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Old Friends, True Friends, and Friendship Divorce

Q

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? —GP

A

“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.”

“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.”

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 30—but then the phone rings and there they are again, and it’s like picking up as if you never left off.

“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.”

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.

“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.”

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.

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