give and take and mutual love, care, respect, and energy.

So what do you do when your friends seem to value the friendship less than you do? You have probably encountered a friend who constantly flakes, never initiates plans to see you, or appears less invested or interested in connecting than you are.

Another dynamic that can feel dismissive or hurtful is the friend who always seems poised to dash off from your catch-ups soon after they begin. The friends who tell you they “can’t stay long” before your lattes have even arrived.

What does this pattern say about the connection and its equality? And how can you create a balanced friendship with someone who seems to have no time for you?

What is a ‘can’t stay long’ friend?

You’ve probably had periods of time when you’ve felt perpetually in a rush. No matter how hard you work, your schedule overwhelms you, and you never seem to have time for anything. Perhaps you’ve been a ‘can’t stay long’ friend yourself during a particularly harrowing time at work or when parenting responsibilities dominated your every waking hour.

Kirova explained that if your friend occasionally only has a short amount of time to spend with you, it shouldn’t cause concern or negatively impact your friendship.

However, if the behaviour becomes a consistent pattern that doesn’t seem to result from challenging life circumstances, it’s understandable that it would hurt your feelings.

“A friend who repeatedly can’t stay long for a catch-up can make you feel rejected or abandoned as it appears they always have something better or more important to do than spend time with you,” she said.

If you’re carving out precious hours in your own hectic schedule for a friend who can only spare a few minutes, it can feel like an implication that your time is less valuable or that nurturing the friendship is a lesser priority.

While it’s important not to jump to conclusions or make assumptions about why your pal is always rushing off, Kirova said there are ways to manage such a friend.

“A friend who repeatedly can’t stay long for a catch-up can make you feel rejected or abandoned as it appears they always have something better or more important to do than spend time with you." – psychologist Krasi Kirova.

Krasi Kirova, registered psychologist

Registered psychologist Krasi Kirova. Image credit: Krasi Kirova.

Get curious about your friendship dynamics

It’s always a good idea to give your friend the benefit of the doubt when their behaviour upsets you.

Getting curious, rather than defensive, about why someone displays behaviour that hurts your feelings takes courage and self-awareness, but it can help you understand the dynamics at play.

If this is a relatively new behaviour, consider whether a significant change in your friend’s life could explain their lack of time and attention. Have their professional or personal circumstances changed, making it hard to switch off enough to enjoy your company fully? Are they struggling with a physical or mental health condition that affects their ability to focus on socialising for long periods?

“If you recognise that your friend is just going through a phase in their life when they have other new and important commitments, give them time and space to prioritise those for a while,” said Kirova.

Remember that nothing is personal

We all have different values, life circumstances, and views on friendships. It’s easy to assume that everyone expects the same thing from a friendship, and therefore, someone who never stays long is inconsiderate or self-absorbed.

But making these assumptions won’t help the friendship improve, nor will it help you get your social needs met.

Perhaps your friend was raised in a context where brief, distracted interactions were the norm or at least seen as better than nothing. Maybe they feel so comfortable with you that they have let their guard down and become a little less thoughtful about how they come across.

Remember that even if it turns out that they don’t value you enough to dedicate more time to the friendship, that says nothing about your character and everything about theirs.

“If you recognise that this is a consistent and long-standing pattern of behaviour from a friend, consider lowering your expectations of that friendship and limiting your interactions with them,” said Kirova.

“For example, avoid bringing up deeper personal topics with them to avoid feelings of emotional abandonment and resentment when they don’t have the time to sit with you through them. You can also plan shorter meetings and plan your own time accordingly.”

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Express how the behaviour affects you

Kirova explained that people are often completely unaware of the impact of their actions on those around them. This doesn’t make them bad people; they just don’t realise how their behaviour is being interpreted.

Kirova explained that, usually, our friends would be happy to make adjustments once they realise their actions have upset or hurt us.

“If you believe your friend may not recognise how their behaviour is impacting you and you value this friendship, it would be best to bring it up in a calm, non-judgemental or blaming way,” she said.

Burning bridges before you’ve given your friend a chance to change can feel less risky or vulnerable than voicing your concerns. Unfortunately, it can also lead to the premature ending of a friendship that otherwise works well and adds value to your life.

Clarify your needs and expectations

Unspoken expectations are resentments waiting to happen. If you feel there’s a minimum amount of time you’d like to spend with your friend to make the outing worthwhile for you, be honest about that. Explain that you want quality time for deeper conversation, and bonding and that brief encounters between their other appointments don’t cut it.

Expressing a need is scary when you don’t know how the other person will respond. Prepare yourself for them to react defensively, deny their behaviour, or even criticise you for speaking up.

Ideally, they will react positively, but it’s important to remember that it doesn’t reflect badly on you, even if they don’t. Ultimately, it’s better to know now that your values and ideas around friendship don’t align.

Kirova suggests that if you aren’t getting anywhere with a ‘can’t stay long’ friend, you can see this as an opportunity to re-focus some of your own time and energy on other friends who are more readily available and willing to reciprocate your efforts.

We all have different values and ideas of what makes a good friend. Just because your friend doesn’t make as much time for you as you’d like doesn’t mean they don’t love you and your company. There is no right or wrong way to ‘do’ friendship. However, being honest with ourselves and others about what we want from a friend is important. Ideally, social ties should help fill our cups, not drain them.

Knowing how important meaningful friendship is for our wellbeing, we should reflect on how our connections make us feel. Hold onto and invest in friends who make you feel special, understood, and supported, and don’t be afraid to step back from people who aren’t meeting your needs.

Saying goodbye to a friend is never easy, but it can help clear space in your life for new people that better align with your needs and friendship style.

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon

Emma Lennon is a passionate writer, editor and community development professional. With over ten years’ experience in the disability, health and advocacy sectors, Emma is dedicated to creating work that highlights important social issues.