I was a senior in college when I endured my first major breakup.
It wasn’t as devastating as it was baffling, though looking back, I would see the inevitability of the disintegration. Its roots could be traced to high school, to one-too-many uncomfortable incidents where I held my silence while pondering my attachment to an individual I considered among my best friends. But if breaking up with a girlfriend was hard to do back then, it seems no easier today, as confrontation is something many of us women still like to avoid.
When it comes to ending a romantic relationship, as difficult as it can be to arrive at that decision, we step up, brave and resolute, to claim the more or different we believe we deserve. Along the way, we may air hurts, admit to faults and fears we’ve held too close, even attempt to rally and soldier on until we are spent and through. But the extrication from friendships we’ve outgrown, from alliances that weigh us down rather than nourish us — that’s something with which we struggle.
When my friend and I parted ways in college, there was no premonitory discussion. We didn’t sit down to share grievances or acknowledge our blunders. After almost eight years of friendship, we didn’t even fight for preservation. Instead, there was a definitive drifting away, after an initial blow-up in which she believed I’d wronged her greatly and I saw clearly, for the first time, how exhausted I was by her expectations of perfection.
In the end, I reflected upon several instances where her behavior had felt manipulative, where her comments weren’t supportive. But I never spoke up — except to voice my discomfort to others — which, of course, only gave her free reign to keep feeding a dynamic that would ultimately collapse. That I didn’t, and haven’t, for one minute missed our connection tells me it was time to let that friendship go, though I wish I’d done so from a place of integrity rather than passivity.
I’d like to think I’ve greatly matured since then. That I value myself, and my voice, more. That I’d rather speak up than court a precarious silence.
But the truth is there are still people in my life to whom I give more than is healthy, relationships I make time for that leave me feeling drained. And I continue to have conversations about certain people with other people, knowing I’m doing little to ameliorate my dissatisfaction. Yet the thought of terminating those relationships, or at the very least exposing them for what they don’t offer, still unnerves me.
And so I carry on, endeavoring only to limit the frequency of my interactions — while somehow feeling guilty about being a “bad” friend. But the more time I spend with the friends who fill my cup, the ones whose company nurtures and inspires, with whom laughter flows effortlessly and sorrow never needs to be checked, the more I question why I linger in those other attachments. Yet, breaking up, in a way that’s clean and decisive, feels like an awkward and daunting leap.
The alternative isn’t pretty, either. I once lost a 12-year friendship to a betrayal I believe could have been avoided if we’d both been open about the ways our relationship was failing us. We were best friends, yet rather than risk angering or temporarily alienating the other with a confrontation, we silently piled up our resentments until we were forced into a brutal split. Seizing the courage to be more honest with another friend several years later, in the hopes we could mend a crack I had no desire to make a permanent fissure, I was stunned when she chose to sever our ties despite all the love in our hearts at the very moment she did so.
None of the friendships I now reluctantly maintain feel as potentially dire or calamitous. Yet when these women take up all the air on our dates with the ongoing saga or extravagance of their lives, when they reach out only in their neediness, when their self-absorption or judgment allows no room for any part of my own journey, I have to wonder why I return, again and again, to a place of such imbalance. Why am I so determined to be the good friend when I often question the good in tending those bonds? I may get along with these individuals well enough, but I’m often struck by how inauthentic our investment in each other feels.
We are taught to set boundaries in our romantic partnerships — or we learn the hard way — but when it comes to our friendships, it seems many of us burden ourselves unnecessarily. We put up with behaviors that frustrate or hurt us, commit to engagements we’ll enjoy only superficially at best, if at all, give when we’ve nothing left to give. Yet two consecutive years of loss have reinforced, for me, the preciousness of time and energy. I’ve learned with whom I share those resources is as vital to my well-being as with whom I don’t.
It may take me a while to work my way to the breakup stage. In the meantime, I’m being more mindful about the company I keep. Doing so sometimes feels like a radical act of self-care. But if I have only so much to give, I’d rather give it, freely and joyously, to the friendships that sustain me.
– Life in LaLa Land, published in The Intelligencer and Bucks County Courier Times