A few weeks ago, my husband and I were leaving a restaurant after dinner when I felt his arm gently wrap around my shoulders and pull me to his chest. I smiled, and wondered what had gotten into him after 20 years. I gave his arm a squeeze and kept walking.
Or I tried.
He held fast, and kept me from turning a corner into the main dining area. I shot him a dirty look over my shoulder and pushed harder as he quietly asked me to trust him. “Please just stay here for a minute, ok?”
Confused and irritated, I did as he asked. Then I understood.
Walking out the door ahead of us, familiar mane of dark hair swinging behind her, was my former best friend. I hadn’t seen her in twelve years. On my 40th birthday, a disagreement over venue and guest list ruined my party and spiraled into a friendship-ending brawl.
It should go without saying that the breach was deeper than that – the friendship deserves better than the cattiness implied by the ending. But rather than talk about it, we gleefully and publicly betrayed confidences, aired out petty slights and caustic anger until we could not help but see our worst selves through the other’s eyes. After that, there was no room for reconciliation.
As I stood there with my husband that day, I felt the familiar flicker of rage, the need to stride after her and spitefully salt the wound. “Pretty sure no one here needs to see that reunion,” my husband offered, reading my mind. He was right.
I wanted to miss her. I wanted to miss us, but I didn’t.
We didn’t take very good care of our friendship. We didn’t have to. Over twenty years, we grew together, married and had families, moved and divorced and remarried, changed jobs and careers and political leanings – never quite in synch but always in orbit. We’d meet every few weeks and sink gratefully into familiar, comfortable versions of ourselves, no pretense or apology. Our time together was a welcome breath of fresh air.
I slowly started to notice signs of strain, but attributed them to our different life stages – she had grown children and was emerging from a painful divorce, learning to navigate the dating scene. I had small children, and could feel pieces of my former identity slipping away. If we had a common ground, it was that we were both uncomfortable in our own skin, seeking validation but unable to provide it, filling the space between us with our own needs. Gradually, small slights became large ones, as we furtively and spitefully kept score until it became too much.
In the aftermath, we each left wounds in our wake: hers was to tell me I was too selfish to be a good friend to anyone. Beneath all the grief and rage, I believed her. Because if you can’t trust your best friend to tell you the truth, who can you trust?
They say the ending of a long-term friendship can be as crushing as a divorce, and I found that to be true. I scrambled to mend peripheral relationships that were hit by the shrapnel of our respective betrayals, and finally resigned myself to a few months of therapy. Those sessions gave me a chance to air my side of the story, no matter how self-righteous, in an environment that wouldn’t cost me in my personal life.
The objectivity of a therapist allowed me to find perspective on my own shortcomings, and use it as a guide for my choices in friendship going forward. Here are a few things I wish I’d understood twenty years earlier.
5 Things I’ve Learned about Friendship
1. Not every friendship makes the whole journey with you.
The Ride or Die friend from your twenties may not be a good fit for your forties. The friend you connected with during a divorce may not relate to the next life direction you choose. A shared history can be an unbreakable bond, but it shouldn’t strangle you. The key to a long-term friendship is not only to grow and adapt – but to support each other as they do the same.
In retrospect I can see that my friend and I were so attached to the familiar versions of ourselves and each other that we were unwilling to make room for what was evolving in its place.
2. Just because someone wants to be your friend, doesn’t mean that they should be.
Hey, we all feel flattered when someone tries to reach out and make a connection, and if you’ve been lonely it can be exhilarating to be chosen. Take it slow – just like you would in romantic relationships. Don’t share all of your secrets and fears on your first friend date, but be authentic.
I am a feminist, an atheist, and I lean left politically – that quickly becomes important in today’s news cycle, and while it may not be a deal breaker, it is reason to proceed with caution.
3. Understand that sometimes, people are going to swipe left on you, too.
It’s really disappointing when you feel like you have met a new friend, only to have them stop returning texts and phone calls. It seems silly, but for my own peace of mind I set a limit on the number of declined invites or unreturned communications. That limit becomes more forgiving with time, but respect for another person’s boundaries, even when you don’t understand them, is an important lesson to learn.
4. Your space is important, too.
Long-term friendships often have tangled roots, because they started at a time when you were just learning to set boundaries – and while that is sometimes what makes them great, it can also set the stage for unhealthy relationships. Now is a great time to evaluate your self-care. Are you better for this relationship? Do you feel good when you are around this person? Do they make you feel judged, or are you constantly giving more than you get? Keep what nurtures you. Leave behind what tears you down.
5. Not everyone can check off all the friendship boxes.
Just like in a marriage, it is unreasonable to expect all your needs to be met by one person. Over the years, I have gradually found an evolving, eclectic circle of friends – some closer than others, with different shared interests. Overall, it is more broad than deep. The friend with whom I splurge on champagne brunch is not the one with whom I contemplate existential angst – and neither of them are the friend I share horror stories about parenting teens. It’s ok to play to the strengths of a friendship.
It took years for me to let go of her parting judgement – almost as long as it did my judgement of her. Am I selfish? No – but I can be. She was selfish, too. Who was “more” selfish no longer matters. The only way we were going to move on was to let go – and it was bound to be destructive, given how much simmered beneath the surface. It was one of the most painful breakups I have ever endured, but the fact that neither of us tried to reconcile – in fact, never saw the other again until that restaurant happenstance – speaks volumes.
I know there will never be another like her, and while I sometimes miss that feeling of knowing someone “gets me,” I no longer yearn for it. In my most generous moments, I can see past the anger at my friend to the gift she unintentionally gave me: a chance to do better. We are all made up of an infinite number of strengths and flaws, none of which define us. In that realization lies forgiveness, and the wisdom to better recognize when a friendship has reached its limits – and to let it grow in the direction it is meant to, even if it that means it grows away from me.
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Renee Robbins is a Midwest-based free lance writer who is sometimes funny and sometimes not, and who is pretty optimistic to still be calling this a midlife crisis. Find her at reneerobbinswrites.com and on Facebook.