A year ago this month, I was dumped by a close friend. Not a gradual fading of friendship which often happens amid changing circumstances, a physical move, or general growing apart; no, this was a here one day, gone the next sort of ending. A blunt cut. The loss has been painful. This person missed the birth of my fourth baby. I missed her 40th birthday. My children miss her children and ask why we don’t see them anymore. One of the hardest things about the break up is that there has been no closure. To this day, I have no solid idea why this person so completely removed me from her life. What I do know is that I have spent time thinking about friendship more deeply over the last year than ever before, pondering how friendships begin, what makes them tick, why some of them end and others go on to last a lifetime. And I think I have arrived at a conclusion: making friendships work takes work. Simple as that. Just as any other relationship, friendship requires an investment of time and energy to remain healthy. And if I had to put my finger on it, perhaps last fall, working a full-time job and in my third trimester of pregnancy, I was deplete of both.
If you happen to find yourself in a friendship that is taking work (PSA: you should be working on all of your friendships in some way) or if a friendship is feeling more like a chore than a joy, here are a few things to consider as you ponder next steps:
- Set realistic expectations. Most counselors will agree that unmet expectations are the killers of relationship. What is true in marriage is true in friendship. If I expect to talk to a girlfriend once a week, voice-to-voice, but she only wants to text, my expectations of our relationship are not being met. I could become angry and bitter at her, or I could tell her that I really miss hearing her voice, and is it possible to set a time each week to talk? Chances are, our friends don’t know they’re not meeting our expectations because we’re not telling them! The onus is on us to share. And it may also be up to us to adjust. Perhaps that friend simply cannot commit to a voice-to-voice call right now. This doesn’t mean she is uninterested in the friendship; it may mean she is overwhelmed with other areas of her life and can’t give anything more. We have to honor the “no” from our friends until they can give the “yes” we desire.
- Don’t be surprised by conflict. Everyone knows the friends who look at each other and say, “We’ve been through a lot together.” Be it outside circumstances or internal struggles, the deepest friendships have history, and that history includes conflict. Though uncomfortable, conflict in friendship is natural and means that two people are on the cusp of deeper understanding of each other and themselves. My very best friendships have experienced tension of one sort or another over the years. By engaging in the conflict instead of running from it, we have the opportunity to repair, reconcile, and grow in our friendships, which strengthens our emotional muscles and is vital for relational longevity.
- Know when to say good-bye. It would be disingenuous to believe that we can hold onto and nurture all of our friendships. Over our lifetimes, many friends will come and go based on a number of circumstances. Still, we should exhaust our options to salvage our closest relationships. But when we feel that a friendship is hindering our growth as a person or the forward movement our lives require, it may be time to say good-bye. In his book, Necessary Endings, Henry Cloud says, “Getting to the next level always requires ending something, leaving it behind, and moving on. Growth itself demands that we move on. Without the ability to end things, people stay stuck, never becoming who they are meant to be, never accomplishing all that their talents and abilities should afford them.” If you feel stuck in a friendship that is no longer healthy, or is hindering progress in your life, it is best to be honest with your friend, painful as it may be. Those words should be said with love, honoring the friendship that once was, and acknowledging it’s time to say good-bye.
In my own experience, I continue to miss my old friend and pray for reconciliation one day. But in hindsight, I am also incredibly grateful for the break up. The pain I experienced in the parting of that relationship allowed me the space to go deeper about what I really want in my friendships, and to acknowledge that I was outgrowing some of those friendships. Since the break up, I have invested more deeply in other women in my life, and have seen some of the latter relationships flourish in the absence of the former.
The truth is, not every friendship can be saved. But I hope we can all work to set realistic expectations, take the initiative to better handle conflict, and say good-bye (if necessary) with courage and compassion.