The Art of Unfriending

Posted on November 5th, 2012 by in Conscious Living

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.

 

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  • Friendless

    It was ironic to stumble across your post, which made it to the top of my Feedly RSS Reeder today. I have also been struggling with this same issue recently. I have a group of 4 friends who have been fairly close for the last 20 years or so. They all actually grew up together and I befriended one of them in college and eventually became a part of the group. Over the years our interests have changed quite a bit. They have families and are into hunting, fishing, and partying. We have no kids and I am now into triathlons, being eating healthy(I only eat whole and plant-based foods) and traveling. They take no interest in what I do and do not support me in any way. Everytime we get together anymore I question why I am clinging onto this relationship, but I really don’t have any other real friends except my wife. I am also a only child, so I am pretty used to being on my own but I question whether this is healthy. I know I need to reach out to others with similar interests but haven’t done too much. Any suggestions?

    • KripaluEditor

      Hi Friendless,

      It sounds like you have a good sense of self-awareness. We all go through times where we feel connected and times when we experience solitude. Being with others who truly support your interests sounds wise. We all need a sense of community and connection. Engaging in group activities that resonate with your interests might inspire new friendships!

      Wishing you the best,
      Kim from Kripalu

  • http://jszflanagan.wordpress.com/ Jennifer Szescula Flanagan

    This seems to be a constant issue for me (also an only child) who constantly hangs on to friends though it seems more of a stuggle sometimes than a blessing. I am also used to being on my own (like Friendless) and I reach out and find acquaintances and others with similar interests yet it seems like I have a select few friends. After feeling weird about it for a few years, I’m over it. I have a full life full of family, friends, interests and otherwise – I’m not sure I could sustain more “deeper” friendships with others. It seemed like when I would go out to pursue more friends I found myself stretched thin and stressed beyond belief. Though I’m sure there are a few more things that aren’t supporting me that I need to cut from my life.

    This line really spoke to me “Staying connected—emotionally, philosophically, physically—with people I had known when I didn’t yet know myself was starting to feel
    unrealistic, unsustainable.” I am still evolving and learning about myself that sometimes the friendships feel like constraints instead of supportive loving relationships and this just summarizes how I am feeling.

  • http://www.facebook.com/kate.blanchard Kate Blanchard

    Interesting, and nicely written. I have this issue, too, of seeking validation, and I’m not even an only child. (And like yours, my husband does not have this problem.) Facebook has certainly complicated things, although also made possible some re-connections with folks I HAD let fade away. Right now I’m focusing on not feeling compelled to pile on a bunch of NEW friends, simply because I could/should. I’m trying to relax and let new friendships either happen or not, and if not, just be present with/for my old friends.

  • Katy Hedrick

    What a well written piece. I have had many of the same issues. Friendships are funny things that take so much out of us, but the return in investment can also be great! I have recently been reading a book called Women I Want to Grow Old With, and the 2 women author’s really lay down some great ideas on how to keep your friends around you and with you for the long haul. So they will be there when we really need them! womeniwanttogrowoldwith.com is where you can take a look at it if anyone is interested. It has helped me a great deal, by seeing things from a different perspective!