Twenty plus years ago I had a very close friend I’ll call Susan. Shortly after we met she invited me to lunch and I came right out and told her that while I knew a lot of people and had quite a few friends, I was really looking for a very close friend. Was she? In agreement, we then spent over five years talking, laughing, and sharing our lives. I felt closer to her than my own sisters. Then? She ghosted me. Of course, it wasn’t an immediate thing. I knew our circumstances had changes—that we had changed. The phone calls got shorter and fewer, and the times together dwindled. Sadly, it ended a slow death, and I never knew exactly why. I mourned that relationship for many years.
This last week I came across an author who has written a book called How To Break Up With Friends and something about the title sparked my curiosity. I barely finished the podcast interview before my mind returned to Susan. At the same time, I wondered if I had done the same to other friends (yeah, probably!) without being aware of how it might have hurt them. The idea of how and why friendships break up seems important. And because I’m currently trying to write about things that not only spark my interest—when a topic makes me a bit squirmy, there is likely something juicy to explore.
The author of the book, Erin Falconer comes right out and admits that women’s friendships are complicated. I agree. After all, most of us have heard how important they are. Dozens of books and articles tell us that in order to live a long and healthy life we really need them. But what about when they go south? Or what about when they aren’t that great? Still, none of us wants to be thought of unkind or heaven forbid, “unfriendly!” So, is it any wonder that many of us get into and stay in relationships that don’t really serve us in our day-to day-lives? And what about when the other person doesn’t seem that interested in us? That had me asking myself, “Is it ever SMART to break up with friends as we age?”
I’ll confess that I really like the idea of having lots of friends. I know that Thom is both my best friend and my soul partner, but I also appreciate and enjoy the company of women. As close as Thom and I are, there are some things he simply can’t (and probably doesn’t want to) relate to in my life. But when I think about it, and it is something that Falconer recommends, a large majority of my friends are casual. In fact, I could probably put them into categories of 1) friends that have your back no matter what; 2) fun friends; 3) deep conversation friends, 4) now and then friends; and 5) just above acquaintances.
What’s the difference? It doesn’t really matter how I describe the friends on my list, what Falconer recommends is that we all do an inventory and categorize our friends. She calls it a friend audit. Who exactly do you call friend and what is the quality of those friendships? She also makes the distinction between those that “give you energy” when you are together as opposed to those who “suck the energy out of you” every time you see them. She describes those energy-sucking-acquaintances as toxic friends. Falconer believes that knowing the difference is the first step toward cultivating intentional friendships.
Last week Thom and I happened to be talking with a single friend we both know. During the conversation our friend mentioned our relationship and wondered if we had any advice. We both agreed that, “In our opinion it is better to be single than to be in the wrong relationship.” But when considering it in terms of friendship—I haven’t always followed that advice. Some of my “friends,” even though they might be wonderful people—just aren’t my kind of people (if you know what I mean.) And no matter how much I might like them—not everyone sees me as a match. So why on earth would I be inclined to work to keep a lot of friends through the years even when the time for us has clearly passed? Or why would I strive to be friends with people who aren’t really into me? After all, who needs toxic friends in our lives?
From what I can tell Erin Falconer’s book spends a lot more time asking questions like that rather than offering advice about how to actually break up with friends. What she does recommend repeatedly is being very honest with ourselves about who we are and what really matters to us. She then encourages women to spend the time thinking about who their real friends are and what they want from friendship. As a mom and young professional, Falconer is adamant that there are only so many hours in the day and it’s best to learn to be discerning about your friendships and what you and they expect in return. For example: ever gone to a multilevel marketing presentation just because a friend asked you to? Surely our time is more precious than that?
What it comes down to is that so many of us have a hard time being completely honest with each other or saying “no” to anyone we think of as a friend. We often overlook situations and behaviors because we don’t want to “hurt their feelings.” Or we have fears they will judge us harshly or, heaven forbid, stop being our friend. And then there is our fear of confrontation. Instead of recognizing that some friendships have grown toxic or that every friendship runs a course that might eventually end, we hang on to people we have known from our past rather than admit they are past their prime. Or we are so worried we’ll end up with no friends that we put up with much more than is healthy.
Another interesting point Falconer makes is the awareness that friendships take work. Yeah, I know for those of us not working any more that idea of “work” and friendship doesn’t seem to mix. We assume that the best friendships should just be flowing and easy—but most of us acknowledge that the best marriages take ongoing effort, intention, and communication. Why aren’t we willing to admit that if we want good and healthy friendships, they take work too? And while many go to marriage counseling—how many of us have ever considered friendship counseling? When it comes down to it, a mediocre friendship is no more desirable to me than a mediocre marriage.
I still miss Susan in some ways—or at least the ways I thought we were friends. I wish I could have been upfront with her enough to ask her straight out why she started avoiding me. And then had the graciousness to accept the honesty of her response. Just because we want to be friends with others that doesn’t make them obligated to be our friend. And yes, being honest with ourselves and them about our needs and expectations is equally critical. Falconer insists that if we can face our fears and be honest, then our friendships will do one of two things. They will either become deeper, stronger, and more intimate. Or they will help us realize it is time to part ways.
As an extrovert I still like the idea of having lots of friends, but I want to remember it’s the right kind of friends that matter most. The best kind of friends take time and effort if we want to stay close. And every relationship runs into conflicts now and then, so we can’t avoid those without paying the price such avoidance creates. I also want to remember that all friendships ebb and flow. And like so many things I’ve learned along the way, it’s the quality of our friendships, not the quantity.
I’m still thinking about this idea of friendships and how and where they fit into my life. With time feeling so much more precious these days, I want to acknowledge it is SMART to work to create the kind of friendships I crave. And to be the kind of friend that my friends want and need as well.