When is ‘connecting with others’ a mistake?

I accept your teachings of God’s desire for his children to interact with one another and am intellectually exploring those ideas.  As a gifted software engineer interacting with other humans is not one of my strengths and I am attempting to get better at it.

Over the past couple of years, however, I felt the need to disassociate myself with two former friends.  One was quite close; the other lives two doors away from me.  Without getting into gossipy details, I feel there are a certain set of circumstances that it is okay to disassociate from another human.  One example might be that the friend was asking your assistance in carrying on an extra-marital affair.  Another might be that the friend had anger issues and regularly yelled at you, your wife, and your children.  But what if their actions were less harmful?  What if a person regularly insulted you?  Regularly asked you to work on his for profit business for free?   Ran a business where both he and the employees knowingly broke the law?  

So what principles should be applied to harmful human associations?  Where is the line drawn?  What kind of venues should be left open for reconciliation?

Peter B.


Dear Peter,

Thank you for writing with such self-awareness.  Many very competent people in science, technology, engineering and mathematics feel less capable in human relationships.  We think there should be a special course helping these talented people expand their considerable abilities into relationships.  We know of what we speak. One of us (that would be Rabbi Daniel) actually became an electronics engineer. Worried that 10 hours a day in a lab with instruments would encourage a disconnect from people he switched into sales and became what they called then, a tech-rep.

While we certainly speak glowingly of the importance of human relationships, we hope that no one interprets our words to mean that we should have unthinking interaction with others. In fact, one of the episodes on Ancient Jewish Wisdom TV Show Volume 2 discusses the dangers of associating with the wrong people.

Ancient Jewish wisdom even presents certain rare circumstances where an entire community should shun individuals. The instances you give of people trying to lasso you into participating in their wrongdoing or supporting their wrongdoing suggest good reasons for pulling away from those relationships. We’d just like to add that the “less harmful” examples you ask about sound quite harmful to us.

Having said that, sometimes a bit more forcefulness and forthrightness can keep a relationship from ending unnecessarily. On occasion, avoiding confrontation results in prematurely ending a relationship. For example, someone who keeps asking you to work for free on their business might benefit more from an outright polite but firm statement that you can’t do that rather than an evasive, “I’m really busy right now,” which encourages them to repeat the request. Some people come from a culture where insults show friendship and closeness. Stating that you aren’t comfortable with that type of exchange might allow you to maintain a cordial relationship.

Like most things, relationships fall into different categories.  There is a large gulf between bosom buddies and ‘cross to the other side of the street’ people you need to avoid. Most people fall into the spectrum between those two extremes.

Enjoy the variety,

Rabbi Daniel and Susan Lapin


17 thoughts on “When is ‘connecting with others’ a mistake?”

  1. A couple of decades ago we were young and open to the entire world and tried to see the positive in everyone. We became friends with a couple from a land outside of the J-C tradition of Western Civilization. Yet by the power of observation, by degrees we had to wake up to the fact that this couple periodically fell prey to paroxysms of violent emotion and hateful behavior toward each other and also on occasion toward others. There are personalities who are parasitic, seeking to suck one’s positive energies dry.

    Well I recall an episode of Ancient Jewish Wisdom wherein the Rabbi warns us that there do exist toxic people who are ‘unsalvageable’ and must best be avoided. The wisdom consists in recognizing these folks and knowing where and when to draw the line.

  2. I’m glad you mentioned “insulting” friends. I only do that to people I truly love and ones I fully expect to understand my affection. I did “insult” someone once that thought I really meant it. Fortunately for both of us she asked a trusted friend that really knows me and explained that is how I let people know I care. Now, if I don’t insult they think something is wrong. I wish they would have asked me but I’m glad it worked out. Since then I am more careful with my “affection”. Social media responses are often incorrectly interpreted because tone of voice does not always translate to written word. Great advice to get a clear understanding of the problem before ending anything.

    1. Kendall Rodgers

      I heard a saying one time that went like this. One of the differences between men and women is when men get together they say bad things about each other, but they don’t mean it. Women get together and say good things about each other, but they don’t mean it. I’m sure like most generalizations it is not always true but I work in a largely female occupation (nursing) and I have never heard any of my coworkers respond any other way but in agreement with that saying. I am told Dr Samuel Johnson once said “In order that all men may be taught to speak truth, it is necessary that all likewise should learn to hear it.” I would suppose the reason for saying something is a considerable part of the saying it. Communication is a fragile thing.

  3. I think there is another path of response that could also be pursued. The question posed, how and when to disassociate with another party, implies that the other party has a disproportionate share of power in the relationship. If you assume and assert your share of power and approach the situation in a “hate the sin, love the sinner” manner, you may be able to retain the relationship, with limits, and ultimately help the other party. It doesn’t work in all cases, but it is a worthwhile approach to develop.

  4. Hmmm! Well understood rabbi.When do you quit being forcefulness and forthrightness because while you try to stay in a relationship the other party does not understand a bit of your efforts. So what can you do?
    Thank you.

      1. Yeah.I mean when you are in a relationship and the other party is not compromising and fails to understand your efforts to keep the relationship. What do you do? I picked an excerpt from the answer given.
        Thank you.

        1. It’s always hard to comment without knowing the whole picture and speaking to someone wise in person might be a good idea. However, a relationship is a two-way street. If someone is pulling back from you, you can keep the door open, but sometimes you need to accept their decision.

        2. Anafo, I can “hear” your frustration with your relationship. Unfortunately, I think your question is a little too generalized for Rabbi or Mrs. Lapin to answer effectively in this forum without more details about your situation. I sincerely hope you are able to resolve your problem with the other person.

  5. In many cases it seems to me that social introverts may become reticent about potentially confrontational issues, and due to their innate sense for civil decorum and desire to be seen as a nice and likeable person, that they are unable to say no to what they find objectionable. In today’s environment where anything goes we need to be able to project the fact that there are boundaries and assertively let others know when they are out of line.

    1. Absolutely, Mark. Many relationships could be saved with more tact and honesty. We aren’t doing a very good job at teaching people how to be polite while firm. Seems we go to avoidance or confrontation rather than a middle ground.

    1. Sounds like a terrible situation. I’m so sorry. Can you submit your question here? ‘Ask the Rabbi‘? I don’t think the comment section will be a good place to answer about such a painful situation. I’m sure you are not alone with this question.

  6. A concerned person of faith

    This topic is of interest. I am coming out of an abusive marriage and now divorced, have found my 5 sons quite angry with me. I didn’t think it wise to tell them about things, and now they are having a difficult time. My ex also has capitalized on his ability to become involved in their lives. He had prioritized his work so the boys find they welcome his attention… alienating me even more.
    Trying to be proactive, I am planning to schedule monthly phone calls to reestablish relationship.
    In the past, some of these sons have been rude, dishonoring and even cussed at me or telling me I am disowned (if I remarry, which I am doing this summer). I know they are hurt, but there is a time to learnt o honor mom as well as dad. Practical insight on where to draw the lines might be beneficial as I brave the waters once more.
    Thank you for helping me help others.

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