When It’s Time to Break Up with a Friend
I’ve been of two minds whether to write this piece for a few weeks now. Writing about relationships of any kind is more Oprah’s purview, but a case may be made that all writing is about a relationship of one form or another. With that self-serving justification in hand, let me proceed.
What finally prompted me to examine the end of friendships—or even putting a friendship on indefinite hiatus; you can never be sure what might happen down the road no matter how final the termination feels—is a close friend of mine called it off with another close friend of his today. There have been epistolary battles via emails for some time now, a veritable bloodbath of character assassinations. It’s the sort of activity I engaged in frequently with both friends and family in my pre-Sufi days, meaning nearly two decades ago. I’ve since changed my approach to friendship breakups—there are no battles, maybe quick skirmishes, little bloodletting by opinion—but the net result is the same: the friendship ends forever, or at least for an extended period of time.
The reason I avoid voicing opinions is they are subjective and can be overly hurtful without any benefit. Words rarely change people, and when the words are perceived as threatening our minds not only switch off to reason but they bend our particular reality to defend us from attack. Even if you are right you are now demonized by the person you attacked into being wrong, and there is little you can do to change that.
This is certainly the case with my close friend and his now former close friend—after last night’s emails between them, which I was made privy to, I doubt there will be reconciliation for a long time, although one never knows. Friendships can be as complex and irrational as romances.
When I was still practicing Sufism on a dedicated basis, attending majles meditation twice a week and involved almost daily with the running of the Order, one of the taped sermons we heard from the Master of the Path that I dreaded the most when I was still a postulant was the fourteen principles of how a Sufi should behave towards others. They were impossible goals to attain, they filled me with guilt and feelings of failure as a human being. However, they warn you when you set out on most serious Eastern esoteric practices that it’s improbable you will ever attain enlightenment, but you will be a better person for trying and that’s more than good enough. A good teacher will set the bar higher than your reach to ensure you always have something to strive for.
I don’t remember all of the fourteen principles—shame on me, for I have heard that lecture so often I should be able to recite it in its original Farsi despite not speaking the language—but a few of them did stand out and stayed with me until now: one must always be sincere; one must honor one’s commitments as if one’s life depended on it; one must never tell another person what to do or how to behave.
Another principle that always fucked me up was that one must “never speak with an acid tongue,” which cancelled itself out in my case if I was also expected to be sincere. But that’s just because my subjective reality is highly critical, so my sincerity can be as crippling as much as it can make someone feel like a god.
I’ve had no problem sticking to not telling someone what to do or how to behave, unless I’m asked for my advice directly, but I will still try to be circumspect and mindful of being as objective as possible, often relating whatever the issue I’m being asked for advice about to an anecdote from my own life. This is why I no longer have head-on confrontations like the one my close friend had. I will simply turn around and walk away, literally shutting off communication for however long it takes, even if it is permanent. Again, words have proved meaningless in these heated situations. They have no effect other than to stoke my anger, and I loathe my anger more than my enemies—it’s a sign of weakness and generally unpleasant. As any fleeting perusal of the Internet reveals, haters are both idiots and barely literate, and I want no part of that company.
When we’re younger, especially young adults who have just broken away from home, our friends play an essential role in our growth. They are so important that we come to look at friendship as being hallowed. We are either lauded for being a ‘good friend’—and some of us take great pride in being that—or taken to task for being a bad one, often when we don’t do something the friend who is judging us as being bad expects us to do, rightly or wrongly.
For non-complete loners, our circles of friendship can be broken down into loose categories: the wider network of people with whom we socialize, many of whom are mere acquaintances; close friends, the kind with whom you could spend hours on the phone (when we still used phones like that), but then don’t speak to for days, weeks, years, and then when you reunite it’s like you just left each other or hung up the phone; and a clutch of bestest friends in the whole wide world, without whom you cannot live, who are closer to you in many ways than your family because these are relationships based on more sincerity and common interest. As we’ve seen from Girls and similar TV shows about young adults on their own surviving together, these best friendships can be as hurtful as they are nourishing and supportive.
When I was in my mid-twenties, I couldn’t conceive of a time when I would ever be separated from my best friends. We often fantasized about that time in the future, so far away it was science fiction, when we would be in a nursing home together, alternately fighting and laughing as we always did (and very likely stealing each others’ meds). I remember once talking to a much older close friend (he was in his thirties) about how happy I was with this quasi-marriage, how it was impregnable and would stand the test of time. I thought he was just being a catty, jealous queen when he smiled knowingly and assured me that circumstances would surely change and my besties and I would drift apart.
He was right. The schism that first sundered the walls of our friendship occurred only a couple of years after that conversation, but it would take far longer for those walls to finally crumble altogether. Drug abuse played a huge role in it, not mine per se—I’ve never made a good addict—but that of my female best friend, a woman who might be called my fag hag were she less phobic about my homosexuality in particular. (“It’s just a phase you’re going through, James.”)
