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February 13, 2020

Friendship Flatline: How to Know when to Walk Away.

You know when something changes between you and another person and it doesn’t feel like it used to?

Or it doesn’t feel quite right?

Maybe it’s because they met someone new (a new partner, for example), and that’s where all their time goes. Maybe you’re just not on the same wavelength anymore, or it just is what it is and there’s nothing to figure out.

All of a sudden (or gradually, without our awareness), like a soufflé that doesn’t warn you, things fall flat—like, really flat. Those of you who’ve made a soufflé before know that when it deflates, it’s impossible to make it rise again. It’s all about timing, in the kitchen and in life!

Someone who used to send you loving messages and want to do things with you is now doing them with someone else or has just dropped off the face of the earth—well, your world, at least. Someone who once frantically texted you everything that was going on in their life barely responds to your calls or texts, and when they do, it’s with brief and vague words. Someone who once would have made time for you in a heartbeat just doesn’t anymore. And that someone could be you.

It’s the much-dreaded relationship flatline.

As someone who values loyalty and longevity in relationships, especially in friendships, I’ve really struggled with admitting (to myself) that a particular relationship has reached the flatline and that, for example, that person and I are no longer aligned or at least are no longer interested in aligning ourselves. I always know intuitively when someone has changed or when I’ve changed but my mind doesn’t like catching up with reality.

It’s an unpleasant feeling to feel like you’re relegated to the bench, and it’s also strange when you’re the coach relegating the friend or lover to the bench.

In a world where we drop each other for better opportunities all the time and the concept of loyalty, commitment, and longevity barely exist in anything, being a good old-fashioned “till death do us part” friend makes it an interesting sea to navigate.

Last year, a lot of “friends” dropped out of my life. I was fighting it, wanting to hold on—but really, when it’s done, it’s done. When the energy is no longer aligned, there is not much one can do but give thanks for the time spent, the love shared, and the lessons learned; accept; and move forward.

I saw this post the other day about how our generation doesn’t know how to enjoy hobbies and that not everything needs to be a hustle. I feel it’s the same for friendships. They don’t need to serve a “purpose.” They can be just friendships.

When we know how important bonding and deep connection are to our well-being (on a physiological level as well as emotionally and mentally), it poses the question of whether our current way of relating isn’t in fact creating more pain and malaise? 

Think about it. Each time we open our hearts to someone and that connection fizzles out (with no blame put on anyone), it’s like a little needle stuck into our hearts. Every time something doesn’t work out, or a relationship doesn’t blossom, there’s a sense of defeat. Our need for bonding makes it so.

So we walk around with a bunch of needles in our hearts, carrying them along, adding some more on the way, and eventually we feel depleted and don’t believe in bonding or connecting anymore—true connection. And that hurts. More than we may consciously know. We are, after all, a bunch of mammals with a mammalian brain that is over 150 million years old identifying with our logical brain that has developed fairly recently in comparison. As hunter-gatherers, we would typically spend our entire life among one or potentially two small groups of people, whom we knew well. So, we end up being defensive; guarded; preparing for worse-case scenarios; or, even worse, projecting our own fears onto others who possibly don’t want anything but to love us (whether as friends or lovers). 

“Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.” ~ Anaïs Nin

It’s clear, however, that not everyone is a lifelong friend. I have to keep reminding myself of that.

We waste so much energy trying to hold on to “how things were,” and I’ve noticed it creates more resistance and tension. Things, people, and situations are constantly evolving, and frequent check-ins are necessary. We need to check in with ourselves—and with others, too. We need to have those uncomfortable conversations, express what we’re feeling out loud, and address the murmurs of our heart so they do not fester and linger for too long.

When re-evaluating the relationships that I feel have flatlined, I ask myself:

Why am I holding on to this relationship that doesn’t feel equal or quite right anymore? Why am I holding on to a relationship where I feel unseen, unheard, uncared for? What is it in me that is resisting letting go? What fear, story, idea, or concept is keeping me in this stagnant energy of wanting to change something that cannot be changed unless both people are actively involved in it? Why do I keep trying to be in this person’s life when it’s clear I don’t really want to be? Is there something to salvage with a little more love, attention, commitment, and care? 

We are a habit-driven species, and a lot of what we do comes out of habit, regardless of whether it’s helpful or depleting. I see myself trying to meet people, trying to hang out, when in reality I don’t really want to anymore—so why am I doing it? It’s important to understand the patterns or at least be a witness to them, without necessarily finding the answers. 

A few years back, I found myself in a space where I knew many people but felt like my friendships (and me) were flaky. It tends to happen when you spend most of your life changing places and constantly meeting new people. It didn’t make me feel happy or grounded. I didn’t enjoy it.

