How to Accept the End of a Friendship (Maybe)
A line from a novel helped settle my unease about once-close connections that have gone cold
Once upon a time, we were deeply ingrained in each other’s lives. We met up for dinners or movies or just to ride the rhythm of our good time, toasting to our own riff on “nature’s masterpiece,” as Emerson described friendship. We walked and wrote and called and felt like we were getting closer and closer. We went on road trips, chose conversation over sleep, got each other out of jams. We told each other “I love you,” and we meant it. We absorbed each other’s sadnesses and made them more bearable. We were there at pivotal moments. We coded one another into our senses of self, more confident and supported and energized because of the bond we’d formed. We knew in our bones we’d always be friends.
When you no longer live in the same place, some erosion is probably inevitable even in “lifelong” friendships. In the early years of that new distance, we prioritized visits but later on, it sometimes became harder or less convenient on both ends and if we happened to pass through each other’s city, it would always be “great to see you,” even alongside a reality that we were far less present in each other’s lives than before.
It some cases, it was a transition out of “real-time.” Daily or weekly texts became monthly, monthly “catch-ups” became yearly. More emotional space got claimed by relationships, by new friends. By a demanding job, by graduate school. Time passed, making us a little less familiar to each other. Still, and crucially, a FaceTime or postcard or visit or spontaneous 2-person book club would light the torch once again, and we’d come roaring back, heartened that “it” was still there, that we still delighted in each other. Even if they’re more intermittent now or have changed in some way, I treasure the friendships that have endured.
But there are some “lifelong” ones that I’ve felt unexpectedly deserted by. I don’t mean to sound callow. I know connections can be highly context-bound and once-strong ties fade and people grow apart and get insanely busy and any number of obstacles can arise in a moment, but it hurts when that happens with people you thought would transcend that. When you get to a certain point with someone, you expect to stay somewhere in their orbit, even with all the challenges of distance and time and change. You know that some years you’ll feel less close than others, but some core of the friendship will still be there. You trust.
I’ve been in the process of realizing that a few people I thought of as “good friends” are no longer that. Maybe you know the feeling: the surprising, creeping sense that you’re just not that important to someone anymore. Maybe they’ve made some kind of calculation to invest less in you or maybe it’s something that incrementally happened over many years and it’s hitting you now. A slow process of attrition summed up when they’re absent in a big moment. But it’s not just that—you notice you do almost all of the initiating. It takes a long time for them to text you back. Maybe you don’t hear from them at all anymore.
In one or two cases, I was having a hard time accepting that. Unsettled and confused, I sunk into a low-grade mourning even though nothing explicit had happened. Maybe the friendship wasn’t totally over but it was radically diminished. Or — I don’t know. I can just tell you it was like picking up a cherished memento off a shelf and feeling it crumble as soon as I held it.
One thing that’s helped is a line from Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth, a novel about residents of Kamchatka, at the eastern edge of Russia. In one chapter, a character learns through someone else that an old friend she never hears from anymore will be in town. I was struck by how she described their connection.
“Not anymore — but maybe again.”
It turns out that they both attend the same party, and when they become entangled in an intense situation, they end up supporting each other. The connection does come back, was still there in some form, even if had been dormant and neglected. The line from the book gave me a more hopeful but realistic framework for viewing some of these friendships rather than considering them permanently failed or expired or shriveled or over or dead. In facing the reality that that the friendship simply isn’t active or present right now (“Not anymore”), it opened the door to the second part (“but maybe again”).
Still, the “maybe” goes both ways. If they reach out again, I’ll have to see how I feel. Maybe I’ll decide I was too let down. Or maybe there was something going on in their life that I didn’t know about and I’ll be swayed by that. Maybe I’ll have gained more distance from it, will take it less personally. Maybe I did something to put them off that I didn’t realize. Maybe they’ll forgive me. Maybe I’ll forgive them. Maybe this already is the end.
Oftentimes, being able to give language to what’s happening makes it easier to bear and process and catalogue in your mind. The more charitable labeling acknowledges a certain fragility—that no relationship is a fixed thing but rather something always-changing, reactive to different pressures and circumstances and variables. Even though Not anymore — but maybe again allows for the possibility of a return, it’s given me some closure, too.