Unable to cope in New York City, after a couple of stints in rehab she moved to a remote rural area of the American southwest, had a child and was happy to the extent any of us can be completely happy in this life. I visited her seven years ago with my partner at the time and stayed with her for a few days. She’s always been a great raconteur, often speaking three different languages in one sentence, garnished with all of the Italianate gestures we were raised with but which I’ve since abandoned. She charmed my partner with stories about our youth, many of which had been seriously embellished over the years; like some accomplished storytellers, she has a hard time discerning truth from outright lies. Many experiences of our now-fairytale young adulthood—which I remembered as being so negative, thanks to the destructive effects of her drug abuse, that I preferred not to remember it at all—that had really happened to me had now apparently happened to her, an outright theft of parts of my life. All memory of drug abuse and the depressing fallout from it had been redacted from her narrative, her new life partner had no knowledge of it, and that bothered my Sufic sense of sincerity, not to mention that as an inveterate storyteller I hated having my life appropriated and manipulated and spun like propaganda—at the risk of sounding melodramatic, she had become my life’s version of a Holocaust denier.
The end came when I finally got on Facebook a couple of years ago and we connected there. I disliked her posts and comments so much that after a few months I unsubscribed from them. Still, I answered politely when she posted zany, embarrassing comments on my timeline. Above all I felt sorry for her teenaged daughter—it’s one thing to have an Auntie Mame, another to have her as a mommy. And mommy was proving not to have changed a jot over the years, whereas I’d lived many lifetimes and experienced dozens of other perspective-shifting realities. She was still the same old mythomaniacal histrionic who demanded limitless attention, living entirely in a past I couldn’t forgive her rewriting.
Then one day she posted a comment on a film review of mine, one I was rather proud of. It was something to the extent of, “Do you actually direct feature films or do you just critique them?” The whole reason I’m on Facebook to begin with is to promote this website or interact with colleagues in the film business. Her comment showed a complete lack of understanding of the dynamics of our business, particularly in this day and age, and also an ignorance of the history of filmmakers who engage in criticism: it was the foundation of the French New Wave. And now I understand why criticism is as important to filmmaking as it is to book writing: I have become a more confident, more aware filmmaker since I began critiquing others.
But the comment looked awful, and coming from my putative bestest friend in the whole wide world it seemed downright nasty. Because it was. So I did something I’ve done to nobody else on Facebook and put her on block. This block is only for Facebook, mind you, to avoid future bizarre, fucked-up comments; if she ever reached out to me by phone or email, I’d certainly reply. Still, it was shocking to take that step with her of all people.
Breaking up with friends is as inevitable as breaking up with lovers. It can happen over a sudden event, or more frequently because your life goes through changes that cause you to skip out of sync with people. I’ve had a more unusual life than most, I’ve lived for long periods of time in drastically different cultures or cities with their own micro-cultures. As a writer and creative, I am more sensitive and professionally more introspective than others and thus more susceptible to change. Therefore, I can honestly look at my friend and say to her, “It’s not you, it’s me.” She has remained the same, true to her nature, but I have not, even if I choose to perceive it as being that I’ve become truer to my real self than I was back when we were inseparable twenty-somethings.
Yes, cutting her off so abruptly was drastic, but there was no drawn-out exchange of opinions, no rancor, no fight. The separation will either cause her to reflect on the effects of her thoughtless comments and understand the issues I might have with her behavior, or it won’t—I’ve put other friends in the dog house, and when we reunited they’ve seemed none the wiser as to what went wrong; the blame was still squarely with me. That’s fine, too; while I have no aspirations to Sufi sainthood, I do treasure those few of the fourteen principles I have been able to put into practice; it’s better for me to move on and shrug it off than insisting on being seen as right and proving my point—there’s no point to that other than burnishing the ego. In the short term I might seem infuriatingly aloof and disengaged, but I’ve noticed that in the long run it makes me a better friend.
Really good points you’ve made here. And I can’t believe you put a photo from “Friends” in there! haha!
JamesTuttle Thanks! It was too hard to resist the Friends photo.
Nice article; But I have a different take on it than you. For me, it’s important that I voice my thoughts and feelings… it’s not about ego stroking but about being authentic to why I’m having issues with the other person to begin with… it’s me speaking my truth… and when I do, it feels right. Also… I think it allows the other person to understand why I’m upset or frustrated… this could open a discussion, or it may trigger them to see something they were not even aware of.
Of course this works better with rational people who don’t run away from confrontation and can take responsibility for their actions. Everyone handles confrontation differently. They may understand me, they may not. But for me I have to speak my truth. Walking away in silence doesn’t work well for me, and never has. And sometimes you just might need to tell someone to fuck off.