March 30, 2021

Untangling Lives: Breaking up with a Friend can feel like Divorce.

Breaking up can feel a bit like junior high, as grown-up as we may want to be.

And I am not talking about lovers, here. I am talking about friends we have to let go of—lifelong friends, especially.

Letting go of a female friend is a heartbreak every bit as devastating as dumping or getting dumped by a romantic partner.

This is someone who has been an integral part of your children’s upbringing—through school, or soccer, or ballet, or wherever else. You love their children like they are your own, and they love yours. They are a part of your daily life. Birthdays and holidays are shared. Kids have sleepovers. People know you as “partners in crime.” Couple friendships may grow as an offshoot of the friendship.

Your lives are connected, entangled—in a good way—until such time as they have to be untangled. It’s like one of those magic knots; the harder we try to pull apart, the tighter the grip gets…until it feels as though the only way out is to break apart.

Traditions that have marked milestones come to an abrupt halt. Years of fondness and affection get snuffed out like a candle, almost overnight. The aftermath smolders until things feel pretty dark.

Is it at all realistic to think that you are mature enough to boldly go where no man has gone before? Can we remain friendly and move forward with our separate lives? Where are we supposed to put all of the feelings we had for each other? The ones that made life so exciting?

The beginning of a friendship or girl crush can feel like courtship. There are lunches and school events that eventually spill over to weekends and families. Adrenaline courses through the body and somehow all of the colors in the rainbow look brighter.

Where do we stash all of the feels? Do we stomp them out like a cigarette butt? Do we stash them in a trunk and lock them in the attic hoping they’ll never be discovered? Do we conjure up some story in our head to invalidate the other person and validate our point of view? Do we tell other friends our version of the events and let the whole world in on it, just waiting for the court of public opinion to be in session?

There’s no how-to manual for friendship breakups.

The heart wants what the heart wants—to feel loved and valued. But mid breakup, the mind knows that is no longer an option. We all have our own reasons for ending things. A friendship that has gotten stale or moldy requires attention.

Recently, I let go of a friendship that had been on life support. We had grown more distant as our lives went in different directions. The immediate events that led up to the split are too painful to share. Let’s just say, I had experienced a deal-breaker. The friendship had become toxic and was no longer a viable option for me. I was allergic to it.

I had been feeling I’d been placed on a back burner for months. My husband said I was her “B-team.” Hurt people hurt people, and we both gave as good as we got. It wasn’t childish, but it got heated as it often does at the end. We made choices that needed to be made in order to live our truths, and as a result, we both felt the sting of the other’s actions.

It took me a good while to get over the loss. It was truly a hole in my heart as I let go of Christmases celebrated together, birthday lunches, marriages, divorces, new last names, car accidents, cancer…

We had lived through it all together.

As I tried to move on, there were days I felt like I was walking through mud. I ached. I got angry. I felt deeply hurt. I was numb. No matter what, I just couldn’t get to the other side of it. I knew the only way was through.

After we bumped into each other one day, I reached out and owned my part of our parting. An opportunity to reconcile presented itself. It was obvious there was still some curiosity on both of our parts as to whether we were really finished. I searched my soul, took my time, and realized that I didn’t want to go back. There might be a day in our future when things would feel different but, for now, the decision was clear for me.

There was finally calm in the midst of chaos. Some kind of magic came when I became completely honest with myself. It was cathartic. I no longer felt wronged or scarred—we both just did what we had to do to move on. And I believe we are each in a better place having done so. Choosing to walk away didn’t erase all the fond memories; I just had to find a place to put them.

It takes a village, but not always the same one.

Female friends have played an enormous role in rounding out the rough edges of my life. There is just no substitute for them. They are like good vanilla when I bake or the best maple syrup for my vegan chocolate chip cookies. Girlfriends lend perspective, they open our eyes to new ways of thinking and empathize with daily challenges. It’s a synergy that shrinks life’s hard knocks and sweetens the cherries on top. But—like most things in nature—there is ebb and there is flow. We grow. We outgrow. Our tastes change.

Walking away from a lifelong friendship can feel like an emotional amputation.

I carried the pain of that relationship with me for months, even though I was no longer in it. It’s called phantom pain, and there’s no painkiller to take. Nobody shows us how to move on. Certainly, nobody teaches us how to do it smoothly. We just have to figure it out as we go. It’s one of the least graceful transitions I’ve experienced in life. Slowly new friends fill the space that felt so hollow. They feel like a fit and that is precisely when you realize it.  You’ve loosened the grip of trying to hold on to something that no longer belongs to you.

Heartache doesn’t have a gender assignment. It can identify as he, she, or they. It’s about dealing with loss and grief. Sometimes, it throbs and keeps you awake at night. Other times, it’s a sharp pain like a bad toothache. With enough time and distance, life lightens up. The loss feels less devastating. The excitement of new friendships creates a balance, and things actually start to feel comfortable.

The good news is that heartache won’t kill you; it just feels like it will. What is it they say?

“What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger”?

Tell “them” for me that I’m plenty strong, thank you.

I find myself in the center of a circle the likes of which I have never known, and it is only because I mustered up the courage not to settle, that I have the privilege of sharing life with these women who surround me.


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