What Friends Are For

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Despite what popular sitcoms and rom-coms would have us believe, friends are not resource bases for us to cull from. They are not a bottomless well of empathy and generosity for us to draw on in hard times. And when someone commits to being your friend, there is no clause in the contract that guarantees their undying loyalty and compassion. 

But I learned all this the hard way two months ago.

Two months ago, a 20-year friendship ended. And in the aftermath, I was surprised by the number of people in my life who stepped forward to say how glad they were that I was free of that. They had seen how toxic and controlling it had been, and they were glad I had finally ended it.

But why hadn’t they said anything before?

I realize now it’s because they are real friends with healthy boundaries–who respect my decisions, even if they don’t always agree with them.

The fact is that my ex-friend treated me like a bank account she could draw on indefinitely, without any need to drop an occasional deposit. And I let her.

She texted me every week or two to say her life was falling apart, and she really needed a friend. So I would ship out for the 3-hour round trip to go see her. But when I arrived, it was always the same story: She wanted to go out to a bar I couldn’t afford. And then for three hours, she told me how much she hated her job, her relatives, and the douches who discriminated against her. All sad. All true.

But it had been true for going on two years, and so far as I could see, nothing was changing. I had invited her to writing groups, dance classes, Toastmasters–all sorts of places where she could expand her social circle beyond me and connect with other people of color, other members of the LGBTQ community. Folks who would know what she was going through and who could offer support less likely to frustrate her to the extent I did. I felt tired, worn out, and inadequate, and I had told her so.

But when I started to renegotiate the friendship–acknowledging that she had needs I couldn’t meet and that there were limits to my time and energy–she lashed out. One weekend when I’d let her know ahead of time that I was unavailable, she texted and texted for two days. When I got back to her on Monday, she was incensed. What sort of friend was I? Where I’d just up and abandon her when she needed me? This weekend it wasn’t just some garden-variety awful.

Problem was, I couldn’t tell garden-variety from true emergencies. And I wasn’t confident that she could, either.

Another problem was that I could only do so much for a person willing to do so little.

In the end, I had to cut my losses and walk away from someone I still love very much and who had been important to me for decades. But the breakup taught me something invaluable about my friends and loved ones:

It’s my job to deal with my own shit.

Not theirs.

Yes, good friends will support and listen to and cheer us through tough times. But if they’re healthy, they will only invest as much in us as we invest in ourselves. No one has a duty to sit by our side as we allow ourselves to sink into the muck of self-pity and helplessness. Passivity won’t win us any friends, except the most bitter kind.

Virginia Woolf once wrote that there is no arm to lean on, and I am starting to believe this is true. I find myself growing more mindful about overdepending on anyone for solace–when I should be out there in the world, taking action for my own goals and values.

In my own life, I have depended on my brother too much while doing too little for myself. It’s time to make amends and then head out to fight my own battles.

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