#4: On Keeping a Friendship Alive

Dear Birdie,

I have had the same best friend for over fifteen years. We met during senior year of high school but didn’t become close until we lived on the same hall as sophomores in one of the most run-down dorms on campus. As most college-aged kids do, we both had our fair share of drama and struggle. We were trying to figure out who we were, who we wanted to become. But we were there for each other through all of it. I look back on those years with such fondness.

Now that we’re in our thirties, things have settled down a lot. We both have careers that we enjoy, and she is married and trying to have kids. Even though our lives seem a lot less complicated than when we were in school, I find myself having a really difficult time with our friendship.

When I hear her talk about her husband and their life together, I feel disconnected. Don’t get me wrong – I adore him. He loves her and they both make each other very happy. I just… I am nowhere near a serious relationship right now, and I guess it makes me feel bad. I am afraid of losing my friend because our lives don’t really look the same anymore. What can I do? Are we bound to drift apart? Am I a terrible friend for feeling this way?

Signed,

Missing My Friend


Dear Missing My Friend,

About three and a half years ago, my best friend of more than ten years (I’ll call her Bess) wrote me a three-page email that was essentially a break-up letter. I still go back and read that letter from time to time. I can’t read it without crying, but it is a reminder to me of many things that I needed to learn during that season in my life.

Here’s the deal. I was in love with someone who was separating from his wife, and I did not know how to cope with the relationship. He was my best friend, and I was all twisted up inside over the whole thing. I had allowed this struggle to overtake me, and it nearly swallowed me whole. I developed a pattern of only going to Bess for advice or reassurance about this one huge struggle in my life and not really investing in our relationship in a meaningful way.

Selfishly, I brought all of this to Bess’s proverbial doorstep over and over again, asking her – really, expecting her – to help me make sense of it all. She cared a lot for both of us and truly wanted us both to be happy. She would listen, empathize, and give me thoughtful advice. Bess did this countless times for over a year. And every time, I was not ready to do the hard work of ending my relationship with this man until he was in a healthier place. It became a destructive cycle that I still mourn. Eventually, it led to the ruin of our friendship.

In all of this, my biggest mistake was not considering my friend. I was so consumed with my life and my mess that I couldn’t see Bess at all. I can’t imagine how exhausting and painful all of that was for her, riding the rollercoaster of ups-and-downs I was on. Once I realized what I’d done, it was too late. If I could go back, I would do it all so differently. And I would start by looking at my friend and her needs as much as I looked at myself and my own.

Don’t be a one-way friend like I was. Think about life from your friend’s perspective. Sure, bring your own needs and wants and fears and hopes to the table, but leave room for hers, too.

I think one of the biggest difficulties that plagues relationships between friends in different phases of life is misunderstanding the daily grind and the needs of the other. Just like you don’t know what it’s like to be married and trying to have kids, your friend probably has no idea what it’s like to be single, thirtysomething, and figuring out your career.

I would encourage you to be honest. Tell your friend how you feel… that you feel bad when you look at your life and her life and how seemingly different they are, that you wonder if you will drift apart because your lives seem to be taking different paths. Let her hear you, and then hear her.

When I read back over the break-up email, one obvious truth shining through is that Bess had been hurting for a long time, and I had no idea. I truly did not realize what I was doing in dragging her through my destructive relationship woes. I wish that things hadn’t been so bad for so long, and I feel foolish for not being able to see it.

If you are hurting or worried about your friendship, find the courage that I know lives deep within you and talk with your friend about it. Shine a light on the shadows you’re living in. Give your friend a chance to walk with you and figure it out together.

Around the same time I got this break-up email, another friend of mine reached out to me. She said she felt like I had been distant and selfish and wanted me to know that she was hurting.

That same day, we were able to talk through and resolve the conflict between us. It wasn’t easy, and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t feel like a complete failure in the friend department, but I was so thankful that we had a chance to make things right. Her friendship is still a special part of my life today.

The truth is, Missing My Friend, most friendships don’t end because people are too different; they end because people don’t know how to communicate. This starts with laying your heart bare, sharing your fears and worries and letting your friend speak to those things. It means being willing to not only say difficult things but to hear them as well.

Bess was so hurt that she didn’t have the emotional space to resolve the conflict that had been brewing between us for a long time. And I couldn’t make her talk to me. It has been over three years since I got that email, and we haven’t spoken since. The reason we aren’t friends anymore isn’t because we hurt each other; that’s a natural part of being in a relationship. We aren’t friends anymore because we didn’t know how to talk with each other in a loving way about our hurt and fears. The loss of my friendship with Bess brings a grief that I will carry with me for the rest of my life.

I can tell that you cherish your friend. Fifteen years is a really long time, and it seems like you have carried each other through a lot in your life. You might not have this person in your life forever. I do believe that friendships have a shelf-life, and just because a friendship ends doesn’t mean it was a failure. But it sounds to me that you and your friend have a truly beautiful thing that has brought you both a lot of joy. Lean into that, Missing My Friend. Rest on the strong foundation that you’ve both been building over the past fifteen years and decide together how you want the rest of the house to look.

Yours,

Birdie

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