This week the Cut explores the messy, loving, spiteful, supportive, competitive, joyful, and funny sides of friendship.
For some reason I am great at dealing with men-related mishaps, but when it comes to friend breakups I am a total fucking mess. I had two major ones happen right after the other last year, and it haunts me.
The first one is with a woman I always had a strange competitive relationship with — I loved her like a sister, but she had a tendency to make barbed comments at me and treat me disdainfully in ways she never did toward other friends. I never fully understood her contemptuous attitude toward me — but it may have been related to her seeing me as a rival instead of a friend. For the most part it was fine because we were in different cities, but the breaking point was when she stayed with us last year and made me feel like a damn leper.
After a year of entertaining elaborate fantasies of running into her and telling her exactly how badly she hurt me, I did actually run into her in our home city on New Year’s Eve (exactly a year since she visited) — and while I didn’t exactly give her a piece of my mind, I was very, very cold to her. I spent the rest of the night feeling terrible about it, and ended up texting her the next day apologizing for “acting weird” and to see if we could hang out before she left. She said of course, and that she’d get back to me with a place and time, and then … nothing. We haven’t spoken since. (Part of me wonders if this was her way of retaliating and regaining the upper hand.) Anyway, I recognize now that it was an unhealthy friendship, and that I’m better off without her.
The second friend breakup is a little weirder. My best friend of over seven years abruptly stopped answering my texts and messages to her for no apparent reason last year — until I found out through a strange series of events that she had been lying to me about an apartment-related issue (we had been living together that year before I moved to a new city for graduate school).
Long story short, there was a flooding incident that was no fault of ours but that the landlord refused to take accountability for, and resulted in a hefty bill that I was told by my friend was paid off by the landlord, but in reality was paid off by her parents. The kicker is that she told our landlord to send our entire security-deposit refund directly to her (including my portion!) without informing me.
I ended up getting what was owed to me from the landlord after threatening legal action, but I’m left with so many unanswered questions and a lingering lack of closure. I had to hide her activity on Facebook because it was too weird to see the pictures of her hanging with our mutual friends together as if nothing were wrong. (It also made me paranoid about what she tells them about what happened between us. Am I the crazy bitch in her version?) The funny part is that she and the first friend are besties and going on trips together — I just imagine them laughing and talking about all the reasons they loathe me.
Polly, how do I get over the hurt and anger? How do I stop entertaining elaborate revenge fantasies? How do I quit looking at pictures of them together looking like they’re having the time of their lives? How do I get over the fact people change, and sometimes for the worst? How do I let go of the past? I have so many better, healthier relationships now than I ever had, but the dissolution of these two friendships plagues me still.
Friend breakups are the worst. They’re much tougher to get over than most people will admit. And if you try to talk to mutual friends about a friend breakup, they tend to say things like “You two have such a weird dynamic.” The implication is that any strong emotions or heavy issues that come up in a friendship are the result of some sickness shared by both parties in question. Somehow romantic relationships are allowed to be complicated and confusing and heavy, but the second the smallest wrinkle comes up with a friend, both of you are super fucking toxic assholes hellbent on torturing each other.
And you know what’s really sad? That attitude lies at the heart of this very common inability to sort through friendship problems. By holding fast to the absurd belief that overwhelming emotions like anger and love and frustration and confusion should never, ever come into play in close friendships, we’re not only vowing to throw out every intense, vibrant friendship the second it gets too complicated, but we’re also damning our remaining friendships to be superficial, with everyone holding each other at arm’s length. Somehow you’re supposed to smile and nod and pretend that everything is (magically!) perfect and great, which essentially means pretending that you and your friend are the exact same person. There is never any misunderstanding, because you can read each other’s minds at all times and you value all of the same things and agree on everything! It’s all good! Win-win!
But then, most people don’t want to be challenged or confronted with their mistakes, even when they hurt someone else. They don’t want to hear about someone else’s needs or desires. They don’t want to be on call when things go badly for a friend. Everyone is supposed to be SUPER-CHILL WITH EVERYTHING.
Yes, there are all kinds of friendships. I have lots of casual friends I would never think of calling for emotional support. But what kills me is that even close friends rarely talk things out and dig to the heart of their conflicts the way married couples or family members do. And as a result, we (as a culture!) discount friendships while privileging romantic partnerships and families over all else.
Here’s how all of this applies to you: You describe two different friend breakups in ways that seem to imply that there was never any direct conversation about what was happening. The first friend might not be someone you’re that invested in. But what did she do? She SEEMED contemptuous and then she MADE YOU FEEL like a leper and then you ACTED cold and then apologized and she said IT’S ALL GOOD and disappeared. Do you see how many opportunities you had to discuss what the fuck was happening between the two of you? Instead, you stewed in your own juices, leaped to conclusions, stoked your resentment, and eventually just faded out without a single direct, honest talk about what happened. I understand that she never followed up on that meeting, but you never pushed her, either. If you honestly feel that she always had a problem with you and never really cared about you as a person — it happens! — that’s fine. Put it to rest and move on. But if you’re pretty sure she has good intentions and you never fully understood where she was coming from and you feel haunted and wish that you could clear the air now, then call her and ask her what happened.
