When I was little, my mother gave me a book called A Friend Is Someone Who Likes You.
Deceptively simple, it became my mantra and social cue for most of my adult life. I went to an all-girls school and my friendships with my girlfriends have always been central to my life -- occasionally complicated, but always organic and a huge part of who I am. My friends define me and I need them like oxygen.
Then, late in life and for the first time, came a huge rift that I am still getting over.
It came on like a storm. I was, to borrow a term my daughters used in high school, suddenly "in a fight" with a good friend of many years with all the attendant adolescent drama of ignored emails, short replies, snarky asides and finally a dreaded sit-down confrontation that actually made things worse. And I'm no teenager.
I found myself talking out loud in imagined dialogues with her. I dreamt about her and poured over every last, nuanced detail. I couldn't let it go and it got to me, big time. I have a great marriage, a fulfilling career, three terrific daughters and an exceptional roster of close friends -- why did I care so much? And what exactly just happened?
I considered factors like empty nests, menopause, aging issues and the loaded social milestones like our children's' weddings , retirement, divorce and deaths of parents and spouses, yet still couldn't really wrap my head around the "why."
So, I did what I do when I can't figure something out and reached out to my network of go-to friends to ask if this was a phenomena of our age and generation and if it had ever happened to them, or, of course, if this was just my fault and I'm crazy.
Turns out strong friendships between women definitely ebb and flow or even crash and burn. But before I get anecdotal I consulted an expert, Dr. Irene Levine, "The Friendship Doctor"
Here's what she said:
Aside from simply drifting apart, friendships blow up because of disagreements, disappointments and misunderstandings.
The breakup of a long-term friendship can be very disturbing because over time, friends create a shared history that's painful to even think about replacing Also, over time, people become more emotionally invested in a friendship. They may have poured their hearts out to each other and have become keepers of each other's secrets. Friendships, even very good ones, are dynamic and tend not to last forever. People's lives and circumstances change over time and a friendship that worked at one stage of someone's life may not work at another.
And perhaps, the person who "goes off the reservation" has been harboring resentment for a long time and it finally boils over. Perhaps, she decides that she no longer wants to "pretend" that the friendship is meeting her needs. In mid-life, women often stop to reassess their lives and relationships.
I also rediscovered a wonderful book called The Friend Who Got Away, an anthology of poignant essays by women writers about these highly charged losses that are rarely examined so thoughtfully.
One reviewer said this, which hit me hard: "The truth is most friendships do in fact break down slowly. Perhaps two friends each start to dislike how the other has changed over time. Problems fester, and then the slightest insult or missed meeting dissolves the strongest of bonds."
I found this kind of disheartening, so I asked around. In doing so, I learned I wasn't alone in the dwell-on-it department. Reported one friend, "I have obsessed over this issue my entire life and have AGONIZED when my friendships go bust.... I spend much more time worrying about my relationships with other women than I do with my relationship with my husband."
I went into a complete tailspin. This was not supposed to happen with friends. I had a father who left me and a husband who left me and of course boyfriends along the way who broke up with me. But this was never supposed to happen with another women friend - someone I thought I knew really well and really liked. I'd never had an experience like that, and given my life story, that's really saying something.
She added that just receiving my email about this story brought back real nightmares about the friendship that ended badly and the admission that she hadn't even been able to Google this person in five years without risking a bad case of the sweats.
Another friend said this:
I got completely obsessed -- researching old emails to prove to her how unfair she was being, even offered to go to her shrink with her to help us mediate everything. I mean it was as if we were in a romantic relationship and I felt wronged. But when I finally calmed down and accepted what was going on I felt like I had gone through a rite of passage and was able to move on.
So, here's the why: It seems that some friendships are destined to fail, or perhaps just pause. Crises or shared experiences bring us together and then as time goes by, we discover our friend isn't the person we thought she was, or she is the person we thought she was, only that suddenly, we're on the receiving end of the worst of her.
I also think some women of our certain age get a little off their rockers -- diminishing filters, perhaps, and start saying things out loud to their friends that in another era, or in their younger selves, or, in fact, in another world of better manners, are truly better left unsaid. Because guess what? It rarely helps.
I also think a friendship doesn't end unless at least one person in it wants it to. Otherwise, it gets fixed.
Another friend explained it this way: "When a friend of mine shared the idea of friendship as a train ride -- friends getting on and off at different stations and sometimes multiple times, I felt like the mountains had lifted off my shoulders. All of the sudden it wasn't totally my fault anymore -- it just happens and it's ok."
Aging is definitely a factor, although so much of this is right out of junior high. Said one friend of mine:
I wonder if some of that translates into a recurrence of some of those competitive/insecure feelings of 7th-8th grade? And when you combine that with those big life events we're facing now that we've been talking about -- weddings, illness or death of an aged parent, divorces -- women in particular might revert back. Feelings of insecurity start rearing their head (losing your attractiveness, what am I going to do with the rest of my life, is my spouse cheating on me) and that's a volatile mix when you add that in to stopping at one of those train stations your friend talked about.
So, some friendships, seemingly tight, are going to fail. I think the pain comes from being wrong, as it were, or viewing precious shared times a waste after all.
It's very sad. But there's hope. Because I'm lucky to have some very good friends. Perhaps the greatest gift of this upsetting rift with one friend was the affirmation of some of the most beautiful relationships I've been privileged to share with several others. As a close friend put it, "Real Girlfriends give each other giant space."
I'll close with this advice from another friend:
It is wrenching to have a long-standing friendship with a girlfriend explode. It's like losing a part of our past. There is no one else in the whole world who is the keeper of those memories of you, no one else who knows the code words for the jokes. In fact, it tears me up -- just as (the opposite) nothing lifts me like rediscovering an old, old friend and reliving that part of the past.
I think women's friendships are so much more intense then men's, so much more intimate and emotionally consuming. I have deeply loved some men in my life -- and I surely love my husband in a powerful, singular way -- but the love I have shared with my oldest female friends is different. They know the *true* me. So, of course there are going to be these fights and ruptures! It's part of it. And getting back together is part of it too -- the renewal, the joy to have her back. That's the great thing about friendships -- no divorce. I don't know who you're having the fight with, but you two will be back together. You're just in the drama of it right now. She loves you, you love her -- you're just electric with anger at her right now. I quote Michael Herr: Viet Nam, Viet Nam, we've all been there.
So, my mom was right, a friend is someone who likes you. Let's all try our best to be worthy of that.
Thank you Caitlin, Lee, Lucy, Amy, Beth and Irene.