When do our family interactions become toxic?
At the tail end of grade school, I met the girl who would be my best friend well into my 20s. She was carefree, obsessed with bands no one really listened to, and had a funky fashion sense. She was everything I wanted to become with puberty just around the corner. The foundation of our friendship was simple: she was confident and appeared to know exactly what she wanted, whether deciding on clothes or boys or lattes.
I admired that part of her so much that I wanted what she wanted too. But, as we wrapped up high school, and I left for college, things started to change between us.
It became harder to maintain our friendship. We were both changing, and our personalities and lifestyles started to diverge. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what happened, except that I had stopped wanting what she wanted from life. There’s no blame to be placed, it simply became harder to be friends. I often felt uncomfortable being myself, or expressing my opinions, mainly because our friendship was built on a pattern I had created by saying yes to whatever made her happy. Now that we wanted different things, I felt as if my only option for remaining her friend meant hiding parts of who I was or changing the dynamic of our friendship entirely. I tried, for a time, to change the way we related to each other, but it seemed to just push us further apart.
At first, our spats were unremarkable, small differences in opinion, but those spats grew in frequency, making it difficult for us to get along despite my efforts to keep the peace. Sometimes keeping that peace meant just keeping quiet, but after months of minor injustices, I unloaded all of them—and my frustration—at my friend over dinner one night. It didn’t go well. After that, she wanted space between us. And that space gave me the freedom I needed to do some soul searching and to consider the future of our friendship.
The distance wasn’t easy, I was lonely, but solitude was an opportunity to take a closer look at myself. I was different from who I was when we met in grade school. I left our town for college at 17 and I married at 20. I was a different person, and I found myself unsure that there was room for this friendship in my new life.
At first I wavered between leaving the friendship, or doing what was necessary to fix it. A quick conversation over text made it clear—she had placed caveats on continuing our friendship: an apology for my poor delivery would not be enough, I needed to agree I was wrong to bring up my frustrations in the first place. Remaining close would mean I could not be myself, and that I would constantly be afraid of saying something that would cause her to walk away.
“You are changing a lot as a person,” explained therapist Brooke McCallister, when we spoke about friendships and the role they play during times of transition. When asking her what was important in a friendship, she said I should “have friends around you who can love and support who you are changing to be, instead of their perception of who you should be.”
She also spoke with me about how crucial it is that friendships are reciprocal, noting that when you realize you are in a friendship that requires significant maintenance and energy but doesn’t offer a return on that investment, it may be time to walk away.
“Yes, it is sad, but it is okay,” she said, “being close friends with someone is not an obligation.”
With that realization, as painful as it was, I decided that reconciliation was not what I wanted. Out of obligation, I was exhausting myself trying to maintain a friendship I was no longer enjoying. But I needed to consider the obligation I had to myself and my own happiness.
It has been hard for me to make peace with walking away from a friendship that meant so much to me for over a decade of my life. Was I making the right choice? Or was I being disloyal to someone who had been there for me for so long? Occasionally, I pull up her number and consider calling to check in, but then I look at my life and it becomes clear, this friendship served its purpose. I am grateful for that, but it is time to let it go.