Let’s just assume, though, that you got the same contemptuous vibe from her repeatedly, and you’re really not that invested in her anyway. Onward, to friend No. 2! You’re invested in this person. She was your best friend for seven years, and now she seems to be best friends with your old friend. It breaks your heart. You feel left out and sad and angry. You have strong feelings for her. You care, a lot.
It seems strange, though, that your entire friendship went up in flames over an unforeseen expense, and now you treat the situation like a mystery that ended with the revelation of a crime: She backed away from you because she lied to you and on top of that, she handled your situation unfairly!
But what is the real issue here? Her parents paid the bill, probably because she told them about the situation and they didn’t want her credit to take a hit over this aggressive landlord, and then she figured it was easier to tell you that the landlord paid it, maybe because you were determined that neither one of you pay the bill, and that made her uncomfortable. It’s very likely that her parents heard that you were unwilling to pay and might sue instead, and they said, “No way our daughter is getting wrapped up in a lawsuit! That could get ugly!” and so they whipped out some cash and made the problem go away. After that, she felt justified in asking for the entire security deposit. I’m not saying that part of it is completely logical or fair, but an outside observer can look at the situation and conclude that it makes a certain kind of sense, even if it’s not exactly honest or above board. If the bill for the damage was far greater than the total sum of the security deposit, I can imagine how the parents might’ve come to the conclusion that the deposit should be theirs, even if they weren’t very considerate of your feelings along the way.
The point is, money is involved, parents are involved, an aggressive landlord is involved, and your somewhat chickenshit friend is involved. She doesn’t like confrontation and maybe her parents bail her out whenever she’s timid about dealing with things herself. But on the other side, there’s you, drawing a clear line in the sand, maybe even talking about suing the landlord instead of taking into account how your roommate feels and how she wants to handle the situation. Did you ever have a conversation in which you heard her concerns, took into account any parental involvement, considered her stress and her fear of confrontation? When you texted her and left her messages, were they angry, aggressive messages, or did you try to give her the benefit of the doubt and take into account the seven years of friendship between you? Did you try to accept your differences — in perspective, in personality, in temperament?
One of the most dramatic things you discover as you get older is that different people are very different from each other. Friends who act in seemingly crazy and unfair ways are often just behaving the way they were taught to behave as children. As much as I personally hate avoidance and backing away and never hashing things out with people you care about, I’ve had to accept that this is sort of the norm for American culture. Americans are avoidant motherfuckers! It takes years to accept this, but nine times out of ten, most people aren’t going to handle things the way you would. Coming at other people with anger for failing to share your perspective and approach to life is not exactly a winning formula.
I know you feel heartbroken and haunted. But you need to ask yourself what part of this picture you might be missing. You sound reasonable enough in your letter, but I’m not seeing you looking for information that doesn’t support your current thesis, or asking yourself tough questions about what role you played in this.
Don’t be so afraid of hearing your own flaws and mistakes that you’d rather run away from an old friendship just to be right. Because that’s no way to live. If you want to be right all the time, you can’t have good friends. Close friendships are only possible between two people who can listen and be WRONG a lot and accept that they are imperfect, clumsy, impatient, and very flawed. (The same is true for marriages and close family relationships.)
You should consider picking up the phone or writing an email that’s open instead of accusatory. You should consider asking her some questions and listening to her side of things first, without interrupting, even when your heart races and you feel badly judged and you feel like she’s being an asshole who cut you out and was unfair to you.
Listen first and hear the mistakes you made, with an open heart. Apologize for those mistakes first, too, before you tell her your side. When you do tell her how you feel, first say, “Let me explain what I was thinking, even though I can see how it looked to you at the time and I feel bad about that.” Be balanced. Be gentle. Be considerate.
Because once you understand what she did and why, what’s going to matter the most? Will it matter that she made mistakes herself, that she let her parents make the call, that she rationalized taking the security deposit? Or will it matter that you miss her and you feel hurt and you want to patch things up? Instead of feeling angry and being fixated on her lying to you, admit to yourself how much you care about this. You care and you want to fix it. So try to fix it.
If you’d told me at any point that she was bad news or that you really didn’t care about your friendship, I would’ve said move on. You did say that you have healthier friendships now, but maybe they’re also newer friendships, so there’s less water under the bridge. Maybe you honestly aren’t that good at addressing a friendship that feels intimate and close. Maybe it kicks up trust issues and fears and insecurities in you.
But that’s exactly what’s so important about close friendships! They teach you how to face your own limitations. They teach you how to stop projecting, to stop blaming, and to see someone else’s side, with an open heart and open eyes. That will never stop being challenging. But if you can stay calm and apologize when you’re wrong, and recognize misunderstandings when they come up? It will make ALL of your relationships — from your most casual friendships to your romantic relationships — much better.
So clear it up. People do change for the worse. Don’t let yourself change for the worse because you refuse to look at the truth of what happened.
Got a question for Polly? Email AskPolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.
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