And sometimes it happens that you are friends and then
You are not friends,
And friendship has passed.
And whole days are lost and among them
A fountain empties itself.
— Brian Patten, “Sometimes It Happens”
Fran and I talk a lot about friendship. We post about it on social media. We blog about it here. We wrote a book based on our experience as transatlantic best friends. We believe friendships are healthiest and most resilient where there’s a commitment to honest and open communication. That’s not to say, of course, that honesty and openness guarantee a friendship will last forever. Things change, and that’s as true of friendship as anything else. Fran and I have weathered more than a few storms over the years. I’d say we’re stronger for it. But not all change is navigable and not all friendships endure.
That’s something I’ve not written about before, although it’s a topic I’ve wanted to explore for a long time. The starting point for this article was a conversation with Fran in which she shared that a friend had told her she’s “too kind,” and that people take advantage of her as a result. Fran agreed she finds it hard to maintain healthy boundaries, and this has led to problems with some friends in the past. I knew what she meant, but the conversation left me feeing uneasy. I knew why; it was the idea that kindness leads to being used or taken advantage of.
It’s certainly true that being unconditionally kind can lead to problems, including co-dependency. My mother was a perfect and tragic example of this, as I’ve shared previously in an open letter to my mother written six months after her death. Toxic, manipulative, and abusive relationships also exist, of course. I’ve no first-hand experience to draw on, but I’ve seen how devastating and long-lasting their effects can be. It seems to me, though, that most friendships struggle for more mundane reasons and with little malign intent on either part. Friendships succeed, I suggest, when we are able to meet each other’s needs. They falter, and sometimes end, when we are no longer able to do so.
No single friendship or relationship can meet all our needs at all times. Temporary imbalances are nothing to be feared, but if they become entrenched, they can lead to dissatisfaction and loneliness. I wrote on the subject of loneliness for Mental Health Awareness Week this year, inspired by an insight by Mark Rowland, CEO of the Mental Health Foundation: “Loneliness is the feeling we experience when there is a mismatch between the social connections we have and those that we need or want.”
But what constitutes a mismatch or imbalance? When does it become an issue? Who gets to decide? It might seem to some people as though I put myself out to meet Fran’s needs, and the needs of my other friends. We touch on this in our book, because it’s a form of stigma that needs to be challenged.
If you devote a lot of time and energy to your friend, others may worry you are being taken advantage of, especially if money is involved. Some may feel displaced in your affections, jealous, or otherwise uncertain as to the nature of your relationship. In our experience, the best response is to be honest and open, although this may not always be appropriate. Most people who learn of my role as Fran’s friend and caregiver are interested and supportive. This is appreciated on a personal level, and helps counter the stigma associated with mental illness. Our friendship has taught me to be more aware of others who may be struggling. That doesn’t mean I try and help everyone, but I offer what I can and neither absent myself nor run away. To do this, I need people prepared to support me in moments of confusion, frustration, and self-doubt — and they do occur — without imposing limits on my capacity to care.
I endeavour to be there for friends if and when they need me. I don’t consider that an unhealthy dynamic if it’s handled responsibly. I’ve explored this previously in such articles as The Constant Gardener: How to Be Someone Your Friends Can Rely On and How to Be There for a Friend When No One Else Is. Do I ever say no? Not often, but yes. Maintaining healthy boundaries will mean different things to different people. For me, it includes protecting my online time with Fran, and my personal “Marty time” when I’m writing or need space for myself.
I describe my friendship with Fran as mutually supportive. We meet many of each other’s needs, but not all. I’m part of Fran’s team, which includes other friends, and her professional support network. Fran is part of Team Marty, but she’s not the only person on the team. She told me once she was glad, because it means there’s less pressure on her. Another friend, Louise, expressed it beautifully. Someone I knew was struggling and I felt utterly unable to offer meaningful support. Louise reminded me that not all the team is on the field at all times. “Keep in mind that your friend is going through her stuff,” she said. “You’re still on her team, just not playing right now.” Her words helped me navigate a difficult and confusing phase in that particular friendship, and informed my concept of supportive disengagement.
What do I mean by [supportive disengagement]? Essentially, it means stepping back from the usual give-and-take dynamic you share with your friend, but being there if and when you’re invited in. It means providing encouragement and support when asked but otherwise getting out of your friend’s way so they can navigate whatever’s happening in their lives the best way they can.
