My closest and best friend “broke up” with me at the beginning of 2020, right before covid hit. The reason for this has never been incredibly clear to me and she never gave me a straight answer as to why. What was clear to me at the time was that she was dealing with much deeper and more intense feelings in regard to me and our friendship than I was about her and our friendship. The only guess I can make looking back is she was frustrated that I wasn’t returning the level of emotional intimacy she was looking to our relationship for. On top of this, I was in a new relationship with my now soon-to-be-wife and the new relationship energy was leaving me with less energy for all of my friends at the time. This eventually balanced itself out, but by the time it did her and I were already on the outs.
The last conversation we had ended with a poor response on my part. She had sent me pages and pages of messages that were more and more in the weeds at this point, which I was trying to meet as well as I could. The final straw was when I directly asked her if she could please ask me questions about where I was at instead of making assumptions, because these pages of messages included a lot of (pretty inaccurate) ideas about what I was thinking and feeling. She responded by directly telling me no, it was not possible for her to ask me questions about where I’m at instead of assuming. She said what I was talking about is actually a type of empathy that other people appreciate. I thought this response seemed purposefully contrarian and for the purpose of staying in disagreement, so I told her I was done with the whole conversation. At this point she’d already told me she wanted to take a break from our friendship and that she didn’t want to spend time “one on one” anymore in the future.
I reached out to her about six months later to apologize for being inpatient and ending our last conversation. It was a brief message that basically said I’m sorry, I love you, sorry it’s been so long, I’m sure we can work this out. We’d been friends for 10+ years and I value my longterm friendships. She responded by letting me know she didn’t want to be friends and was blocking me. This was almost two years ago.
I was incredibly close with my friend and saw her as family. I understand there must have been feelings she was dealing with in regard to our relationship that either I wasn’t able to understand or that she has chosen not to share with me. Still, this has been almost impossible for me to move past. It’s impacted all of my relationships because I have so much anxiety that the same thing will happen again with other friends. Almost any time a friend wants to talk with or see me without giving an explicit reason why I am afraid they are going to “break up” with me. It’s caused me to be much more closed off than I was before. We have mutual friends and I am so uncomfortable with these friends in particular. I’m also terrified of seeing her anywhere, though luckily with covid I haven’t yet. I’ve never been blocked by anyone (that I know of) except a couple people I’ve had romantic relationships with in the past that have ended very badly.
I’ve searched myself endlessly to try to figure out what I may have done or how I may have approached things that caused such a harsh and final end to such a longterm and seemingly strong friendship. I come up with various shortcomings but nothing major and glaring. I’ve talked to my therapist about this and she focuses on ways in which my ex-friend was acting dysfunctionally toward me. I can understand some of the points she makes but have a really hard time accepting that it may not have been my fault.
On top of all of this, I miss my friend. I’m getting married in June and making the guest list depressed me without her on it. I’m not close with my family and we always talked about being old ladies together. Now she won’t even be at my wedding.
How can I grieve this and move on? I assumed it would just happen with time but a lot of time has passed and I’m still stuck.
Hooboy. I’m so sorry that this is happening to you, buddy, and I’m sorry that it has cast such gloom over your wedding planning when you should feel celebratory and surrounded by love. I’ve had my share of painful friend breakups, as have people close to me, and every time it emphasizes to me that we should grieve friendships just as much if not more than romantic partnerships. Let’s get into it.
One thing my first therapist taught me is that there are three loose categories of friendships: friends you’re with for a reason (i.e. specific shared interest, coworkers, etc), friends you’re with for a season (i.e. certain phases of life like college friends, fellow-toddler-parent friends, etc) and friends you’re with for life. The trick is to realize that none of these types is better or worse than the others. Learning, however painfully, that this person seems to have been your friend for a season rather than for life doesn’t in any way devalue what you gained from this relationship. It’s not a demotion. So if all of these options are okay options, then you gotta let this friendship be what it is, and not what you wish it would have been instead. That’s certainly what I wish your friend had done too.
