About a hundred years ago I had a best friend who I adored with all my heart.
The two of us were inseparable throughout high school and she became like the sister I never had; we were almost adopted into each others’ families. As teenagers we could walk into the other’s house like we belonged there, help ourselves to the food in the pantry as though it was our own. Her parents pulled me into line when I deserved it and celebrated my successes with me too. As we got older her dad vetted the boys I dated and made sure they were up to scratch, and my dad checked the water and oil in her car every time she parked it in my driveway.
We laughed all the time. We took personal responsibility for each others’ crises and wrote pages of letters in class. I shared a level of intimacy and comfortability with her that I’ve never really known with anybody else, at least until Tim moved in with me a decade later.
We both moved to different cities after finishing school, and as you’d expect our relationship started to change. We made new friendships, and both of us had big grown-up experiences that didn’t include the other. We were best friends still, but our lives didn’t overlap so much anymore. The years passed and over time our best friendship was a more symbolic one.
She moved to my city when we were in our early twenties. I had naively assumed that our friendship would once again become as close and easy as it had been when we were kids, but something wasn’t right between us right from the start. She would say things that assured me of my place in her life, but then do things that made me doubt whether we were ok. It was a confusing time for me and we never really talked about it properly.
Something terrible happened between us around that time that brought it all to a head. There was a huge fight, and when we couldn’t patch things up we went our separate ways. I don’t think we’ve seen each other since we were about 25, and although there were good reasons for my hurt and anger I have missed her every day since.
Every so often I get tired of missing her and I reach out, hoping like hell that she misses me too. Each time my efforts have been met with relief and excitement, but whenever it has come time for tough conversations about what happened things have always tapered off into silence. She told me recently that the guilt she felt made it too difficult, it was easier to give up than to suffer through an autopsy.
But if we can’t talk about what’s broken, what am I to do with these fears of being hurt badly again? Is it better to protect myself, even if it keeps my old friend at arm’s length?
Am I the one preventing us from moving on?
I reconnected with another wonderful old schoolfriend recently. Kate and I went our own ways when we finished school, and although nothing terrible happened between us we drifted apart when we went to uni. Sixteen years later she recognised my photo on Twitter, reached out to say hello, and now we’re making up for lost time. It’s such a blessing to have her back in my life and I’m so glad to know her again.
Kate shared an article on her blog that resonated with me deeply: The Friendship Contract. The author Kate Fridkis writes about her experiences with female friendships and the way that they so often end – in silence.
And the whole thing made me think about how female friendships work. How different they are from romantic attachments, much of the time. We share our souls with each other, our most secret secrets, sometimes, but so often, we don’t know how to fight. We don’t learn how to be hurt by each other and keep going. […]
I have always had close girlfriends. My friendships with other girls and women have often been profound, supportive, fulfilling, and desperately needed. For a lot of my life, I’ve had a best friend. And inevitably, something has gone wrong, and too often, we have split immediately apart, injured, trailing long filaments of messy emotion, but without attempting to bind ourselves together again. We simply don’t know what to say to each other when things fail. It would be intensely awkward, maybe, to admit that we are angry, fed up, that our feelings are hurt, that we feel neglected or offended. So instead, we just leave. Sometimes, years later, we come together again, once we are fully, separately healed. We politely avoid the subject of our former downfall.
This article was an aha! moment for me. The uncomfortable truth for me is this: I do know how to fight well – especially with the people I care about. I don’t seek out conflict, but if something is wrong between me and somebody I love I would rather lay it out and examine it than let it fester in silence. My ability to put my thoughts and feelings into words are both a gift and a curse, as sometimes I forget that others aren’t quite so willing to fight, to endure a process so painful and risky.
My old best friend and I are trying this conversation again right now, for the first time in years. I don’t know what to expect, and with so much at stake I’m torn in the knowledge that this conversation could end things for good if we don’t get it right. I’m trying to balance this love for my old friend with my need for self-protection, and in doing so I’m asking her to engage in a conversation that she might well decide is all too hard.
I’m asking her to let things get worse, in order for us to have a chance to heal. The difference is that now, finally, I will understand if she says no. I will know that I did the best I could, and so did she.
The Friendship Contract is something to aspire to for the new relationships I will build as an adult, but Kate’s article made me realise that I can’t ask somebody to simply know how to do this. There are other needs that must be met, not just my own.
Wish us luck.
JAMES BLAKE – RETROGRADE from martin de thurah on Vimeo.