Party invitations are usually a welcome piece of mail. One September afternoon, in 1978 a Halloween party invite was cause for concern. Sue, my dear friend, is not speaking to me. Her response to a heated argument is silence. Days and weeks pass and she does not respond to my calls or cards. The party, given by a mutual friend, means we’ll likely be together.
“We think the real measure of who we are is the state of our relationships. If things are going well with family, friends, or colleagues that means we’re okay. If not—Angst… Turmoil… Uneasiness.” This is my observation in my book Unfolding. It is true for me and women I know. We place a high value on our relationships. That is a good thing unless we make keeping them alive more important than our own aliveness.
Some relationships die a natural death. Distance can diminish intimacy and connections cool. No electronic media has the glue of person to person contact. Busy schedules can put even an important relationship at risk. These are unfortunate yet understandable ways for friendships to fizzle. But how do we shift from’ friend’ to ‘not friend’ when we just don’t want to be friends? How bad does it have to be before we have the right to say “irreconcilable differences?”
There is a lot of lying that goes when people no longer want to be friends. Backing out of the relationship is easier than confronting the truth. Our interest in the person is no longer there. Or, we are hurt and afraid and don’t want to try anymore. Or, we don’t feel respected and honored by them. Gradually we remove ourselves. We hope they don’t notice. One day we’ve vanished like a clever magician. The red velvet curtain will be pulled back and we won’t be there.
Friendships are expected to go on for a lifetime. There is an unspoken, no matter what rule: once you’re friends you must stay friends—forever. We don’t have a word, for former friend. We can unfriend people on Facebook. How do we do that in our everyday life?
Friendships end outside the law. Renters and landlords have legal agreements as do Common-law marriages. There is usually not community property to divide. Maybe that is why friends separate without a ritual to recognize the change in allegiances. But would a ceremony make these endings better?
Can you imagine standing in a safe setting and saying goodbye to a previous friend? Not burdened, by one more attempt of working things out, we could release each other with a blessing. “Thank you for what you have been for me. I honor who you are as a person.” Then the minister, judge or shaman would say, “Decree duly noted this friendship is now dissolved.”
When a relationship isn’t right for us can we acknowledge it? Even to ourselves? Speaking this truth can cause pain. It might also set us both free. It could leave us clear about who that other person is going to be in our lives.
The night of the Halloween party, Sue walked through the door dressed as a mime. She moved in complete stillness using only sign language during the entire event. I didn’t approach her. I got the message, “I won’t talk, don’t want to talk. Leave me alone.”
I was disappointed but also amused. We were living an episode of I Love Lucy. She was Lucy, a white-faced mime, flitting around the buffet table, making funny faces and hand gestures. Our masked friends surrounded her. They were dressed as French maids, Canadian Mounties, Frankenstein, goblins and witches. Sue effectively skirted the problem. She didn’t speak to me or to anyone for that matter.
I donned our fourteen-year-old son’s football uniform. My Ethel-like self came to the encounter with padding and a protective layer. I didn’t need it. It didn’t turn out to be a contact sport.
I wish I could say how we began to speak again. It wasn’t as dramatic as the party or the day we spoke harsh words. Maybe we melted with time. We did reconnect. Sue even came to visit me while I studied in Spain. We finished our undergraduate degrees together. We’ve shared many changes over our nearly forty year relationship, including returning to college to become Social Workers. We’ve helped each other grow in many ways. Most importantly, we learned how to navigate anger and upsets—not perfectly. I’m thankful a river of warm words cracked through the frozen places in us.
Some relationships are worth the struggle.