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Is It Time We Banished The Flaky Friend?

Illustration by Anna Sudit
9.15am, Saturday morning and I was sitting blurry-eyed in a cafe miles away from my house with a lukewarm mint tea so bored that I had clicked on LinkedIn.

I was meeting a friend who I would have preferred to see over a long Sunday roast dinner or Friday night cocktails but no other time in the next month had worked for her so I had hauled myself out of bed to fit in with her one available hour-long time slot. A time slot usually preferred only by people with children under two or those with pyjamas on under their coats picking up takeaway breaded goods, which they will sensibly transport back to their own beds.

I sat there wondering if I should order one of those Portuguese custard tart things and because she was now 30-minutes late, despite the decreed time slot, I also rehearsed a po-faced speech about how my time mattered too.

I never delivered it, because when she arrived, apologetic, it was nice to see her, and I didn't want to ruin our precious time together.

This is life with the flaky friend; the one who neglects us over and over, and makes it clear by their behaviour that they are far busier and more important than us. And yet, we stick with them. Because every now and again they throw us a morsel: the kind of night out which is still being talked about a year later, a supportive chat when things are rubbish, or a genuinely thoughtful present. Something which reminds us why we are friends with them in the first place, which is usually because we love hanging out with them above almost anyone else. Which only makes their flakiness more annoying.

The flake is Jessa from Girls, going off radar for weeks at a time. She’s Rachel from Friends when she turns up in the wedding dress and expects Monica to have the spare room ready for her even though they haven’t spoken in about five years. She’s probably Victoria Beckham, replying to one message in every 200 on the Spice Girls' WhatsApp group, though, to be fair, that last one is a guess.

Irene S. Levine, Ph.D., a psychologist and friendship expert, says that part of the reason for the current prevalence of the flaky friend is that our view of friendship is skewed in 2016.

“Many people are more flippant about friendships because we can ‘unfriend’ someone with a touch of the keyboard,” she says. “It feels like there are so many friends and they are so replaceable that we have forgotten the value of a proper friendship.”

It’s the friendship equivalent of Tinder – making dating easy but commitment seemingly impossible. The flaky friend is the bad boy, if the bad boy had a long bob and Mac lipstick and brought you a scented candle to say sorry for being rubbish, instead of make up sex.

But in the long run, the flaky friend may actually cause more harm than good. Because while most of us eventually grow out of the bad boy, his friendship-based equivalent can stick around in our lives forever.

“With our friends there’s a certain comfort level like the one you have in your family which means you can be snappy, turn up late, do whatever you want – to an extent – and know you’ll still be loved,” says Levine. “Plus friendships rarely end so definitely as romantic relationships, so the consequences if someone does get annoyed with us are not so extreme. All of which means that with our friends, we often don’t demonstrate our best behaviour.”

Personally I would rather sit there for three hours drinking that vaguely mint-flavoured lukewarm water and getting pity looks from the waitress than ever speak to my friend about her morsel-feeding and I think that’s how a lot of people feel about confrontation, especially with friends.

We may have arguments about the dishwasher with our partners and sulk with our families but friends are supposed to be the glossy part of life - who wants to be the one stropping in for an epic discussion on our relationship just as everyone’s on their third glass of Prosecco? If the flaky friend is Jessa, the one who wants to analyse her behaviour is Marnie: AKA far, far worse.

Unfortunately though, if we don’t pull her up on it, the flaky friend will receive a subliminal message that her behaviour is OK.

“If you accept it, it gets to be a habit because she believes there are no consequences,” says Levine. “That’s when it becomes a pattern and the longer that goes on, the more difficult it is to break.”

And while the flaky friend is developing her bad habits, those on the receiving end can become angry, passive-aggressive, and start to feel stupid and worthless too. It can also affect our health: a study in the Annals of Behavioural Medicine in 2007 found that unpredictable and ambivalent friendships raise our blood pressure because they don’t help us deal with stress and are themselves a source of it.

“There may be characteristics which are offset by others,” says Levine. “Someone that’s flaky can also be exciting to be with for example and unlike a romantic partner you don’t need a friend to fulfil all of your needs, you can surround yourself with multiple friends who all give you something different. But in the end, you need to weigh up how much her behaviour negatively affects you - and how much it detracts from the relationship.”

We could, as Levine suggests, ‘dilute’ the friendship; spend less time with our flaky friends, see them only in a group - and that might be one way to keep them in our lives. But in the end we need to decide whether the relationship is doing us any real favours. Or whether the flakiest thing we can cope with at the weekend is a takeaway bag filled to the brim with those delicious Portuguese pastries.