How it feels to break up with your best friend
Friendship break ups can be as heartbreaking as romantic splits. But they're not given as much emotional airtime or talked about in the same way. Maybe we should start.
Julie and I sat across from each other in an open office at an internet startup in downtown Manhattan, which makes it sound glossier than the scrappy enterprise it was, in the very early days of online magazines.
I swear we got work done, though I mostly just remember us giddily typing instant messages to each other, cackling at our desks. About what? I have no idea, but it was endlessly entertaining. We didn’t mind the death stares fromour co-workers. They weren’t part of it.
What began at work soon spilled into the rest of our lives, the way it often does when you’re in your early twenties, with few responsibilities other than paying your rent.
We became fast friends. Julie had grown up in NewYorkCity, I was from the suburbs of Boston.
She possessed a worldliness and self-assurance I found mysterious. She had little patience for bullshit or pretension and I somehow made the cut, which thrilled me. I trusted her judgment.
She saw straight through people, with an emotional sophistication I was in awe of. I wanted to be more like that. And if she wanted to be my friend and spend time with me, it meant there must be something about me that she admired, envied, loved.
Just the two of us
We lived near each other in Brooklyn, spending what felt like a never-ending series of weekend afternoons together that bled into evenings and drinks.
Too many drinks.
This was before the days of online dating and we were operating on an assumption that we might meet our next boyfriend at one of several dive bars. But who, really, did we think we would meet?
We didn’t want to meet anyone. We were happy with each other. When we envisioned growing old together, in a Golden Girls-type of situation, we were only half joking. We radiated exclusivity.
People at parties thought we were a couple; guys left us alone. Except for those Julie introduced me to, boys she’d gone to school with. I hooked up with one of them and, of course, told her all about it the next day.
WE DIDN’T WANT TO MEET ANYONE. WE WERE HAPPY WITH EACH OTHER.
‘It was good, but nothing to write home about,’ I said. I don’t know why, but she thought that was so brilliant that we had to put in on a T-shirt, or make a framed needlepoint to hang on the wall. (Neither of us knew how to needlepoint.)
She made my experiences into stories, she gave them more life than they would otherwise have.
The girl squad
Over the past few years, these kinds of stories have become prolific. Depictions of intense female friendships are all over the cultural landscape, in books like Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan series and Zadie Smith’s Swing Time, shows like Fleabag, or films such as the reboot of Ghostbusters. The bonds aren’t new, but our attention to exploring them has broadened and deepened.
These relationships between women – not overtly romantic or sexual, but intimate nonetheless – resonate so deeply because they’re about a kind of closeness that is bound up with selfhood and identity.
There’s the friend with whom, paradoxically, you feel most yourself but who also makes you aware of becoming yourself.
You absorb elements of each other – ideas, styles, modes of being in the world – consciously and unconsciously. You change each other on levels that are both so obvious and so subtle that they’re almost imperceptible.
With friendships there can be a tendency to merge and compare, to see yourself reflected and refracted in ways that romantic, sexual relationships don’t engender as much.
In romantic relationships, for example, there tends to be more opposition, less merging. You want the other person to be different enough from you. It’s what accounts, in part, for the attraction.
But you either grow together or you grow out of each other and, what once sent you reeling, begins to feel a little suffocating. While I believe there’s more to friendship than timing and circumstance, that what exists between true friends is something abiding and soulful, you can’t deny context.
It’s hard to maintain an active connection to someone when your focus starts to shift.
We still saw each other though nowhere near as constantly, and a tension crept in that neither of us brought up.
More and more, when we hung out, it was with groups of other friends, those we’d had from college, from before we knew each other.
YOU EITHER GROW TOGETHER OR YOU GROW OUT OF EACH OTHER
We all got along, but these groups had their own dynamics; they didn’t privilege or idealise the connection Julie and I had developed. We began to see each other in a new light and to feel a loss because of it. At least, I know I did. She was no longer just mine and I wasn’t really hers.
