September 21, 2010

The Friend Divorce.

Mastering the Art of Moving On

I have a good friend named “Dylan” who is my role model when it comes to managing friendships. Not just because he is an always excellent, kind, and fun friend, but because he has amazing boundaries that I myself aspire to.

I have a lot of friends. I’m lucky in this way. I didn’t always have so many friends. When I was younger, I was shy and introverted (a terrible combination of two things that are not at all the same) and preferred the company of books and rocks to other humans. But a natural curiosity about people and a learned ability to “fake it ‘til you make it” helped me to eventually start building some very solid friendships. I now count among my closest relationships a handful of people that I’ve known since we were in our single digits. My friends are my real family, in many ways, and they mean the world to me.

I cherish my friends. But sometimes, a friendship will run its course, and as challenging as it is to make good friends, it’s often even harder to let go of bad ones. My golden rule for romantic relationships is that they’ve gone bad when the other person starts to make you feel mentally ill. But relationships with friends don’t always devolve to such a dramatic low when they are at their natural end. Sometimes, I’ve found, you just get to a point where the friendship is no longer serving you. It can be tricky to fess up to that instance.

This past year, however, I’ve been making a practice of letting go of dead friendships.

Here are some things that indicate to me that a friendship is no longer a viable one:

    1. Consistent incidents of crazymaking and uninvited drama
    2. A perpetual feeling of being drained when around the person
    3. Noticing that I feel worse about myself after I spend time with them
    4. And the obvious one: being effed over in a way that would make it challenging to maintain one’s dignity if one didn’t take a stand

The tough thing is, when you cut someone off, there is an inherent feeling of being uncompassionate. And compassion is a principle elevated to high regard in the yoga and mindfulness worlds that I frequent.

Yet Dylan, my role model, is a practicing Buddhist who maintains only a few friendships. He cherishes and cultivates these relationships and always has time for them. He seems to have no qualms about all the other wannabe friends he’s left in the dust. I asked him once how he does it. Without any visible rise in blood pressure, he said to me, “It’s so easy. I just never return their calls. Eventually, they stop calling.”

I, on the other hand, feel intense pangs of guilt if I ignore a phone call or email or request to hang out. I am impelled to respond immediately with a million excuses about why I can’t do such and such. Not Dylan. He just ignores. Guilt-free.  I really admire that. I’ve traditionally been exceptionally crummy at ending friendships. But this year, I turned a corner.

It started with breaking up with the ex-love of my life.

We had a lot of friends in common, but when we stopped talking, it became painful for me to see and talk to these people. I persevered for a while. Every time his name came up, I winced. Eventually, I let most of them go by the wayside. And that felt good.

Then, I started to notice that “Shelby,” the girl I had called my best friend for the last several years, kind of wasn’t anymore. I saw that our relationship revolved almost entirely around me either accommodating or assisting her in troubleshooting her various crises… often crises of her own making. After years of patience, and telling myself that Shelby was just going through a tough spell, it slowly dawned on me that Shelby was addicted to drama, and determined to keep me embroiled in it. I began to feel like an accomplice every time I humored her through a conversation about how untrustworthy her husband was and how justified she felt in hacking into his email to see whether or not he was doing anything fishy. I started to view her as the untrustworthy, fishy one.

But when I tried to step away from the crazier aspects of our relationship, or express my real opinion about her behavior, her resistance was palpable. It was all downhill from there. After months of painful pull-aways and one teary but pointless confrontation, I eventually resigned myself to being one of her many “ex friends.”

It got easier, the friend-divorcing.

My next breakup was with “Marco”—a friend of twenty years who had started off as a novio but slowly, gradually, turned into one of my longest-standing and most important friends. Marco and I talked by phone, text, or email nearly every day, and I thought of him as a fellow artistic soul, someone who would always understand me, even when the rest of the universe didn’t. But Marco, it turns out, thought of me as “the girl I don’t tell my wife I still talk to.”

Our friendship went to hell in a handbasket almost overnight. I was planning a trip to the Pacific Northwest and made plans to stay with Marco when I passed through his hometown of Portland. I must stress that these were plans I made with Marco, many months in advance.  I had stayed with him before and spent time with his wife, but this time I was particularly excited to meet their new baby. Unfortunately, Marco neglected to tell his wife I was coming until five days before the trip, and she ixnayed the whole idea. Instead of standing up to her (or, hello, asking her sooner), Marco offered a lukewarm “Well, maybe we can still get coffee when you’re in town.”


(As a sidenote, with nowhere else to stay, I basically cold-called a friend-of-a-friend who I had met a handful of times but barely knew. I camped out on her back deck, and now we are good friends. Blessings in disguise, these things sometimes are.)

With Marco, it wasn’t just the one incident; it was my sudden eureka moment: Marco and I were not the best friends I had always imagined us to be. For Marco, I was a forbidden friend. And I don’t want to be anyone’s forbidden anything. No more Marco.

There were others.

I don’t mean to imply that these friendships all ended because I found fault in the other person. I’m not perfect either, lord knows. In the end, it’s all about whether or not it’s working. And if it ain’t —and it don’t seem fixable—might be better to move on.

Dylan taught me that staying true to oneself is actually where compassion starts.

Incidentally, I haven’t heard back from Dylan in a while. Hmm.

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