There are stages of breakups. Sometimes there’s a clear moment when you know it’s happened, when you know that there was a shift. You were with someone. Now you’re not. You were doing something, building something together. Adding layer upon layer of love to a creation that is your own world. You have a language, a code, an understanding of one another that others can’t hope to come close to.
That was my best friend and me.
Some breakups happen all at once – everything’s fine until it isn’t. Like if you walk in on your partner and they’re literally mid-coitus with someone else. Or if they’ve cleaned out your joint bank account and disappeared. Sure for them it’s a gradual thing. But for you, the unwitting discoverer, it’s an all at once, full body, slam-your-breath-right-out-of-you ending. Those specific examples are harder to engineer with a friendship breakup.
Some breakups happen more gradually. There’s the initial creeping feeling that something isn’t right. That somehow the language isn’t working. You’re saying all the same things but it’s like the string between your two cups has twisted and they’re not hearing what you’re trying to say. You try to say it differently, you ask, plead even for something to get through. But it doesn’t and eventually it crumbles. With a bang or a whisper, it’s all the same in the end. That last moment is devastating.
It’s worse with your best friend.
You sort of expect a romantic relationship might end. You hope it won’t of course. But we start romantic relationships with caveats:
It’s a protection thing, to stop us hoping too much and becoming too invested before the spark disintegrates. But when was the last time you said
“Well, if we’re still friends then…”?
We’re not taught to prepare for it. We aren’t told it happens.
And there’s something about female friendship – that close, intense, I know you almost better than you know yourself and I see you, but really see you, I feel so seen and I flourish in it but it also consumes me female friendship – that you’re not prepared for either.
If Heathcliff had been a woman, he and Cathy may have stood a chance, or it may have been even more catastrophic. That’s the knife edge of the female best friendship. It could go either way. It could be the thing that sends you soaring to reach higher and higher potentials or it could eat you alive.
I am an intense person – for some I’m too much. I don’t like small talk. I can’t maintain it, I don’t really understand it. I find it exhausting; a social game I don’t understand. If you want to chit chat about nothing, I’m not the woman for you. I’m not aggressive with it – I respect the boundaries of other people and would never *expect* someone to tell me personal information, I’m just much more interested when they do. If I cross someone else’s line, I’ll apologise sincerely and quickly and back right off. I have a friend who calls me a story vampire – if you want to jump straight in with the real stuff, I’m all in for that. I thrive on it.
Over the years I’ve learned to slow down a bit. I’ve learned to listen to others and to my feelings. I’ve learned to breathe. I let myself take a moment and figure out why I’m feeling something. I grew up with angry parents who shouted a lot. When I stopped running from that, I chose not to be that way. I chose not to lose my shit in the moment because something’s upset me. I’ll feel the feelings but I don’t have to act on every part of them. I’ll try to find the thing beneath the anger and work with that. I’ve learned to trust my instincts when something feels off and then sit with it for a bit. I’ve learned not to rush in.
For the last few months of my best friendship, things didn’t feel quite right. There was a nagging sensation that we were misfiring somehow. It wasn’t the worst thing by any means, but it wasn’t what I was used to between the two of us and it made me feel off balance, like there was something wrong in the universe. It must be the universe, because our rhythm was unshakeable. And yet…
There’s a stage in a breakup where you can’t bear to look at someone, at anything to do with them. Once after a romantic breakup that I hadn’t seen coming, I found myself refreshing Facebook over and over again both hoping to see and dreading seeing something he posted. When I realised what I was doing I deleted the Facebook app from my phone. Turns out it was one of the best things I could have done, not just for this breakup but for my life in general but that’s another story.
When I was ready I reached the stage of being able to look at his social media and it was an anticlimax because there was nothing to see. He wasn’t much of a poster. It was as if our relationship and subsequent breakup hadn’t happened in his online world. I’m not sure what I’d been expecting. I exhaled, heavily. I tend to have visceral reactions to things. If I’m nervous about seeing something, my heart starts pounding as if there’s something to fear on someone’s Facebook wall. I feel sick at the drop of a hat and I’ve been known to instantly throw up upon receiving an emotionally stressful WhatsApp message.
So I know not to look before I feel ready. If the idea makes me feel dizzy, don’t look yet. If my hands shake as I’m typing their name to search for them, don’t look yet. If I think I’m going to be sick, obviously put the phone down and go to the bathroom.
Before I was ready to hear or see, someone told me something had been written about me by the best friend that was. It preoccupied me in quiet moments. I couldn’t look. What the messenger described sounded horrible. I didn’t want to see it.
