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The Art of Unfriending

by Alyssa Giacobbe

I’ve always been an exceedingly devoted friend, so much so that, when I was in high school, my father, perhaps in a fit of frustration and almost certainly with unintended cruelty, informed me that my friends would never be there for me the way I insisted on being there for them. I’m guessing, now, that he was only trying to protect me from hurt and disappointment, or perhaps encourage a sense of cynicism (that has since served me well as a journalist, if not as an optimist). But at the time it only made me feel sad. That might be his experience, I thought, but it wasn’t going to be mine. Once I made a friend, I made a friend for life.

At 35, I’ve largely stuck to this philosophy, collecting friends through my various life experiences—college, jobs, yoga classes, travels—and only rarely shedding them. Perhaps this need to connect with and amass people—a mix of confidantes and companions—is a byproduct of being an only child; I seek friends to fill the space siblings otherwise might have. For a few summers in my twenties, though, the habit had me spending the bulk of my weekends at weddings. It was not a cheap hobby.

Around that time, I began to see that I was expending significant time and energy (and more money than I had) preserving these relationships, many of which were, in a way, past their prime. It was nothing personal: It wasn’t them, or me. It was us. I began to question whether shared experiences—if, in some cases, simply being in the same place at the same time—were enough to bind two people together forever, and how hard I should have to work to keep in touch with what had started to seem like everyone I ever knew. Old friendships are important. They can also be old. Staying connected—emotionally, philosophically, physically—with people I had known when I didn’t yet know myself was starting to feel unrealistic, unsustainable. The differences in certain cases were greater than the commonalities.

And yet I struggled with letting these friendships fade away naturally. I had some experience—not much, thankfully—losing friends in dramatic, high school-style flameouts (and often I’d end up going back to those friends years later in a fit of guilt-ridden nostalgia and regret, and, quite possibly, for the satisfaction of knowing that they’d missed me, too). But I had a hard time cutting ties with people with whom the relationship had not gone toxic, just uninspired and routine. Was growing up, growing apart, really reason enough? Or was it lazy and disloyal? Worse, what if I decided to let a friendship fade—and the other person didn’t try to stop me? I wanted to be someone worth fighting for, and I didn’t want to find out I wasn’t.

By the time I met my husband, he’d already edited down his friendships to the most efficient degree: a best friend from high school, two from college, an old boss. At first, I wondered whether this was a deficiency. Did he value friendships? Was he inherently unlovable? Of course he did, and of course he wasn’t. Which is how I came to see what I’d perhaps really been doing all along: holding onto friendships as a sort of validation. The more I had, the more interesting or attractive or worthy—whatever that meant—I must be. Never losing a friend meant never having to examine my own flaws, at least not in any meaningful way. There was always evidence of my lovability.

Except that our flaws don’t limit our friendships; in fact, they make the real ones stronger. Once I realized that I loved my husband because of all the things he did to drive me crazy, I turned that view on my friends. Those I had the best relationships with were those who irritated me, and whom I irritated; those who were selfish, and with whom I was, too; those I could fight with one day and hug the next. Which was how I started to learn to let go. Doing so was sorrowful, in a way. But it was also liberating. Letting go helped me devote more time to the people who were really important, including myself. But I didn’t just stop calling everyone beyond my closest circle: I also gave myself a bit of leeway. Because there was something pure in my attachment to friends, something I had known back when my father first tried to tell me otherwise. I liked people in a way that was different from, say, the way my husband did, in a way that was entirely personal. Some were good at giving advice; some shared a similar sense of humor and desire to laugh. Some I could talk with for hours; some I could be with in silence. All reflected and helped me express a vital part of myself.

Until they didn’t. And those who no longer made my life richer were no less important parts of my history, but they were free to go, and I was secure enough in my enduring friendships to let them. Which, of course, has made room for new friends, too.

My husband and I were married before a small circle of very important people. It was a day entirely free from obligation, one as much about letting go and moving forward as it was about honoring the past. I’m hoping that everyone who was there will be in my life for years to come, but, if they’re not, I like to think that I’ll be okay with that, too.

Alyssa Giacobbe has been writing and editing for magazines since 1998, and is now writer-at-large for Boston magazine and a contributing writer at Hemispheres. She leads local and national magazine writing workshops and seminars for, and regularly consults for custom publishers.

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