And when it was still just the two of us, she would want to tell me about her boyfriend, about their life together, their plans, and I would pretend to be happy and interested.
Not envious, hurt, or even a little panicky. I started to worry with more urgency about things that had been fairly vague up until then. In a way, Julie’s friendship had numbed the what-am-I-doing-with-my-life concerns. In her absence, they became louder. But her absence also created space for new relationships.
We’d already moved on to different jobs, new prospects, and separate paths. And then I met the man I would eventually marry. Early on, she met him too, and I don’t know if she sensed how serious it would be but in my memory, that’s when she left me for good. A hesitancy to make plans at first, unreturned calls, and then not a word.
Although breaking up with a friend can leave one just as heartbroken, just as sad, angry, isolated and confused, it’s perceived as not quite as shattering.
They’re seen as being easier to move on from, and not so wrapped up in failure or grief. Perhaps because we still consider and speak of romantic relationships as a kind of goal or prize, as a marker of success, some indication of our value and desirability, or at least our adulthood.
We may know better, surveying the wreckage of so many failed partnerships, and yet does anyone breakup with a good friend and spiral into thinking she’s going to die alone with some cats?
BREAKING UP WITH A FRIEND CAN LEAVE ONE JUST AS HEARTBROKEN, JUST AS SAD, ANGRY, ISOLATED AND CONFUSED
Complicating this is that friend breakups, at least in my experience, have lacked the definition and clarity that even the messiest of romantic breakups had. It could be that I’m not especially confrontational, but I haven’t really fallen out with friends. Even with Julie. No dramatic fights, accusations, or insults. But also no calm, mature conversations about the ways in which it wasn’t working. It has been more like a mutual cooling, an unspoken understanding that right now, we’re not in the same place in our lives.
With other friendships I’ve had, that lack of real finality has ultimately been a good thing, though. It’s meant we’ve been able to pick up again – not where we left off but some place new, possibly even better. I’ve seen how forgiving and accommodating friendships can be.
Our familiarity with each other, the very thing that felt so constricting in the past, becomes the jumping off point for something freer. You appreciate your friend’s changes, their new selves, instead of feeling threatened or judged by those transformations.
I’ve never gotten back together with an ex, but I have re-established friendships. It’s taken time and work, a new directness and openness on both our parts, where years before it felt instant and effortless.
But this hasn’t happened with Julie, and I wonder why neither of us has made the first move. I think we both know we no longer need each other in the ways we once did. But maybe we’re afraid to need each other in new ways? Or afraid to find out that we don’t need each other, that we’d rather just have our memories.
I’VE NEVER GOTTEN BACK TOGETHER WITH AN EX, BUT I HAVE RE-ESTABLISHED FRIENDSHIPS
Three years ago, in the middle of writing a novel that centres on two friends, I moved from New York, where I’d lived for 15 years, to Chicago, where I knew only a handful of people.
Trying to make new friends, in a new town, in my thirties, was one of the hardest aspects of the move. It was as awkward as you’d imagine. Was I too friendly? Not friendly enough? Shit, did I really say that? I wasn’t flirting. Was I flirting? ‘We have to play it cool. We can’t mess this up,’ my husband said, on our way to dinner at the house of a couple we’d recently met and really liked. He was only half joking.
I’ve been lucky and have met women who I can tell anything to and who trust in me, though none of these friendships are as headstrong and all-in as my friendship with Julie.
They couldn’t be. It couldn’t be like that again, even with her. But maybe it could be something else. I’ve googled her over the years. I’ve gleaned a little, enough to think she’s OK. She appeared recently in my ‘People you might know’ list on Facebook, without a picture and a hard-to-search version of her name. Had she been looking for me?
There’s nothing like social media to reduce a complicated history down to ‘people you might know’. And yet, it made me happy just to catch that glimpse, to know she’s out there. To think that, at some point, we might actually know each other once again.