What do you do when you realize that although you may have years of history, and found real value in each other in times past, that you kind of don't like a friend anymore? That, after time spent with this person, you feel drained, empty, belittled or insulted. My father always used to tell me that, ‘you can't make new old friends.’ How do you distinguish if someone in your life makes you change for the better or if you are better off without them?
Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel replies:
I appreciate the wisdom in this statement, “We can’t make new old friends.” There is something noble about honoring our history with others. In the context of your question, it also opens a door to an even deeper inquiry: “What does it mean to be a friend?” and “What is our responsibility to others?”
I was wandering around the city today. I enjoy interacting with everyone I meet. People are often much easier to be around when we don’t have history with them – it’s fresh. And this made me wonder...
It seems that the people with whom we share a history we often have a lot of unspoken agreements with. We have agreements that we will stay the same and uphold certain dynamics that are comfortable for us – that make us feel secure. Such agreements can be insidious; we may not even notice them.
We may, for example, share in our relationship a subtle agreement that “Life is hard,” or that “We are the only ones that understand”; or we may agree to share a common enemy. We may hook up with a high school friend on the Internet and agree to relate to them in the same way we did twenty years ago, even though we’ve grown up, have a family, and see the world in a completely different way now. Sometimes in relationships, we agree to deny that something unhealthy is going on, such as substance abuse or illness. Sometimes we agree to take on certain roles in a relationship such as being “the boss,” “the victim,” or “the strong one.” And as part of the dynamic we may have an unspoken agreement to take responsibility for the emotional life of another in a way that is crippling for them — that prevents them from finding emotional independence. Such agreements are challenged when one person starts to change and move ahead in life.
The important thing to recognize about agreements is that it takes more than one person to make one. If we see that an agreement is not serving our well-being and the well-being of our friend, it is intelligent to break it... and it is possible to break an agreement without abandoning the friendship. In fact, it is an act of courage and kindness to ourselves and to our friend.
We are all looking for well-being and happiness in life. So the purpose of friendship is to support and be supported in our search for well-being and happiness. Breaking unhealthy agreements challenges our tendency to withdraw into habitual ways of being that sabotage this intention. At the same time, breaking unhealthy agreements awakens our longing to grow and experience a sense of wonderment about ourselves and the world. There are many ways of being in relationship and this is an opportunity to learn something new.
Of course, there is always a chance our friend may not be interested in working on the relationship with you. That is their choice. But this doesn’t mean we can’t remain faithful to our friend; it doesn’t mean that we have to give up our care for them or our wish for their well-being. There is no need to abandon them. In fact, as citizens of the human race, isn’t it our responsibility to never abandon anyone?
If we live with clarity and integrity, how could it conflict with the well-being of others? Our relationship to others has everything to do with the relationship we have with ourselves, as well as the clarity of our vision. In a larger sense, cultivating love and care for all living beings is the only way to live with integrity and purpose.
– Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel
Elizabeth Mattis-Namgyel is the author of the upcoming book, “The Power of an Open Question” (Shambhala Publications).
Dr. Karen Binder-Byrnes replies:
Friendship is one of the most enduring and wonderful gifts of being alive. Friendship is universal in humanity. Young children start friendships with the sharing of curiosities, toys and laughter. As we grow, some friendships develop with us for a lifetime providing companionship, support, and love for each other’s beings. I believe that friendship, throughout our lives, serves as a mirror of our very essence. The love, laughter and concern we share with friends gives us a sense of self which can sometimes be thwarted within our family relations. Our friends become our historians, secret keepers and comrades on life’s journey. In the years I have worked as a therapist, the friends of my patients have filled my practice space with their presence as fierce defenders, continual cheerleaders and often lifesavers.
The question this week deals with why friendships change and even sometimes end after long periods of time. We have probably all had friends in our lives who were so involved with us during certain periods that the thought of that person no longer being around seems impossible. However, just like many other human relationships, friendships are quite complicated and can be fraught with conflict and tension at times. There are countless reasons why even some of the more enduring friendships come apart at the seams. On the most basic level, friendships can change when two people grow apart from each other. This can happen when friends meet and get close during certain periods of their lives because they are sharing common experiences together. This may include growing up in the same area, going to school together, being on sports teams etc. As we grow and mature, friends that once “fit” no longer do and we move on. Hopefully, this change occurs slowly and naturally over time and without much stress attached. Proximity is also very important in creating and maintaining close connections with friends. Sometimes, physical distance creates a wedge between friends.