It’s really hard, I know, because it’s a relinquishing of control and responsibility — it’s scary to realize that it’s not always up to you which friendships are lifelong, and that you can do your best and still have things end painfully. But from my outsider’s perspective, what stands out to me is that you were growing and moving into a new phase of your life, and she wasn’t, and she didn’t want things to change. Yeah, she was disappointed that you couldn’t continue providing more and more intimacy. But for her sake and yours, I wish she’d owned and honored her disappointment: “I’m not going to get the additional intimacy I want here, which is disappointing, but I can’t force this friendship into something it’s not, so I should work on deepening my other friendships while letting this be what it is.”
But disappointment is scary for people who conflate it with failure. “Oh my god, the intimacy I want isn’t here, but if it’s not here than that means this friendship is a disappointment, a disappointing friendship is a failure at friendship, and look how hard I’m working to make Letter-Writer love me, I can’t be the one failing at this friendship, this must be Letter-Writer’s fault instead…” It sounds a whole lot like this discontent led her to alienate you (and ultimately tank a friendship she wanted more of!) with demands you couldn’t fulfill, unspoken expectations you couldn’t meet, projections you couldn’t reason with, and decisions you couldn’t change. By demanding more and more, she ended up getting nothing at all. And not for lack of trying on your part, either!
But as much as she was digging for a version of your intimacy that wasn’t possible, you’ve got to stop mourning a version of your friend that didn’t exist. Your friend was an important and meaningful person to you, and she was also an unreasonable person who couldn’t let your connection shift and flex to accommodate the changes in your lives. That was her call. She always had the option to say to you, “Hey LW, I am so happy you’re happy and would love to hear about your new boo! Let’s catch up more when you have the time, because I miss our conversations,” and to move on to other friendships in the meantime. I’m sorry she didn’t choose that option, and I really wish she had, but unfortunately that is not the version of your friend we have to work with.
Pages and pages of messages? Self-righteous presumption? Persistent and willful misunderstanding? Telling you to appreciate the “empathy” that is literally misrepresenting your intentions to yourself? However great your friend was otherwise, these are distinctly uncharming behaviors. I deeply sympathize when you say you were trying to meet these as best you could — I’ve been there. By the time a cherished friendship was on its way out for me, this girl was sending me lengthy messages likening me to Rapunzel and herself to the prince just desperate for a glimpse of me. What the fuck do you say to that? That level of desperation makes a reciprocal, equal-footing friendship impossible, and makes normal friend conversations feel unnecessarily fraught and high-stakes. If scrolling through your texts with this person is miles and miles of their messages with only the occasional word-in-edgewise from you, that doesn’t feel good! Seeing their name pop up on your notifications shouldn’t feel stressful! So the same way that I wish your friend had owned and honored her disappointment, I’d like you to try honoring your own. You sound like you were overwhelmed, and like you wanted your friend to slow down, allow you space, and hear you out. That’s a fair thing to want, and a fair thing to expect. And you didn’t receive it, no matter how plainly and politely you asked. That’s very, very disappointing treatment from someone you loved, even if you miss them. I’m sure you know this on some level already — you mentioned not being close with your family of origin, so without making any assumptions myself, I want to note that I’m sorry if this is something you’re already familiar with.
But over and over in this letter, I see you reaching for responsibility where there isn’t any for you. That’s not owning and honoring your disappointment in the end of your friendship; that’s trying to imagine yourself more in control of its narrative than you were. I know it feels like you’re being self-aware, and being the bigger person. However, there’s a reason that your therapist is directing you to look away from your own actions, and I think she’s right for doing so! Self-blame is, ironically, about control: “I could have controlled the outcome by changing my behavior.” But regardless, your friendship still ended painfully. And your self-recrimination is essentially saying: “I’d rather have the version of events where I could have exercised control and averted the catastrophe but failed to do so” over “I’m going to face the version of events where I was never as much in control as I’d hoped, and that I can’t prevent other people from hurting me even if I really love them.” You’d rather have control and failure and guilt and blame than no control at all.
