Earlier this summer, I bought a beautiful potted plant. It was everything my gardening mama told me to look for in a flower combo—the thriller, the filler, and the spiller—and I paid a bit more for it than I would typically. But it was so perfect. I put it on my back patio and watered it daily. And then I noticed that the leaves were browning and the flowers fading faster than a new plant mom is comfortable with. I assumed it was a fertilizer issue. So I fed it and kept watering. Until it really started looking sickly. Maybe it’s too sunny, I thought. I moved it into a shadier spot. By this time, flowers weren’t blooming and the greenery spilling over the sides had totally shriveled up. I lost that plant despite the watering. Despite the sunshine. Despite the food and the care.
Such can be relationships. In my friendships, I’ve been the dying plant and the careful gardener. I became the former the year my son had a tough year at school and at home, just before his ADHD diagnosis. I withdrew inside myself, feeling ashamed, constantly worried about him, always anticipating the near daily calls from his teacher. I must have done something wrong as a mother, I thought. Empathetic friends poured into me, tending to and loving me despite my state of mind. I felt so vulnerable to the elements, just like my plant, and it seemed no amount of tenderness and care was enough. It took a year to dig out of that hole.
During that time, my friends tended to the roots of who I was even when the blooms seemed too far gone.
On the flip side, I’ve also been the gardener. Standing alongside a friend who couldn’t return my gestures of love, the gift of my time, or the positive energy I brought to the relationship. Which begs the question: How long do you continue to care for a plant that doesn’t bloom? Gardeners would say to look for 5 basic problems:
1. Too much fertilizer. Feeding a plant with a nutrient-rich fertilizer will likely produce green, leafy growth but often at the expense of the flower itself. When a friendship isn’t blossoming like you hoped, knowing when to pour in—with time, invitations to events, coffee dates, gifts and cards—and knowing when to back off is vital. Lightening up on the ways we feed our friendships can leave us less tapped and may actually encourage blooms down the road.
2. Pruning at the wrong time. Late-season pruning has been cited as a reason why plants don’t flower the following year. It can be tempting to remove the branches of the friendships that seem not to be producing, but this may be just the time to lean in instead of pulling back. The friends who stuck with me through a tough year in 2015 are those who truly cared and remain my closest friends today.
3. Too young. Most plants are not ready to bloom until they put down roots and have a season or more to mature. Plants don’t flower out of vanity. Rather, flowering is how they propagate their species, and it takes A LOT of energy. Similarly, our newest friendships are often the most fragile and need time to mature before they finally bloom. It’s best to keep caring for them and don’t expect too much for a few seasons.
4. Not enough sun. When plants don’t receive the sun they require, they can become stressed. One of the first things a stressed plant does is drop its flowers and buds and put all its resources into staying alive. Growth, in general, will become sparse. I liken the sun to positivity in friendship. Relationships based on joy, not drama; laughter, not grievance; affirmation, not judgement are those that flourish right where they are. Side note: your job is not to be the sun. Just offer a direct line to it.
5. Winter damage. The past is a good indicator of the future, gang. I once had a friend dear to me who didn’t maintain any of her previous relationships from places she’d lived before we met. I remember wondering about that, but dismissing it until she walked away from our friendship out of the blue one day. Seriously. I haven’t heard from her since and its been the better part of two years. Consider the company you keep. What do their previous relationships look like? Who are their friends? What does the give:take ratio tell you about them? Pour cautiously into the relationships that seem to come with damage. They may bloom beautifully in the future. Or they may not produce at all.
So how to know when to grow and when to go? Just as in the botanical world, sometimes the friendships we write off as nearly dead can surprise us a few seasons down the road. They may revive when we least expect it. But other times, wisdom and maturity tells us to pick up our watering cans and move on to a new patch of land.