Saturday, February 4, 2012

When Friendships End

Last Sunday, I read a great article in The New York Times called "Endship" by writer Alex Williams, about when friendships come to a point of change. Reading Alex's article got me reflecting about the importance of friends, and the differing lifespans that relationships have. Not all friendships can go the distance through the rest of your life, despite the fact that you were very close at one time. There is no protocol for ending or scaling back a friendship. How do we navigate these uncharted relationship waters?
The support, companionship, and feedback of close friends is so valuable. You can meet up and have some fun together, compare notes on how your lives are progressing, celebrate each other's happiness, and mourn each other's losses and disappointments. Research supports that friends can be good medicine. When I am working with people who are grieving, I always assess their support system, because being close to others will invariably be a great resource and help in the adjustments one makes after loss (divorce, death, breakups, moves, job loss, etc.)
It seems to me that some friendships are based more on common circumstances, such as working together, having children at the same time, or being neighbors. Some of these friendships go deep enough to sustain the connection after you are not in the original circumstances in which you became friends. Others can't. There are friendships where you can lose day to day contact, but no matter how long you go in between visits, you can pick up where you left off. These friends are keepers, like gems to be treasured. If you have even one or two of this type of friend, you are blessed.
Watershed moments in your life, or your friend's life, can be defining moments in friendships. People tell me they never forget friends that are understanding at particularly difficult stretches in their lives, such as the loss of a partner, parent, or child. Conversely, it's hard to feel as close to a longtime friend who can't summon up any compassion or tenderness when you are hurting, and can't move off center stage. (And now, more about me). Deep, authentic friends can listen and transcend self.
Sometimes your own life changes, and it may not work to take certain friends along with you. Couples have to think about how it may impact your husband or wife to keep up friendships with former partners, and agree on how you want to handle these boundaries. I call this closing the exits. It doen't mean that you didn't care deeply for a former partner, but realizing there were reasons you broke up with them and chose the partner you have. You can wish them well, and let go.
It is important to watch the balance in friendships over time. Look for patterns. Is spending time with your friend lifting you up, energizing, and nurturing? Do you and your friend bring out the best in each other? Are they consistently draining, or always whining but not taking any forward action? Do they inspire you to be better or get excited about your own life? Do you feel like the complaint department? Is there a balance, or is it one-sided?
It is a loss when a friendship ends. You may feel it coming on for years. There isn't really a protocol for ending a friendship. While the virtual world of Facebook has the cruel possibility of unfriending someone, real life doesn't work that way. Fading away gradually, being kind, but sharing less personal information and not initiating as much contact seems gentler. Acceptance of the differences in friendships is essential. Some friendships have a lifespan or a freshness date, while another type of friendship goes deeper than having common circumstances, and can go the distance the rest of your life. Both are valuable, and enrich, broaden, and soften our lives.
Do friendships sometimes need to end? Yes. Take your time. Reflect. Be kind. Honor even the friends who you shared part of your life with. Always be on the lookout for adding wonderful new potential friends to your life as well. The happiest people I know continue to make friends at every age, and stay open minded. Looking for friends who motivate, bring out the best in you, challenge, and support you is an activity you can continue all your life. Being a good friend who is loyal, caring, interested, and supportive is always a good place to start.

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