What sparks the demise of a serious friendship? And what can be salvaged from the emotional wreckage?
Out of the blue, the woman who had once been my closest friend and confidante left me a message that she was in the hospital. We hadn’t spoken in two years. At first I was gratified—thrilled, even—to hear her voice again, speaking my name.
Jeanne Safer, PhD is a psychotherapist who has been in private practice for over forty years, and the author of six acclaimed and thought-provoking books on neglected psychological issues—the “Taboo Topics” that everybody thinks about but nobody talks about publically. Her special areas of expertise include siblings with difficult or dysfunctional brothers and sisters, women making choices about motherhood or who have chosen not to have children, adults struggling about whether to forgive people who have betrayed them, and those coping with the death of a parent. She lectures on these and other unusual and compelling topics.
Editor: Muhammad Talha
“Hello, Jeanne,” she said, informing me of her whereabouts in the slightly stilted tone I knew she always used when she was uncomfortable. “I’m getting some tests, an MRI and some others. I think I’m all right. We’ll talk over the weekend.” My first impulse was to try to reach her immediately. But something about her message and the way she delivered it, both what she said and what she omitted, gave me pause.
I remembered all too clearly our last conversation. I had been the one in the hospital then—for an entire month, with a dangerous but curable form of leukemia—and I had asked her to come see me when I felt desperate for her company and some edible food. She neither came nor called, nor sent me anything, abandoning me at one of the darkest times of my life. It took her two days to call me back with a lame excuse (there was too much traffic, and the hospital food couldn’t be that bad). Her voice was flat, vague, slightly disembodied, and subtly defensive. She promised to explain later, but she never called again.
We had been soul mates and professional colleagues for over 20 years before she vanished, each other’s bulwark in life. She understood things about me I didn’t understand about myself, and I never knew anyone more generous, more delighted by a friend’s success, or more consoling in adversity. She was brilliant, mordant, and astute, and I loved that she never suffered fools. Our conversations were my stimulant and my solace; “I’ve never talked to anybody the way I talk to you,” she told me once. I felt the same way. But even before she deserted me, the fallout from an extended marital crisis had made her increasingly self-absorbed and demanding, and I found our conversations more one-sided as time went on. Her fuse also got much shorter, and while I prided myself on addressing problems in relationships, I never felt I could reveal my growing discontent without risking her displeasure.
I listened to her message twice more and asked my husband to listen as well. Here was my chance to get back the one woman in the world who spoke my language. So much seemed at stake—one wrong step and she might retreat forever. Shouldn’t I at least give her the benefit of the doubt after two decades of intimacy, acknowledge the effort, and send her a brief email asking what she wanted to talk to me about?
Then two songs came into my head. I found myself singing them aloud, over and over. “Cry me a river,” I belted as I walked around the apartment, pondering my options. Julie London’s bitter torch song then segued into Linda Ronstadt’s 1970s heartbreak anthem, “You’re No Good.” But why, I asked myself, was I singing about exorcising a tormented love affair after getting a cryptic call from a former friend? Because the state of mind that she evoked in me—the paralysis, the justifications that couldn’t justify, the anxiety that a wrong move on my part could be fatal, the strangulated fury—was exactly the same. Friends and lovers have much more in common than we realize.
There is no term to describe the breakup of a passionate friendship, no ritual or legal proceeding to mark its end the way divorce does for marriage, even though it often leaves just as large a hole in the psyche. Lost friends are as haunting as lost lovers, and just as hard to replace. The more abrupt and inexplicable their behavior, the more troubling and insidious the toll. The fallout from betrayal by friends can resonate for decades.
One of the most devastating aspects of being spurned by a beloved friend is the sense of unreality it induces. You think, Can this actually be happening between us? To lose someone who is still physically present yet suddenly psychically absent or altered seems unbelievable. Knowing you will never laugh together again or share confidences with reckless ease causes its own brand of helpless longing. The explanation, if any is offered, can never fully explain.