But when I looked today, what I read wasn’t so awful. I didn’t feel sick, though my heart is still pounding a bit too hard for sitting on the sofa writing on a laptop. There were things I disagreed with in the hinting or recounting, things I rolled my eyes at because I’d already refuted them or apologised for them. It was both some of the things I thought it would be and some things I didn’t expect at all. But it wasn’t the hurtful thing I’d been led to brace myself for. Perhaps it was never so bad, but now I’m just ready to see it. I can’t know for sure. The lines of the relationship between a person sending something out into the world and someone else receiving it are always so blurred. We can guess at the intention behind someone’s words but however well we know people, we cannot truly know all of them.
I’ve not written about this at all until now. Not even a hint of a post anywhere. In part, I didn’t know how to do it. To spell out the whole sorry break down, crack by crack, piece by piece wouldn’t do anyone any good. The second part was my anger sandwiched around the pain of betrayal and broken trust. The third was that I didn’t feel sure I had permission to tell this story. It’s hard when it’s not just your own. Who has the right to it? We seemed to experience such different versions of what happened, like two planets that had been aligned, suddenly spinning in opposing directions. Whose truth is truer? It doesn’t matter in the end because the outcome is the same; the friendship ended. It’s over.
In the aftermath someone asked me how I was doing. I said I was surprisingly fine. It was true. I didn’t feel like I was burying anything or blocking anything. I thought about her lots, but the craving to tell her everything that infused our friendship had passed. I expected to feel much more constantly sad and bereft. The weeks at the end of our friendship were so fraught, so painful and so terrifying to me that I grieved unwittingly, in anticipation of the end before it came. I was so certain she was leaving me I essentially prepared myself to be left. I lost five pounds in weight. I couldn’t eat properly. I wasn’t sleeping. I cried all the time. I was shaky and anxious constantly. I burned through my beta blockers. The anxiety was so bad that my resting heart rate jumped from 72 to 134bpm when I received an email from her shortly after the last time I saw her. I was just sat on the sofa, not suddenly doing cardio. I told you I react viscerally. It kicked off three months before my wedding and finally ended one month later. I was getting married in eight weeks and my best friendship had crumbled. I spent the weekend after we saw each other for the last time crying and sleeping, unable to do anything else.
But after that, there was relief. I didn’t feel safe in the friendship any more and the thing making me feel unsafe was no longer here. (I’ve written thing, though I toyed with writing person. The thing here is the friendship itself – I’m not demoting her from person status by calling her a thing. To say person would be to imply it’s all on her. I believe that generally we have some responsibility for the situations in which we find ourselves. There are exceptions of course, but this is not one of them. I own my part in this. We’re both responsible for the friendship dynamic. So I went with thing.)
The magical trust that only we had was broken and though I’d tried, I didn’t know how to fix it. I wanted to, needed to desperately, madly almost. But I couldn’t. Then the madness passed, and it was quiet. Not too quiet, not lonely. Just calm. Like a raging storm had passed and the air was clear again. I could breathe.
I still think about her lots. I wonder what she’s doing, how she’s doing; I wonder if she’s happy. I think about things I want to share with her, things I read or learn about that only she’d really appreciate. I think about the stories she’d enjoy. I notice things I say that I definitely picked up from her. I think about the ways in which she changed me for the much, much better. I think about all that she gave to me. I think about the things she took from me, the things I let her have. I think about how much it terrified me when I got something wrong, crossed a line I hadn’t known was there. I think about the moments of such intense laughter, joy and love. The moments where we elevated each other so high we towered above all else, looking down on the rest of the world who could not touch us.
I wonder if I’ll ever have a friendship like that again. I wonder if I want one.
I have 3 jobs at the moment and by January it might be 4. I spend the vast majority of my time at work or rushing between jobs. My socialising time is limited at best and it’s forced me to make some decisions about whom I see on the 1 afternoon I have off in 2 weeks, or for the single evening I have until the end of the month. Upon reflection those decisions are quite interesting. Oh I know, this might not sound particularly radical –
“Well, obviously, Abi. We always have to make decisions about seeing people – we don’t see all the people all the time. This is a really stupid point.”
“Au contraire, dear reader. Au contraire.”
– because here is what I mean by making some decisions:
We all have obligation friends, or guilt friends. People who we’ve known for years and feel obliged to see. People who we like well enough, but we’ve cancelled on them for the last 3 arrangements we made so we really have to see them this time (but they’re really quite average company). People who we know don’t have many friends and rely on us much more than we do on them.
