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The Art of Leaving Friends

 June 2002

I’ve been getting a lot of mail from people who seem to be in the midst of disintegrating alliances.  Not romantic relationships this time, but garden variety friendships. Yes, Virginia, been there myself.  I know the sound of a friendship breaking and have traveled its lonely echo a few times. It isn’t always a traumatic experience. For some, it’s a smooth, casual drifting away, but for the unfortunate others, the break feels like a debilitating psychic war.  The latter happens when the friendship is particularly close, perhaps unhealthily so, where unspoken expectations have become unconsciously etched in blood.

The most recent letter I got was from a woman who had just been diagnosed with cancer.  I think life-changing information like that can throw just about all your relationships off course, but she seemed to be feeling the change most with her best friend.  They had been growing apart for some time but this piece of shattering news– instead of closing the widening gap–parked between them like a wedge of impenetrable wall.  She stayed with the friendship for a while, even if it made her feel like a strip of rubber raft in the middle of a stormy sea.  But her illness had already changed her. She was starting to accept that the friendship had a lifespan and maybe its time was up; that it had served its cosmic purpose and was struggling to move on. She was writing because the thought of severing ties was bringing on a bad case of sadness and guilt. Was this something a good person would do?

“Go girl!” is what I say.  Individual growth (and I believe that’s the not-so-hidden agenda of any illness) has a way of separating people. This seems to be the natural movement of human relationships.  The minute one person takes a step the other doesn’t want—or isn’t ready– to take, psychic boundaries are crossed and choices begin to assert themselves.  Others can shuttle back and forth with ease –and certain friendships allow that– but there are those that must be left behind, if one’s growth is to be respected and nurtured.

I had a friend I was very close to once.  We would spend hours together and still more time after that on the phone, but when I met my husband and eventually settled down, she couldn’t handle it.  She kept hinting that I had changed.  Of course I had.  I was married now.  I was busy building a life.  There was a natural shift in my interests and inclinations. I didn’t think I would have to explain or defend that! Though I had hoped she would remain a vibrant part of my married life, there didn’t seem to be space for her, given that she refused to see we were standing on new terrain and needed to meet halfway to find our pace again. Though she probably didn’t realize it, she wanted me to be exactly who I used to be.  But it was too late for that.  I had already expanded in several directions and didn’t think it right to reduce myself to accommodate our friendship.

She stopped calling but always seemed genuinely happy to hear from me.  And I did make an effort to keep the calls going somehow, ignoring the leaden arms that suddenly forgot how to dial and the string of excuses that blocked the path to that one call. That successfully overcome, we always managed to slide back into our old patterns, but it no longer came naturally to me.  I felt I was always anticipating her; reshaping myself into that person whose company she preferred.  Something had already changed.  It was almost as if she wanted to punish me for moving on; that she had made an unconscious choice not to stretch my way to keep the friendship going.  I had to sustain it, but it was becoming clear that nothing I did counted.  In time, exhaustion got the best of me.  I just didn’t feel like all the guessing, analyzing and adjusting were worth it.  The friendship had begun to end.

Our paths crossed a couple of years back and I made an effort to get things going again. She came to my house for lunch and though we had moments of fun reminiscing, most of the day was a monumental struggle for me.  She admired my home but also made comments about certain pieces of furniture she felt were inappropriate given my, uh, status—and she didn’t mean civil. Huh? I couldn’t believe she used that s-word. This from the person who said I had changed. It made me want to whip out my proletarian wand and fill my home with the entire Monobloc collection. From time to time, she would look at me fondly and say something like, “I’m so glad you’re back. You really changed for a while there.” Double huh. Still, I smiled through the surreal commentary and, at my lowest point, even nodded in a manner that might have passed for agreement.

Our conversations had gone the way of showbiz talk shows. I hated the person I became around her.  It was then I realized the friendship had become an unbearable toxic weight. It was something I just couldn’t have in my life anymore.  After one or two more similarly flavored get-togethers, I made a silent decision to cut ties. I didn’t have to say anything.  There were no tearful confrontations.  No long, explanatory letters.  The minute I decided it, it happened.

There are people who are destined to journey with us the entire way, I think, but there are those who come in and then fade out, as soon as certain areas of ourselves are explored and exhausted.  I have friends I’ve known from grade school with whom I remain close, though we’ve grown in different spiritual directions. I believe it’s because we respect the changes in each other and, more importantly, do not take the changes personally.

I didn’t pass judgment on my friend.  It’s not a question of bad or good, right vs. wrong. We are all where we need to be, after all. I simply made the decision not to have going-nowhere relationships in my 35-year-old life anymore.  It was time to make a deliberate effort to shape the still cooperative areas of my life.  That friendship was a casualty of the emergence of my conscious, authentic self. On a universal scale, I think that leaving friendships behind is but a natural—and necessary– human progression. One cannot move ahead without leaving another behind and no amount of sentimentality can alter that.

It doesn’t have to be ugly or melodramatic. I think an inward, clear decision is enough.  I still value what my friend was to me at that stage in my life.  I remember with fondness our midnight conversations; those long nights of walking each other through mind-dizzying infatuations and endless heartbreak and realize we needed each other then but now it’s over. I haven’t banned her from my life, still feel a certain degree of affection for her, but I just cannot have her in my life today. So yes, there is a definite sadness there, but no guilt.

There is a time in a woman’s life when she is called to throw open the windows of her soul to let all manner of light and air in. When this time comes, one must honor it.  If cleaning house means letting go of friends, we do it.  It doesn’t entail passing judgment on them, but it does demand that we pay attention to the kind of energies we let near our space.  Positive energy is always welcome.  Negative energy, never. Friends who appreciate the journey and support it by just letting us be make great travel companions, but others are better left behind.


Leave a Comment
  1. chiara / Jun 27 2008 11:46 pm

    Thank you for sharing this post.
    Not only does it make sense to me, it is very timely.
    It makes so much sense to me, what you said about about how when you were a newly-wed there was a natural shift in your inclinations.
    This post also makes me appreciate more the wonderful women in my life who have proven to be my best travel companions! (But still, there’s this certain amount of nostalgia I feel for friends I am slowly leaving behind…)

  2. emy / Aug 18 2010 9:37 pm

    your post enlightened me in so many ways on how to let go of a friendship that its healthy anymore… its painful but we have to move on… its difficult but we have to because if we remain in that kind of frienship i realized we will just continue hurting each other…..

    thank you so much for sharing your beautiful thoughts on the art of saying goobye to some friends.

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