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How friendship ends | Just Reflections #46
When friendship exists in the background, it’s unremarkable but generally uncomplicated. But when friendship becomes the plot, then the only story to tell is about how the friendship ended.
Shiny new platform, whaaatt!
As you can see, I’ve moved the newsletter from Revue to SubStack. I think Revue was great to get things going, but now I want something with a few more features as we get closer to that 52 issues mark. As I explained here, after issue 52 I’ll be reducing the frequency of the newsletter from weekly to fortnightly (or is it bi-weekly). That should give me a chance to put more work into each article and hopefully deliver better quality. But the reason I’ve moved to SubStack is that it allows me to release an audio version of the newsletter on the same platform. So starting next week, some issues will be accompanied by an audio version read in my best attempt at a late-night FM DJ voice.
I’ve been thinking about friendship a lot over the past year. So I’ve also been doing what I do with anything that’s on my mind a lot, I read about it. And I’ve collected lots of interesting insights about friendship. I want to write about many of them and I will as soon as I figure out a good structure.
For today, I have a few reflections on the tough part of friendship. Its end.
When friendship exists in the background, it’s unremarkable but generally uncomplicated. But when friendship becomes the plot, then the only story to tell is about how the friendship ended. — B. D. McClay, Lapham’s Quarterly
It’s your friends who break your heart
Jennifer Senior wrote an incredible piece for The Atlantic about friendship titled It’s your friends who break your heart with the tagline,
“The older we get, the more we need our friends—and the harder it is to keep them.”
I really advise that you check it out for yourself. But it’s a long one hour read, I know some of you won’t read it so I’ll unburden you by summarising a few points that stood out for me. Hopefully, that will inspire you to read it for yourself. I’ll try not to spoil the whole thing for you.
Our culture lacks the proper script for ending a friendship
Friendships can be very intimate relationships. For many of us, our friends know parts of our lives that we wouldn’t dare utter to anyone else. They are “the custodians of our secrets, the eyewitnesses to your weaknesses.” For others, their friends have been with them through all the defining moments of their lives. Their friends are closer than their siblings.
Yet, for such close relationships, there’s no ritual for how to end friendships. We have many ways of ending other kinds of intimate relationships. And we can do it amicably for some of them. But for friendships, there’s nothing. We’re just expected to take it on the chin and just walk away from what, for many, is one of the most intimate relationships of their lives.
It is an insolent cliché, almost, to note that our culture lacks the proper script for ending friendships. We have no rituals to observe, no paperwork to do, no boilerplate dialogue to crib from.
In response to this, Jennifer writes about The Wellness Letters, which in her estimation is a script of the falling apart of a friendship. One that will probably remind many of us of at least one of our fallen friendships. The Wellness Letters were written by two women, Elisa Albert and Rebecca Wolff, as a collection of their correspondence about how to live in the world and be okay. About wellness. Unfortunately, while the exchanges start off as an impressive display of the intimacy of their relationship, they quickly devolve into resentment and bitterness. By the end, the two women have weaponised every intimate detail they’ve learned about each other and we can all witness their friendship fall apart, in real-time.
Elisa complains about failures in reciprocity.
Rebecca implies that Elisa is being insensitive, and too quick to judge others.
Elisa implies that Rebecca is being too self-involved, and too needy.
Rebecca implies: Now you’re too quick to judge me.
Elisa ultimately suggests that Rebecca’s unhappiness is at least partly of her own unlovely making.
To which Rebecca more or less replies: Who on earth would choose to be this unhappy?
To which Elisa basically says: Well, should that be an excuse for being a myopic and inconsiderate friend?
E: The truth is that I am wary of you …
R: When you say that you are wary of me, it reminds me of something … oh yes, it’s when I told you that I was wary of you … wary of your clear pattern of forming mutually idolatrous relationships with women who you cast in a particular role in your life only to later castigate.