And like, I fucking get it! It’s easier to keep self-flagellating forever than to make peace with the vulnerability and powerlessness in love. When Julien Baker said “there’s no glory in love, only the gore of our hearts” she was right and it sucks! (DAMMIT JULIEN.) But imagining culpability that wasn’t there, just to retroactively offer yourself the illusion of control then, is hurting you now. Accepting that it wasn’t your fault is hard, but it’s simply got to happen one way or another. That’s how you get out from under this.
So let’s recap: a friendship that ended isn’t a failure, you can still cherish your friendship while being realistic about your friend’s shortcomings, and negating your own disappointment in her actions to take all the blame on yourself is pointless because it’s about control you never really had (even though that’s scary).
Okay! What do you actually do about your friend breakup now? How do you get unstuck?
1. You have a nice wedding!
Congratulations on getting to marry someone hot and awesome! What’s your wife’s perspective on all this? As someone who loves you and has weathered a pandemic with you, she’s had ringside seats to the whole saga. I’d love to know her take on what happened and on how she sees it continuing to impact you years later.
2. You keep chipping away at that anxiety by doing the scary work of making new friends.
As a Yash-shaped anxiety container, I’m right there with you in knowing this is hard work. It’s so understandable that you’re skittish and hesitant after what happened. I know it’s not a reaction that’s, like, a cool and fun time for you, and not something you can switch off at will. (There’s that control again!) But it’s not just time that diminishes that feeling, it’s subsequent positive interactions. That pain becomes less sharp, and less likely to trip you up, once it’s buried under some new friendships. You gotta show yourself that the world is full of people who won’t do whatever-the-hell that was. It’ll feel good to, y’know, increase your sample size, and reassure yourself that her behavior was anomalous.
3. You let yourself off the defensive.
Especially when it comes to your mutual friends, or the prospect of bumping into her. What would it look like to let her problems just be hers, and to say “she’s welcome to say whatever she wants, because that doesn’t make it true”? It sounds like you feel apprehensive about your mutual friends because you’re afraid of what she might have said to them about you, and whether that will lead them to cut you off as well. But it hasn’t. It’s been years and these people still want to be friends with you! They have years under their belt of seeing what kind of a person you are for themselves!
An addendum: If your friend did, at any point, try to convince your mutual friends to cut you off, let me just say that in cases like these, the person issuing ultimatums and forcing choices is seldom the one who gets chosen. You know? Choosing between you and her under these circumstances isn’t an issue of values or moral stances, because it’s not like you’ve committed violence or something. These mutual friends know that, and have chosen to keep their lines of communication with you open because her beef is not theirs. The hand-forcing tantrum-thrower is simply not as appealing a friend as the person who’s like “Yeah, it’s been a real bummer but I’ve stopped trying to understand what her deal is. If she is open to reconciliation later, she knows where to find me. Anyway, do you want to go to a movie together next weekend?” — and that’s you!
4. You learn to prioritize mutuality and reciprocity over mere longevity in friendships.
It’s great to cherish and nurture and sustain friendships, and that’s a great trait that you should be proud of! However!! Being friends for 10+ years does not buy anyone the right to treat you like shit, and sometimes you’ve got to reckon with the person you have at the moment and not the other versions of them you may have known before. The flip side of deepening and cherishing relationships that do work is knowing when to call it a day on relationships that no longer work. It sucks when things are over, but the work is to let them be over.
I know this is a lot — I’ve gone long on this one and perhaps your eyes glazed over miles ago. But I hope that with practice you’ll be able to see that however great your friend was or still is, by the end of your time together she wasn’t being great to you. Even if this reality hurts, you’ve learned so much from her. I’m hopeful that you’ll be able to carry what you’ve learned forward into so many more new, loving, long-term friendships. I think you will.
You can chime in with your advice in the comments and submit your own questions any time.