We all like to think that friendships last forever-which is why it's so difficult when one ends for good.
Several years ago, I eliminated a friend from my life. I pressed delete many times to get rid of her, both literally and figuratively. I threw away old correspondence, deleted old emails, tossed old photos. A few months later, while cleaning up my desk or completing some other equally painful task, I’d run across more reminders and have to do the same—a process that has repeated itself until recently, when I realized she was finally darn near gone.
At first, all this cleanup work was done in hurt and bitterness. I was confused and angry at her, and at the world, and at the general situation of how and why a good, deep friendship could go so wrong. But later, it was done with a sense of wonder, odd as that sounds. I was taken with how the end of this friendship shook my spirit as well as elevated it at the same time. There was something transformative about it all, and finally, in the end, there was a fundamental clarity and soul-deep relief. The fact was, we had quit loving each other, in the way friends love each other, and acknowledging that was an honest and true move on my part. Which is why, perhaps, it felt so right.
Yesterday, I came across another old letter from her, which she sent to me when I was in graduate school. I started to toss it, then tucked it into a folder to keep, and then flung it in the air toward the recycle bin. It occurred to me, right as it was flying through the air, that she’d probably done the same with all the stuff I gave her. Ouch. And how strange! This tangible evidence of an intangible feeling: I could see it heading for the recycle bin, I could see that loss. But I couldn’t, of course, see where the fondness and laughter and warmth had gone. It had dissipated, I guess, into thin air.
The paper landed in the bin, settled there, and I looked around my office, as if looking for other evidence, looking for the invisible.
What had happened to us? We’d been friends for decades, gone through plenty of major and minor life events together, and we’d tried to be honest and trustworthy and true. And for a long time, we’d succeeded.
But then, it seems that irritations turned to judgments. Judgments became anger. Silence felt like it was purposeful and mean. Then it became obvious that the silence was purposeful and mean. And since we had often talked about it—silence is the meanest thing you can do to another human, it’s the meanest thing on Earth, we’ll never do that to one another—it became the one thing I couldn’t forgive, and probably never will, even when I recognize that she had her own side to the story.
When the end came, I mourned. But as I stared at the air in my office recently, I tried to recall how that had started to change. First it was bit by bit, but then it came in huge swooping feelings. I was so relieved! Cliché or not, I felt the burden lift from my shoulders, an actual sensation that made me feel lighter. I remember thinking, holy cow, how could I not have seen how unhealthy this friendship actually was before?
Now, with the benefit of even more time gone, that seems only more obvious. We were sick. Not, perhaps, in a cancerous, horrible way (not until the end, at least), but for years it had been like a mild cough kind of sick. Quiet little stabs at one another. Jokes that revealed judgments. Teasing that got a little mean. Comparisons and competitiveness that were just plain weird. Evolving politics, obligations, preferences on how to spend time and money. Then a sort of slipping away until the random call was so far-flung and awkward that neither of us knew what to do with the space. And then: silence. She couldn’t quite be herself around me, I realize now, and I couldn’t be myself around her. And that does not a good friendship make.
It’s popular in our culture, I think, for us to believe that friends are supposed to last forever, and if they don’t there’s something wrong with us. Sometimes friends aren’t fun, and, of course, sticking with someone during tough times is part of the friendship deal. But there’s a line between that and hanging on to something that’s fundamentally wrong. The line, it seems to me, can be so thin that it nearly can’t be seen.
In the book Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend, Irene S. Levine notes that best friends rarely last forever. The fact is that most friendships fracture; for many of us, BFFs really aren’t BFFs. Lost friendships are a part of life. And, moreover, we may not always be able to forgive people. Sometimes friendships can be salvaged, and sometimes there’s been what Levine calls “a friendship felony,” and it’s better to face that fact and move on.
Levine reminded me of a valuable truth, which is to realize that while all friends have occasional conflicts, a toxic relationship is one that consistently feels demanding, stress-inducing, demeaning, and unsupportive. The conflict may be unintentional; it may be the responsibility of both parties; it may be difficult to recognize; and it may be sad. But, even so, it’s still dangerous, and it’s better to let it go.
There have been times I’ve missed her, the person who had, for a decade, been my closest confidante. But then I remind myself that I was missing the old her, the person she used to be, and that we’ve both changed, and that is what people do. And in the end, we’re both fallible human beings doing our best to live with courage and honesty and goodness.
So when I took out the recycle bin today, I realized it was over—really over—and knowing that felt good. Not in the mean I’ll-stick-it-to-you sense, and not in a selfish sense. But in a genuine, healthy, happy, nonjudgmental, and loving way, I felt good.
And then I thought of the friends I now have in my life. We all want someone to see the hurt done to us by this world, and we want that someone to care. We want someone to see our joys, and we want someone to care. That’s what a friend is. And maybe that person lasts till the end. And maybe she doesn’t. Maybe it’s best to be as observant and caring as we can, and embrace it with love while it lasts.
Laura Pritchett is a 5280 contributing editor and author whose latest book, Going Green, was published in 2009. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.