The Wellness Letters are almost impossible to read without seeing the corpse of one of your own doomed friendships floating by. … What started as a deliberate, thoughtful meditation about wellness ended as an inadvertent chronicle of a friendship gone terribly awry.
Have you had a really close friendship fall apart before? How did you deal with the emotional outfall? Any hot tips you can share?
The Great Pandemic Friendship Reckoning
All of those hours in isolation had amounted to one long spin of the centrifuge, separating the thickest friendships from the thinnest; the ambient threat of death and loss made me realize that if I wanted to renew or intensify my bonds with the people I loved most, the time was now, right now.
I agree many of us went through a great friendship reckoning during the pandemic. For me, it was even worse. I had recently moved to a new country, and I was struggling with building a new community. You couldn’t really meet anyone you didn’t already know. And the only person I already knew in this country was my wife so that’s who I spent all the time with. I really enjoy my wife’s company, we’re really great friends but I think it would be too much to expect her to single-handedly meet all my needs for human connection.
Fortunately, my friends and I organised a great way to keep in touch during COVID. We all go to the same church so we organised our own “home church.” We put together a roaster for preparing lessons for each other and each Saturday we’d all huddle together on a video call, learn whatever is prepared for us then spend the rest of the time in all kinds of banter. It’s the closest I’ve felt to all of them since we all scattered all over the world and I really looked forward to those calls (which have since disappeared after things opened and everyone went back to their busy life).
But this wasn’t the reality for everyone. Some, who thought they had many friends, went through some serious loneliness and had to reconcile with the reality that they might not be as close to their supposed friends as they thought. So as we came out of all the lockdowns, many friendships had been tested and, sadly, many had faded.
We’re too busy for friendships
At some point life gets incredibly busy, we pour our entire lives into our careers, our marriages, our kids and everything else that life can quickly fly past us. Many of these changes often prove too much for many friendships to withstand and after enough postponed hangouts and we-should-meet-sometime’s they fade away.
You lose friends to marriage, to parenthood, to politics—even when you share the same politics. … You lose friends to success, to failure, to flukish strokes of good or ill luck. … These life changes and upheavals don’t just consume your friends’ time and attention. They often reveal unseemly characterological truths about the people you love most, behaviors and traits you previously hadn’t imagined possible.
I can relate to this a lot. I have friends who I’ve been really close to for a huge part of my life that I don’t particularly feel close to anymore. At some point, we got busy with our careers, and just as we were adjusting to not being able to spend as much time together some of us got married. Now the time has to go to our spouse. Before we got the hang of that, we moved to different countries, then some started having kids. Before long, time had to be divided among so many different parts that friendship just took the back burner. Now the friendships mostly run off the fumes of their glory days.
What makes friendship special is also what makes it difficult to fake, that you have to continuously choose it, even amidst all the other important things. It’s not self-sustaining. When it isn’t chosen enough times, it eventually fades. Then you slide into a weird distant closeness where you’re kind of close because you have a rich history together and know all these intimate details about each other, but you’re not really close because you’re disconnected from what your lives look like today.
Jennifer’s perspective is that the primary reason friendship is so fragile now is that we live in a time of “radical individual freedoms.” While we all start relatively on the same footing, as life progresses, we scatter all over the place, each person chasing their own ambition in their own direction. That makes it difficult to stay in sync with people who are running in a different direction from you, even if they’re your best friends.
Unfortunately, this very individualistic nature of our modern lives makes friendship even more necessary. We don’t have the comfort of always having our siblings and cousins and uncles and aunts. We live apart from them so we need to create our own tribes. Besides, our lives are sometimes so different from theirs that we can’t really look at them for cues. They can’t really relate to our daily struggles, and we have to look horizontally for support.
One could argue that modern life conspires against friendship, even as it requires the bonds of friendship all the more.
Hopefully when life finally slows down, when there’s not much ambition to chase and the kids have moved out and started families of their own. Hopefully, you’ll still have friends to walk that last mile with.