What underlies the death of serious friendships? Subtle envy and competition can eat away at trust; changes in fortune can create barriers that eventually become unbreachable. The causes may never be known, but they shake one’s emotional foundation and undermine a cherished and tenacious assumption—that there are at least a few people you can always count on, no matter what, that their love transcends any conflict, that you can always talk it over, that you are as indispensable to them as they are to you. The details of the end game burn into memory—the last conversation that cannot be unsaid, the coldness that replaced the warmth you counted on. It can be easier to accept death itself than that such a friend can turn away forever and no longer wish you well.
Despite her shocking behavior, I missed my friend so intensely that I put the best possible spin on that 20-second phone message: Maybe she identified with me, I imagined. Maybe she felt sorry about the way she had acted and wanted to make amends. Maybe she felt all the things I hoped she felt but couldn’t put them into words.
Then I began to see the message for what it was: the presumptuous, self-absorbed expression of a person who now thought of me only to make use of me—for support, attention, and the medical expertise I had often provided for her in the past. There was neither empathy nor apology in her voice or her words—no acknowledgement of how I might feel to get a call from her two years late, and then only when she needed me because she was in trouble herself. Slowly, it dawned on me that the person I wanted back in my life didn’t exist anymore and hadn’t for years. After days of agitated deliberation, I decided not to call her back. It was one of the hardest—and smartest—things I’ve ever done.
But I didn’t stop there. Because this friendship had been so precious to me, I went about a deliberate process of reconsidering and working through its meaning, of not just filing it bitterly away but letting it live again, if only in my own mind. I believe that one of the most important things in life is not to lose anything of value that you have ever gotten from someone, living or dead—including those who forsook you, betrayed you, or bitterly disappointed you. Love, joy, and meaning can be resurrected from the most unlikely sources, even relationships saturated with sorrow, shame, and hatred. Trauma, like so much else, is in the eye of the beholder.
When there is something meaningful to retrieve from a past relationship, celebrating it is a genuine compensation for loss. If anything in your love was real—imperfect, ambivalent, obsessive, or selfish in part, but tender and true at the core—it is yours forever, even though the one you loved loves you no longer or never fully returned your devotion. The authentic core of love is eternal, even if the person who inspired it will never return to you. But you have to hold fast to it and fight through your despair and disappointment to find it, resurrect it, and claim it.
After our painful breakup, I’d stopped wearing the special earrings my friend had bought me in Paris long before her failure to visit me in the hospital. They were lovely purple carved crystals, and only she would have recognized them as fitting my taste. I’d let them languish in my drawer, intentionally overlooked, because they forced upon me the stark reality of losing her—my soul mate for a quarter century with whom I would create no more memories and exchange no more special gifts.
Putting them back on for the first time was an act of defiance: I don’t miss you. I don’t need you. I refuse to deprive myself of these charming baubles any longer just because you’ve deprived me of yourself. Soon, though, I put them away again. Try as I might, I found I could not yet separate the gift from the giver; the injury from her ill treatment still hurt too much to be neutralized by an act of will. So back they went into the drawer after their brief foray on my ears—out of sight and out of mind once more.
Another year went by. I’d almost forgotten about the earrings, but then I found myself reaching for them again. What I felt when I put them on was unexpected. The pain, anger, and sorrow had not completely dissipated, but another emotion had now joined them, welcome but unbidden: appreciation.
This time, the earrings rekindled the memory of having been loved and understood in a unique way by a person the likes of whom I would never find again. I wasn’t cutting off hope for other intimate friendships, but I knew that no one could ever replace her, because relationships are not interchangeable. Even if I could never forgive her, that love was real, precious, and indestructible.
She had changed, but I retained what she had given me, the good she had done me—and her later unloving actions could not wrest it away. I had no illusions about rekindling our relationship, but I began to recall it with pleasure and gratitude, despite its denouement. My lost woman friend is woven into the fabric of my self, where damage and delight intermingle. Now my memories of her are real, three-dimensional—bright as well as dark.