It’s a safe way to manage mismatched needs, without bringing the friendship itself to an end.
Supportive disengagement is for situations when your friendship is taking a break rather than broken, when disengagement is less than total, and — crucially — where the lines of communication remain open.
It’s worth remembering that people’s needs change over time, and our friends may find others better suited or more available than we are to meet those needs. The same can happen in reverse, of course. I recall friendships where there’s been a lessening over time, a diminution, even an ending. Some connections have picked up again after a gap of weeks or months. Other endings have been permanent. Some fractures were intensely painful. Others were less so; a few almost graceful in their passing from engagement to disengagement. My friend Maya expressed this beautifully, looking back on our time as friends.
In recent years there was a sort of tearing that occurred in the fabric of our friendship. I think there have been a few tears, over the years, but most of those have been patched up with some pretty nice fabric and made “roadworthy” for want of a better term. I do believe friendship needs to be mutually strong enough to work through difficulties, differences, obstacles — and some are strong enough, and some aren’t. Although, I think there are times when friendships just dissolve as they come to the end of their meaning or purpose, and perhaps not all friendships are meant to last.
Maya’s words echo a quotation many will recognise: “People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. When you figure out which one it is, you will know what to do for each person.” Those are the opening lines of a poem frequently attributed to Brian A. Chalker, although authorship is uncertain. The full poem can be found in this blog post on the subject of friendship by Selina Man Karlsson.
When Maya and I were first friends, I remember telling her about someone who was very important to me at that time. Maya asked what purpose the friendship fulfilled in my life. The question caught me off guard. I’d never thought about my friendships in that way before. I probably answered by saying this person didn’t serve any purpose, she was simply my friend, someone I cared about. I understand rather more about needs and their fulfilment — and nonfulfilment — these days, through the work Fran and I have done with Non-violent Communication (NVC). The twin concepts of NVC and supportive disengagement have helped me navigate changes in the dynamics of friendships which previously would have been very hard for me to accept and process.
No matter the emotional tools at our disposal, there’s no escaping the fact that breakups are hard, especially if they come out of the blue. Even if the disengagement is gentle and mutually orchestrated, most closures involve loss, tears, and bereavement. That’s natural and nothing to be feared. Rationally, we might accept what’s happened, but our emotions are not rational and need to find their own equilibrium. They, and we, deserve time, care, and respect while we work things through.
Breakups can leave us feeling we’ve done something wrong — or worse, that there’s something wrong with us such that people always leave. (So why bother trying?) Self-pity may be part of how we process endings, but it’s unlikely we’re totally at fault. It’s easy to look back at previous friendships that have ended, seeing patterns where there are none, and ignoring or forgetting the reality that not all friendships are destined to last. Endings do not represent failure, on either part.
That said, sometimes the other person has chosen to end the friendship because of something we’ve said or done. To put it bluntly, sometimes we are the toxic one. If there’s something in how we behave towards others that tends to hurt or drive them away, we have a responsibility to acknowledge the fact and change our behaviour. That’s been the case with me at different times. There are people I will never meet or hear from again because of how poorly or clumsily I treated them. I hope I’ve learned at least some of the lessons.
Most times, though, neither of you is to blame. It’s simply that the imbalance of priorities and needs between you has become unsustainable. What happens then is up to you (both). Perhaps there’s enough of your friendship left to talk it out and find a way forward. Maybe things fractured harshly with no opportunity for discussion or repair, or faded so gradually it was hard to say where friendship ended and absence began. You might hold space for a while to see if things will realign, but there may come a time when you’re ready to let go. Not because you stopped caring about your friend. But because you started caring about you.
Allow the hurt and tears their place and time. Don’t push them away. Acknowledge them. Invite them in. But don’t allow them to overstay their welcome. They have other places to be, and you have other guests to offer a place at your table. The warmth of friends you have not lost. The joy of those you’ve yet to meet. It’s not easy, but there is a way through. As one unattributed quotation I encountered whilst researching this post puts it, “Your peace will come when you learn to let go of whatever has let go of you.”
Over to You
The poem I quoted at the start of this piece has helped me a lot over the years. You can read Brian Patten’s “Sometimes It Happens” in full at Poetry Hoard.
I’ve shared how I approach the ending of friendships, but everyone’s experience is different. How do you feel and respond if a friendship fades or closes? How do you handle breakups? I’d love to hear from you, either in the comments below or via our contact page.
Photo by Peter Herrmann at Unsplash.