The more painful termination of friendships has to do with more complex psychological and emotional issues and are often fraught with anxiety and great distress. Friendships that last a lifetime are those in which the balance between give and take, honesty and support, and a genuine desire for our friend’s well-being are paramount. Unfortunately, as in all human relations, this balance can sometimes shift and no longer benefit one or the other in the relationship. For example, a friendship can go along smoothly until one half of the pair comes into some circumstance where social or financial status shifts. How two friends deal with the change of fortune for one or the other is a delicate mission. Here jealousy, envy and insecurities may arise creating tension where none existed before. As we go through life, we realize that some friends are always there when things go wrong for us but cannot stand it when our luck changes for the better. Likewise, some friendships cannot tolerate the loss of status, position or standing of the friend. Sadly, sometimes friendships are harmed when others in the friend’s life such as spouse, other friends etc., create tension. A more deeply held psychological construct is that of who we pick in the first place to be our friends. Until we become psychologically aware and more evolved, we may pick the wrong people to befriend as a way of working out unresolved interpersonal issues from our pasts. As we become more emotionally healthy, those friendships will no longer be tolerable. For example, when one has low self-esteem, they may pick critical friends as a way of reinforcing their negative self-view. However, if one grows more confident, this dynamic may no longer be acceptable.
In essence, our friends are the life-affirming fountain from which we drink. Good friends fill us up with warmth, honesty and a sense of well-being. If you feel drained, empty, belittled and insulted by a friend you should acknowledge that this is diminishing your life experience and not enhancing it. In this case, I would move away from this person, honor whatever good you did get from them in the past, and move toward those friends in life that only want to help light your way! Thank you.
– Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes
Dr. Karen Binder-Brynes is a leading psychologist with a private practice in New York City for the past 15 years. See her website, DrKarennyc.com, for more information.
Cynthia Bourgeault replies:
“Old friends” and “true friends” are not necessarily identical. Old friends have stood the test of time; true friends are timeless. True friends may have been in your life since your childhood or they may have shown up only yesterday, but it’s from the quality of the heart that you know them, not the number of years you’ve logged together.
Most friendships are situational, though we don’t like to admit it. They spring up in the ground of common interests and/or common circumstances. Your “mommy group,” yoga friends, work associates — and going back in time, college roommates, high school teammates and even childhood chums — are all examples of situational friendships. Within these enclaves, we may feel closer to some folks than to others. But as our circumstances change or our life’s journey takes us in separate directions, the common ground begins to fade, and maintaining the connection takes more and more energy — sometimes, just too much energy! That’s nothing to beat yourself up about: situational friendships aren’t “fake,” they’re just “not forever.”
Sometimes it’s not only okay but downright healthy to move on. If you’ve just entered recovery, for example, or decided to shed those unwanted pounds by committing to a healthy lifestyle, your old drinking buddies may no longer be the best companions for you. People who embark on a spiritual practice like yoga, meditation, or contemplative prayer regularly report “losing a whole set of old friends and gaining a whole set of new ones.” Couples who suddenly become parents find themselves drifting away from their “swinging singles” friends, while sadly, couples who divorce will frequently find themselves “divorced” from their still-happily-married friends as well. While this can be painful, as all loss of intimacy is, it becomes psychologically corrosive only when you also have to fight your expectation that it shouldn’t be this way. Nobody has failed; it’s just life doing its thing.
Still, true friends do exist, miraculously hidden amongst all the situational flux. How do you recognize them? Usually they reveal themselves only after the situation itself has changed. And the results can be surprising: sometimes the people who remain in your life and the ones who fall out are not at all what you would have predicted! But these “friends forever,” however they play out in your particular life situation, always seem to share three characteristics: (1) They have a capacity to grow with you (and you with them) through life’s changing circumstances; 2) They are low-maintenance, rarely-to-never imposing themselves or laying expectations on you; and 3) contact with them, when it comes, is never a duty, but always a gift “heart to heart.” Such friends—always a rare and special breed — have an uncanny knack for being able to stay in tune with you emotionally over huge gaps of time and space. Maybe you don’t hear from them for three years — or thirty — but then the phone rings and there they are again, and it’s like picking up as if you never left off.
