What happens when you outgrow a relationship? What happens when you outgrow a long and, until now, solid relationship? What happens when the relationship is one you’ve been involved in, trusted, and relied on for decades? What if the relationship has survived ups and downs and feels like home? It is a relationship that holds your secrets, knows your insecurities, and is filled with good memories, and bad. It is safe. It is known. And it is familiar. Then, something happens, and suddenly it’s not those things anymore. Pain, confusion and loss swirl around together to press hard and ruthlessly on your heart. And worst of all, what if this relationship is the relationship with your best friend?
How does this happen?
The variety of ways a friendship can go awry seems limitless. There are a handful of reasons that friendships can end that are common and benign. Distance is often a noted one, “we just drifted apart...” Marriage and children can frequently come between close friendships, “she just doesn’t have time anymore...” Maybe the friend’s partner is a problem, “I can’t stand to be around her. She is such a snob!” Some friends are too needy, some are too cold, some are too uptight and others are just so relaxed, they don’t seem to care. So once a friendship has endured all of these dynamics and has proven to be sturdy, you might assume the relationship can weather just about anything, But that’s not always the case. How is it that something that once felt so good can become something that feels so bad?
One infrequently noted reason a friendship can go awry, is personal growth. If we’re lucky, we mature in big and small ways throughout our life, and also go through tremendous periods of personal growth. This typically results in change. Our thinking changes. Our way of relating changes. Usually this is because we have come to realize that our previous way of relating wasn’t good for us. With this change comes a change in the way we interact with others. This can be very disruptive within a friendship that has long been operating under a certain set of unconscious pretenses. The dynamic that worked well in the past, may not work so well in the future. If the friendship can survive this, it has the potential to blossom into something even more beautiful than it was before.
Is repair possible?
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I do not wish to treat friendships daintily, but with roughest courage. When they are real, they are not glass threads or frost-work, but the solidest thing we know.” This is at the crux of what holds a friendship together. When the going gets tough, does the friendship include the courage to dig in, stand by, and shine the light into the dark corners? Or, will it be met with a limit of willingness and capacity for growth and change? Sometimes it is the willingness from you or your friend to do something, or it is the willingness to think in a different way, or a willingness to stand up for you, or to stand up to you. Most importantly, it calls for a willingness to stay engaged. How do you stay in close contact with a dear friend when there is a difference of opinion, a disagreement, or worse, a wounding? How do you not back away, or take the easy way out by saying, “let’s just agree to disagree”? How do you stay in the hard place, listen fiercely with an open heart and focused attention, until both of you can see a little bit more than was seen before, providing even more space in the relationship? It takes work.
All relationships take work. But, sometimes people assume friendships should be easy. Now to be clear, there is value in agreeing to disagree. But not at the first sign of conflict. Each person should have the opportunity to speak and be heard, thoroughly. If each person has this opportunity, then usually a third position is created. This third position lies in between you and your friend. It’s not about being wrong or right, which is often the case when people feel the need to agree to disagree. Instead, it’s about truly considering each other’s position.
Typically, this kind of fighting to keep a relationship alive and thriving is expected in romantic partnerships. For some reason, friendships don’t always get the same level of attention and devotion. Perhaps, that is because there can be something a little embarrassing or shameful about admitting that you’re having a fight with your best friend. It can appear juvenile and adolescent. On the other hand, having a fight with your significant other is just what happens in adult relationships. But the truth is, friendships are easily as impactful as romantic relationships. And, in many cases, even more so. Friendships can span a lifetime, across multiple romantic relationships, cities, states, health and a series of life transitions and hardships. Friendships are not something to take lightly or treat with frivolity. They are like precious flowers that should be tended to with thoughtful care.
So if these relationships don’t make it, or never get to the part where there is mutual growth and understanding, does it mean that it was never there in the first place? Does it mean that all the significance that it once held was just a delusion? Was it a fantasy that was created because it was what you needed? How do you mourn this type of break up? How do you catalog something that has left an imprint on your heart? Do you never give up and instead hold out hope that in time, things might be different? There are so many possibilities. All the while, the pain, confusion and loss continue to swirl around and press ruthlessly on your heart. The only solid answer I continue to come back to with regard to this question is: Don’t shrink. Don’t pretend that it’s not a big deal. Don’t just keep going and act as though everything is fine. Go toward the very feeling you are trying to avoid. Get to know it intimately until it doesn’t feel so sharp and pointed. In this process, there will be tremendous growth, whether you are able to do this with your best friend, or all on your own. And if you do go separate ways, it does not change the fact that at one point you were both standing side by side. And, it was good.