Ask a Therapist: Do I Have to Keep Listening to a Friend Who Always Has a Crisis?

A friend constantly calls with a crisis.

Verywell / Catherine Song

Our Reader Asks

I have a friend who only calls me when she’s in “crisis.” One week she is short on money. The next, her boyfriend is being mean to her. But most of her problems are her own fault. I don’t want to abandon her but I dread talking to her. What should I do?

Amy's Answer

The fact that you said you dread talking to her is a definite signal that you need to change something. You have a couple of choices in how to move forward; you can change the situation or you can change how you feel about the situation.

Change the Situation

It sounds like you’re getting worn out hearing your friend’s problems, which is understandable. It also sounds like you’ve considered ending the relationship but you feel obligated to keep talking to her.

You can’t change your friend’s choices. But you can change how you respond to her. 

Changing your behavior might range from not answering her calls to simply listening to her without offering advice (if that’s what you’ve been doing). You can also be selective about when you talk to her. You might decide not to answer the phone when she calls. If you’re picking up the phone while you’re busy doing other things, you probably won’t be in the mood to listen to a long monologue about her problems.

Call her back when you have time to spare and you have the mental capacity to hear her. You might find this helps you feel more in control of your time. She might be calmer when you call her back after the immediate “crisis” has resolved.

It could be a good time to have a direct conversation with your friend. Gently tell her how you’ve been feeling. Saying something like, “I’m not sure how to best help you right now. It seems like you are struggling with lots of different problems. I think it might be more helpful for you to speak to a professional.” 

Of course, she might not want to hear your suggestion that she attend counseling. But, she can’t argue with how you’re feeling. Tell her that it’s stressful to hear about all the things she’s struggling with and you’re feeling a bit ill-equipped in how to respond. If she pushes back and says she just wants you to listen, it’s okay to let her know that “just listening” takes a lot of energy. And you don’t want to just hang in there on the line if you can’t really be present with her.

It might feel uncomfortable to set some boundaries with your friend right now. She might get upset or you might feel rude. But establishing clear boundaries now might help preserve the friendship for the long-term, if that’s what you want.

Change How You Feel About the Situation

Another strategy is to change how you’re feeling about the situation. This will likely work best when you combine it with other strategies; change the situation while simultaneously changing your emotional response. After you speak to your friend, ask yourself how you’re feeling. Do you feel anxious? Worn out? Angry? Annoyed? Whatever you feel is okay.

Then, notice what kinds of thoughts are running through your head. Are you thinking your friend is a jerk for wasting your time? Are you thinking you’re stupid for answering the phone when she calls? 

You might find it’s helpful to create a little mantra to repeat to yourself, such as, “She’s having a hard time right now and that’s okay.”

Finally, look at your behavior. Are you doing things that cause you to feel worse? For example, do you spend time complaining to your partner or other friends about her? If so, that might mean you’re investing even more time on your friend’s problems.

Also, make sure you’re taking care of yourself. Plenty of sleep and exercise and a healthy diet are essential components to self-care and it’s also important that you have social outlets you enjoy and that you’re engaged in a healthy lifestyle overall.

Evaluate the Friendship

In any healthy friendship, there will be times when one person may need more support than the other. But, if a friendship is always one-sided, it might not actually be a true friendship.

If your friend is going through a tough time, you may want to be there for her. But, if she always wants things from you and never offers anything in return, you might decide this isn’t truly a friendship. If that’s the case, you might decide to let the friendship go. 

Rather than think of it as “abandoning your friend,” you might reframe that statement. Remind yourself that you’re moving forward simply because the relationship isn’t healthy at the moment. 

People change and friends can grow apart. You aren’t under any obligation to continue listening to your friend’s problems if you don’t feel like the situation is healthy for both of you.

By Amy Morin, LCSW
Amy Morin, LCSW, is a psychotherapist and international bestselling author. Her books, including "13 Things Mentally Strong People Don't Do," have been translated into more than 40 languages. Her TEDx talk,  "The Secret of Becoming Mentally Strong," is one of the most viewed talks of all time.