Relationship dynamics are rarely equal but when they are, those are inevitably the ones you cherish – those are the people to whom you give your only “me-time” evening in two months. Those are the people you decide not to cancel on when another shift comes up at work and you *really* need the money. Those are the people you choose.
But the others? Well…they don’t always make the cut. And life provides us with valid reasons and convenient excuses to put off those friends for another time, not limited to but including the old “I’m just really bad at keeping in touch with people”. And you know what? We all do it. It’s not so bad and we shouldn’t feel too guilty about it.
We place a lot of expectation on people, on ourselves. But we change a lot. We change at different rates, through different experiences. As a species we’re driven to progress and it is what sets us apart – it is what makes us so fascinating, this striving for progress and change. Yet we cling on to constants as anchors – why? To allow us to know who we are? To measure ourselves by? We make our friends and family like the Mars bar – it hasn’t changed as a product since its release in 1932, so has become a yardstick of the economy. Our friends are supposed to tell us who we are, either verbally reminding us when we forget, or subconsciously reminding us by being there and allowing us to see for ourselves.
Some say that friends are the family you choose. but you can’t shake your family even if you’d like to and sometimes you really would like to. But the thing with friends is that you don’t have the enforced bond of blood to keep you together. That said, for lots of people in their families, that’s not enough either and people do stop speaking, seeing each other only once a year at Christmas, or not at all.
Because we do change. Undeniably, as people, as a species, we change. We fear it and yet we need it. And because we fear change, we fight it. We are quite simply not programmed to remain stagnant. But is that a good way to be and does that make anyone happy?
Friendships are not so different from romantic relationships: a good friendship requires a lot of the same components – trust, mutual respect, honesty, time, love, compatibility and the shared desire to both be part of the relationship with one another. But although we accept that we make romantic mistakes, we seem to find it much harder to accept that sometimes we make friendship mistakes. We’re not expected to hold on to every boyfriend or girlfriend we’ve ever split up from, but there is something inside us that insists we must maintain our dying friendships and keep them going, even if they’re failing. We make excuses for our friends repeatedly because we just don’t want to let them go. And we shouldn’t always let them go – some friendships go through rough patches and need a bit of time or space or extra effort. Some friendships have the clout of a shared history, if not the connection of shared interests, humour or personality traits. But some friendships simply cannot last through so much change, even with all that effort and ultimately it’s because you don’t really want or don’t need them to. Sometimes we outgrow each other or we weren’t really right in the first place. It’s sad, like breakups are sad, but we move on, get over people and find new friends. When we allow those friendships to float away, we survive.
As we get older we have less free time and more routines to stick to. This means the social circle shrinks – you have fewer obligation/guilt friends because you’re probably both too busy to feel obliged to see each other. My brother of 15 appears to have an endless list of people who adore him (he is especially popular though so he might be an unfair example – don’t feel too bad. We’re all simultaneously baffled, in awe of, and slightly sickened by him) and he has all the time in the world to give to them. He rotates, he flits, he is a social butterfly (sorry younger brother – there isn’t a more masculine version of that metaphor. A bear maybe. A social bear? It just doesn’t give the same image. I mean, bears don’t really flit do they? A social bear would trample on everything. No, a gentle social butterfly you shall remain, younger brother.) My parents have a much smaller number of people they see, individually or as a couple. I am somewhere in the middle. It’s just a natural progression as our lives have more unavoidable responsibilities and commitments.
And yes, of course some people are genuinely disorganised or never have a working phone, or remain stubbornly without one. And sometimes it really is difficult to make time for the people you care about because we can’t do everything. We cannot be everything to everyone. We have to accept that we must make choices, especially when time is precious. Sometimes it will be made hard for us because the other party won’t let go – they might think they need you more than you need them and that is always going to be hard. And sometimes it will be easy because without anything being spoken, you’ll both just accept it and let go. You’ll drift apart and that will be it. And you both know it’s OK to let that happen. No break up is better dragged out.
I don’t believe it is that difficult to keep in touch with your friends. I don’t believe it should generally be so much effort to speak to them. Your real friends. The ones you want to speak to. It’s only such a big effort when you’re reluctant to do so. It’s really hard to keep in touch with obligation friends. The real friends, even the ones far away whom you skype or you have to physically leave the country once a year to see for a few days, you find a way because you want to. Those are your “more equal” friends and it doesn’t feel so hard to keep in touch with them.