There are those people in your life - I think we all have them, or have had them. If you don't have them, then you might be one of them (sorry to break the news). You know, the ones who you knew a long time ago, or never really got to know properly, who still pop up from time to time suggesting a coffee or a drink. It wasn't great last time, but hey, you might as well go along to see how they're doing. And then you remember the reason you never contact them: they're not very pleasant to be around.
They come in a variety of flavours: negative, whiny, too loud, too critical, or incapable of talking about anyone or anything other than themselves and a great list of people in their lives that you have never met, and will never meet. It's tedious because there's no pleasure to be taken from that sort of company. What you have is not a friendship - you're just a piece of living, breathing matter, capable of absorbing their monologue, that has agreed to sit still long enough for them to recite at you the things in their life that are unsatisfactory and then repeat them. And then repeat them again.
I had always thought that these 'friendships' just fizzled out. When one party has spent the entire relationship nodding, 'mmm'-ing and offering discarded advice, there's not a great deal to cling on to. But I was having dinner with a friend last week, and she mentioned the people in her life who she was currently in the process of 'phasing out'.
"Phasing out?", I asked. "Is that an actual thing?"
"Yeah, definitely. People do it all the time."
I'd never considered that it was a reality. So I started thinking about why the reflective 'lost touch with someone' has become the forward-planned 'going to phase someone out'. The answer is that it's tricky to lose contact with someone when we're more contactable than ever. The volume of digital platforms on which we all operate and interact is ever-increasing, and we broadcast our daily lives - the job we're doing, where we're having dinner, who we're going out with, what we love and what we hate - without a second thought. We are constantly virtually present in each other's lives to the point of it being invasive. We know when someone's online - 'if they're online, they got my email. If they got my email, why haven't they replied?'
In the past, you had to pick up your mobile, a landline phone, or perhaps even (God forbid!) a pen if you wanted to keep in touch with someone. You had to really think about it and dedicate a serious chunk of time to it. When you didn't see someone for ages, you actually didn't see them. You didn't know that their sister got married, that they'd just bought a cat, that they'd been to Crete and the weather hadn't been great. And because of that, friendships could fall by the wayside in a natural way. People grow apart from each other; we might have a great deal in common with someone at a certain point in our lives but, because of the decisions we make or the paths we take, that can change. And it's good not to keep a limping, anaemic friendship alive just for the sake of it. We need to meet new people who interest us and keep us engaged and happy.
But now we have to make a conscious choice to 'phase someone out'. As wonderful as it is to have the means of staying in touch with those too far away, too busy or too ill to see frequently, we are now a very available group of people. There's no escaping it: being immediately responsive is expected of us all. So now when we don't reply to a text or an email, don't pick up a phone call or delete a voice mail, we know exactly what we're doing. It makes us feel guilty because it's cruel, and it's cruel because it's clearly a strategic move. And as much as I'd like to say that, given the open way in which we share (and often overshare) about ourselves and our daily lives, we should just be honest about how we feel, that isn't going to happen. Saying, 'Thanks for your text. I'm actually not keen on seeing you because I don't enjoy your company. Hope that's okay' would be admirable, but it goes against too many of our social expectations. We feel comfortable with avoidance because it's non-confrontational and easily forgotten. Maybe this cowardly 'phase-out' is the only way to ensure that we're surrounded by those who make us happy, even if it means a few harsh de-friendings and deleted numbers.