We can’t command the heart, of course. We can’t pre-screen our friends for potential “forever” status, or impose this expectation as a unilateral requirement. But paradoxically, perhaps, the best way to help all our friendships grow wisely and well is to take responsibility for our own aloneness.
No friendship can long survive under coercion and demand. If we seek friends because they “feed us,” or hide us from our loneliness or boredom or fear; if we expect them to “be there for us” because we don’t know how to be there for ourselves, then this kind of neediness is eventually going to translate into demand and duty, and on these rocks many friendships founder. The relationship becomes just too fraught with expectations, hidden agendas, and disappointments, and eventually the barrel runs dry. Whenever either party begins to feel, “This friendship is draining me,” it’s a pretty sure tip-off that an iceberg of hidden expectation is lurking beneath the surface — in which both parties, alas, are partially complicit. The more we can take responsibility for our own emotional well-being, the more we can live comfortably in our own skin, the more friendship can become what it is truly meant to be — whether for the whole of our life or just the miracle of the present: the spontaneous overflowing of our uniquely human capacity for intimacy, compassion, and joy.
– Cynthia Bourgeault
Cynthia Bourgeault is an Episcopal priest, writer and retreat leader. She is founding director of the Aspen Wisdom School in Colorado and principal visiting teacher for the Contemplative Society in Victoria, BC, Canada.
Michael Berg replies:
What is the purpose of friendship? Obviously there are all kinds of physical reasons for our friendships- we enjoy someone’s company, they are easy to talk to, they make us laugh – but this is not the true purpose.
The kabbalists teach that one of the only true choices we make in life is our environment, and the friends we surround ourselves with. This has a tremendous influence on us because everything flows from there.
Consider this: you put an apple seed on the table and water it for months. Naturally, if you were to water it for a million years it still wouldn’t grow to become a tree. But if you put it in the ground and watered it, then it would become a tree. The potential for greatness is true in that seed always, but the environment – table vs. ground – makes all the difference.
The same is true for people.
The spiritual core reason for a friendship is that it can – and is meant to - help us change and grow. Friends are people who call us on our issues, push us to grow, and support us through this process.
We can’t overestimate how important good friends are to our growth in life.
As a matter of fact, one of the first things written in the Bible in relation humanity is, “it is not good for man to be alone.” We cannot achieve our potential, nor live a life of fulfillment, without great, inspiring friends around us.
Therefore, if we choose to be surrounded by friends who are not positive, or who speak ill, then it’s going to be almost impossible not to fall into that type of behavior.
We have to appreciate the amount of influence our friends and the environment we create for ourselves truly has on our lives. Once we know and understand how important it is, we have to assess our friendships. Everything else is secondary to the question, “Does he or she help me to become a better person - does he or she push me and help me grow?”
Once we make that assessment, then the answer is pretty simple. If we have a friend that makes us feel worthless, hurts us, or doesn’t enable us to grow and actually makes us feel bad, then clearly that’s a friendship and environment we don’t want to subject ourselves to. We have the responsibility to diminish that friendship. Not only isn’t it serving its purpose, it can have a detrimental effect on us.
Now, this does not mean it is OK to cut people out of our lives. In fact, the first thing we want to do when we notice a relationship isn’t helping – or is hurting - is to see what we can do to help them in their process. Maybe if we speak to them clearly and forcefully they will change. It is our first responsibility to help our friend become a better person and friend. But, assuming we have done everything we can and the friendship is still no longer serving its purpose, yes, it is our responsibility to diminish that bond.
Please note my choice of words: diminish, not cut. My father taught me that if someone has been our friend, they are our friend forever. It doesn’t mean spending 24 hours a day, 7 days a week with them if it makes us feel bad. But it does mean that whenever there is an opportunity to help, we must. If they were once our friend, then they are our friend forever in that regard. Just because we make a decision that this is someone we shouldn’t be spending a lot of time with, it doesn’t mean we must completely tighten the heartstrings.
Assess your friendships. If they are supporting you in your growth and change, then cherish them. If they diminish you, then you diminish them. But, once again, a friend is always a friend. Though they may no longer be a constant presence in your life nevertheless if there is an opportunity to help you should, always be open, for true friendship never ends.
– Michael Berg
Michael Berg is a Kabbalah scholar and author. He is co-Director of The Kabbalah Centre, www.kabbalah.com. You can follow Michael on twitter, twitter.com/inspiringchange. His latest book is What God Meant.