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The best question to determine whether or not to stay or go

The internet is full of floppy-sloppy memes about long-term friendships and how wonderful they are. How they get better with age, all that.

True for some.

For others, you and I may find ourselves chafing, sometimes badly, with friendships that have continued past their due date.

Sometimes we make excuses. Shore them up with scaffolding even as the structure is so obviously not worth saving. While I can't speak for you, I've  been known to construct all kinds of excuses to hang on to a friendship, even as it costs me more and more of who I am in order to continue to participate.

For myself, I've been guilty of allowing a few of those continue, feeling awkward about ending them, and getting into the habit of calling up increasingly old memories of happier times in an awkward attempt to justify sticking around.

One particular person used to send me some of those memes in cards, a way to celebrate how long we'd been friends as opposed to whether or not our friendship had indeed flourished and evolved.

We continued to meet, even as our conversations began to get strained and one-sided. Regular meetings which were once filled with raucous laughter were slowly trimmed to once a year, if that. Then that meeting was strained to the point where I couldn't wait for to end.

In our twenties, not yet married and even in the early years of her marriage since they were childless, we still had plenty in common.

The differences in our politics didn't matter back then. Those were part of what made us interesting to each other, and worth exploring. We were more fluid with each other, two bright young women who loved a good laugh and whose parting shot for every meal would involve someone's lifting a skirt or a shirt to expose a body part. We shocked our fair share of clients, but the laughter was worth it.

We stood by each other through immense change. She settled into work and making a home. I launched into travel, in part inspired by her early example. She retracted, I expanded.

In any longstanding connection, there has to be growth. For years our friendship did grow even as we evolved into the fullness of our adulthood.

Friendships of great length can be far more important than love affairs, for they can often withstand the kinds of challenges that love cannot. Friends can wound us, but for whatever reason, there is something in us willing to mend fences in ways that perhaps we might not with a lover. There, the expectations may be set in such a way that a transgression, or repeated transgression, is the final straw.

After forty-five years, however, we found ourselves so far apart, so different in our views that being around each other was untenable. Trump was one of several final straws.

The loss of that lengthy connection was deep. I felt as though a body part was missing. Andrew Sullivan writes:

A part of this reticence is reflected in the moments when friendship is appreciated. If friendship rarely articulates itself when it is in full flood, it is often only given its due when it is over, especially if its end is sudden or caused by death. Suddenly, it seems, we have lost something so valuable and profound that we have to make up for our previous neglect and acknowledge it in ways that would have seemed inappropriate before… It is as if death and friendship enjoy a particularly close relationship, as if it is only when pressed to the extreme of experience that this least extreme of relationships finds its voice, or when we are forced to consider what really matters, that we begin to consider what friendship is.

Over the last years of that connection, it was like watching a very close friend die. The quiet disease of intractable differences, the loss of the easy laughter, the draining of the lifeblood out of the once-perfect union was the perfect expression of what Sullivan describes, above.

People have excoriated me for choosing to end that connection over politics, which is not only short-sighted but unkind. It was the combination of a thousand small but significant rejections, being told every single time I called "I can't talk right now" to the point where I just stopped calling.

Being interrupted and shouted down and overwhelmed in our rare in-person conversations to the point where I stopped sharing stories.

Being told you are a best friend, but there's never time, and when you finally do get together, being regaled with stories of people that friend did have time for.

A thousand cuts.

So no, it wasn't just Trump. While I'm not privy to that person's opinion of him now, one of the final nails in the coffin was their support of him. I knew what he was, no idea it would be that bad, but like many, I was appalled. For me it was an integrity issue. She knew my sexual assault history and supported him anyway.

The one question I wish I had asked, as we wound down to an inevitable parting, was,

As this person is right now, today, would I choose them as a close friend?

Had I asked that question long before there was a clear end to our connection, the chances are I might have had the courage to end it sooner.

People have the sacred right to evolve. To embrace new and different beliefs. To change their minds about all kinds of things. Some of us quietly fall off a cliff, others go bonkers, others stay the steady course and change little over the decades.

All are perfectly legitimate choices.

They all have consequences, too.

We can all hold the space for our beloved friends to evolve and to evolve away from us.

The challenge is to hold an equally sacred space for us to love ourselves enough to let them go with our blessings, without blame, without shaming them, or blaming ourselves for that departure. For we likely changed too. It's quite possible that the friend we are losing is feeling the same kind of grief as they watch us evolve into someone they can barely tolerate in their inner circle.

Someone most likely has to initiate that ending.

I am ashamed to admit I ghosted my friend. I completely cop to the lack of courage. She had become very strident over time, and frankly I didn't care to be dragged over the coals as to my reasons for letting go of nearly five decades' worth of connection. She had a terrible need to be right, and it was painful enough as it was. I wasn't interested in engaging in argument as I already had plenty of grief over what had been lost.

So I quietly slid away. Tellingly, it took her a year to notice. Then came the demands. Where are you? Why aren't you calling me (because you never took my calls, for one thing)?

All that. It was all about what I owed her.

Of course that was painful.

We don't know what we had until it's gone. By then, I was long gone, and the fact that it had taken a year for that to even be noticed was the proof I needed just in case I was wondering if I'd made the wrong decision.

I had the answer to the question, above.

The person she had become was not a person I would seek out for a friend as I am now.

If and when you and I have to remove large parts of ourselves, our beliefs, our personalities in order to be loved by someone else, it's not a relationship. It's a sellout to buy love. In that case it's not love. It's seeking approval from someone who simply doesn't love us as we are.

As I contemplate the end of yet another year and a 70th birthday which looms like a party favor in barely three weeks' time, I started today with a phone call to someone whose friendship this year makes a decade. By comparison, this friend and I speak of all things terribly important to each of us, and we take big risks discussing deep issues.  

We push each other to grow. And we prop each other up when we wobble. That is what I most fervently had wished for. I got it. We both did.

We have what I had dearly wished this other friend to be. In that way that the Universe ensures that we are forever given what we need when we need it, the ending of one which had overwhelmed much of my attention made room for this one.

As 2022 lumbers to a close, and tomorrow marks Christmas Day, I am reviewing what I am most grateful for. Among the most important are those beloved friends who showed up in my life, later in life, to take the place of those who vacated it.

Those people are still remembered, revered and loved for what they brought. They also paved the way for me to step up to new friends who demand ever so much more of me. They were gifts.

I hope I was equally so for them.

If you are caught in a long-term friendship which  no longer feels right, ask this question:

If you were to meet this person as they are today, would you seek their friendship?

The answer is the gift. The best of the holidays to you, and let your friendships be the gifts they can truly be.

Photo by Dario Valenzuela / Unsplash

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