Then one day you look up and discover that the ambition monkey has fallen off your back; the children into whom you’ve pumped thousands of kilowatt-hours are no longer partial to your company; your partner may or may not still be by your side. And what, then, remains? With any luck, your friends.
Most friendships die slowly, quietly
This is, mind you, how most friendships die, according to the social psychologist Beverley Fehr: not in pyrotechnics, but a quiet, gray dissolve. It’s not that anything happens to either of you; it’s just that things stop happening between you. And so you drift.
Most friendships don’t end in spectacular breakups. They fade away. They wither away from neglect and lack of nurturing. At least the spectacular ones are loud and can be heard and maybe rescued before the damage is permanent. The tougher ones are the ones where you now see a distant acquaintance in someone you “once adored, shared your life with, and couldn’t have imagined living for two seconds without.”
You feel bereft, for one thing. As if someone has wandered off with a piece of your history.
I’m highlighting this because I liked how self-aware Jennifer seems to be, especially about her not-so-great traits that can cause a friendship to fade away like this.
On the negative side: I’m oversensitive to slights and minor humiliations, which means I’m wrongly inclined to see them as intentional rather than pedestrian acts of thoughtlessness, and I get easily overwhelmed, engulfed. I can almost never mentally justify answering a spontaneous phone call from a friend, and I have to force myself to phone and email them when I’m hard at work on a project. I’m that prone to monomania, and that consumed by my own tension.
If we all had this level of self-awareness and a little less love for our undesirable qualities then our friendships might stand a better chance.
Failures of reciprocity
Then there was the friend who didn’t say anything hurtful to me per se; the problem was how little she said about herself at all. … there’s a subtler kind of asymmetry that I think is far more devastating, and that is a certain lopsidedness in self-disclosure. This friend and I would have long lunches, dinners, coffees, and I’d be frank, always, about my disappointments and travails. I consider this a form of currency between women: You trade confidences, small glass fragments of yourself.
But not with her. Her life was always fine, swell, just couldn’t be better, thanks. Talking with her was like playing strip poker with someone in a down parka.
I’m definitely on the side of oversharing on this one. Just like Jennifer, I think trading confidences is a currency in friendships. So just like her, I quickly feel the asymmetry if this trading of confidences is lopsided. I’ve definitely distanced myself from some friends because of this. I’ve also witnessed a few failed friendships that—in my unprofessional opinion—were killed by this.
Here are some final thoughts before this gets too long.
I don’t think many of us struggle with collecting many acquaintances or those context-based friends. You know your gaming friends, your soccer friends, or your work friends. Things get complicated when we talk about the sort of friends who make you feel comfortable to open up without fear of judgement, friends who can be honest with you when you need to be told the hard truth, who are always there for you and care about your well being. Those kinds of friendships require more than just a passive effort. And it’s precisely for that reason that losing them can really sting.
At best, those dead friendships merely hurt; at worst, they feel like personal failures, each one amounting to a little divorce. It doesn’t matter that most were undone by the hidden trip wires of midlife I talked about earlier: marriage, parenthood, life’s random slings and arrows. By midlife, you’ve invested enough in your relationships that every loss stings.
I’m currently really interested in the dynamics of friendships, so you’ll see more on the subject in future issues.
How has your experience of friendships been? Please leave a comment or click the little heart button to let me know if you like it.
Weight: Get to 75kg by April 28 and 70kg by July
Quite to my surprise, the running has gotten a little more entertaining. Don’t know if that’s temporary or if it will last, we’ll see.
Sleep: Consistently sleep avg. 8 hours per day
Averages this week:
Duration: 7h 18m.
Avg. bedtime: 03:33.
Avg. wake-up time: 10:51.
Business: Start a business in 2022
I made some big UI changes this week. Thanks to Guide for suggesting that I should stop thinking about using tables everywhere and use cards. I think it made a massive difference.