I thrive on connection and intimacy, so I understood I needed to make a conscious change in my behavior. I decided whom I really wanted in my life. There were only a few people, when I took time to think about it. Once I decided who was important to me, I devoted my time to them. I showed up, called regularly, and made a commitment and effort to spend time to build a strong foundation. Why? Because I knew that was more fulfilling.

That conscious willingness to focus on a few good people and really pour my energy into our friendships made the difference. The rest of the people dropped off like bees in a hive where the honey runs dry. They disappeared and flew away to a new hive. I no longer felt guilty for not meeting people, or overwhelmed by the endless list of people to meet and the little time I had to dedicate to that.

My challenge was that I was dispersed and pouring a little love on too many different people and wasn’t able to deep dive with a few and be accountable in those relationships. Making that conscious decision, deciding who “my peeps” are and focusing all my love and energy on them, made a difference—and today all of them are lifelong friends. I’m so glad I made that decision.

Somewhere along the line, I lost that firm soil again and ended up in the same pattern of connecting with too many people and not having enough to give and share with each. That’s the networker in me. It left me feeling like I’m overcommitting, bailing out, being flaky again, not showing up. To be honest, I felt drained. It’s impossible to commit to too many people at the same time. Much like an onion, there are many layers to the word “friendship,” and I think I tend to get lost and confuse the layers and where to focus my time and energy. I want to focus my energy not on what I do not have, or what could be, but rather on what’s already there, the people who are already there and whom at times I might unwillingly take for granted, because they’re there.

There’s much focus on romantic relationships and the tending they require—but I feel it’s equally important to tend to our friendships.

They don’t require the same gardening, but they do require the same fertilizers: love, compassion, forgiveness, freedom, listening, care, communication, commitment, time, shared space, experiences (this is my list; you can make one that feels right to you).

Friendships are a little more fluid when it comes to space and time. We can go years without seeing a friend and pick up where we left it. But they do need to be watered, nurtured, and firmly rooted. 

I’ve been deceived by my own thoughts many a time, fooled into believing everyone is a friend, because we’re all one and all in this together. I realize today that I can have love for everyone, wish them well, and want the best for them—but that doesn’t mean they are my friend or that they need to be.

It’s not because the door is open that everyone should walk in and stay. Some can walk in, have a drink, and walk out—and that’s fine. One big lesson for me is that it’s also alright, even sane, to leave the door closed, especially when the room is full. 

If we think about it, all the people who are now in our lives were once strangers to us, even our own parents. Every single relationship that is dear to us started off as us being strangers. Gradually, through bonding cues, affinities, time shared, stories, and experiences, we became friends or family. If this is true, then the opposite is also true. A friend can become a stranger again. The only difference is that we’ve shared space with this now-stranger.

Everyone grows and outgrows people and versions of themselves. The friend you once knew might no longer exist, except as a memory.

I’ve never enjoyed watching something die. I’ve never enjoyed letting go of “what once was.” There’s always a little ache in the heart and questions like, “How did we get there? How did we go from being so close to barely chatting?” I relate it to my abandonment issues. But holding on to people past the due date is draining and harmful. It brings nothing but grief, resistance, and unhappiness. It can even tarnish the essence of love that created the connection in the first place.

What once was no longer is. The past is gone. All we have left is here and now and the possibility of what might be. There’s never, ever the possibility of going back. We can only move forward. 

So what do I choose? Do I choose to spend time watering the fertilized soil and tending to the shoots that are emerging, or have emerged and are blossoming, or do I focus on a plant that died and try to revive it by any and all means possible?

Both are a choice. I feel the first one is wiser. And who knows? Maybe by letting go, accepting, and not wanting the situation to be any different than what it is, it will naturally change on its own? Most times, it’s our own projections and resistance to change that creates tension in our lives. It’s happened that as soon as I let go of the idea I had firmly grounded in my belief system about how the friendship should be or was and said, “Okay, this is what it is, I let go,” that friendship got a breath of fresh air and was able to thrive in a completely new and refreshed manner.

That’s why it’s so essential to check in with ourselves and to listen to the murmurs of our hearts, the echoes of fear and abandonment that a specific relationship can trigger, and be real with ourselves about what’s going on within and without.

Life is a puzzle, isn’t it? And we’re just moving pieces trying to come together to complete the bigger picture—seven billion moving pieces. That’s a big-ass puzzle and one we probably will never complete—and maybe that’s okay.

Maybe completing it isn’t the point. Maybe taking part in the process is what matters.

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