other third thing

I read an article titled “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart” on the recommendation of a friend. It hit on so many things I think too much about. As I read it, I found myself sending it off to more friends, including some who might be in a state of slow fading out of my life.

Over the years, I’ve become fairly explicit with friends. I want the folks I love most to not only know it deeply, but also never doubt it. I will never understand why we preserve certain ways of checking in, resolving conflict, and re-learning each other for romantic relationships. The article spoke about friends going to therapy to work on their friendship and I couldn’t love it more.

Reading All About Love by bell hooks years ago after a breakup really solidified some of the ways I’ve always approached friendships, which might in and of itself partially come from being gay (that’s probably for another post). One aspect in particular has always stuck with me around how love is a muscle, whether we’re using it to love a partner, a friend, a child, a stranger, etc. It’s all one muscle and how we love a partner impacts how we love a friend (and vice versa). If we both pay attention to the love all around and learn to recognize the connections, we can learn to show up for the love in our lives even more and better.

In high school, I had a therapist who drew four circles each within the other. She wrote acquaintances on the outside, friends in the next, close friends in the next, and family in the smallest circle. For some reason, amidst everything else, that mental image stuck with me. Family is complex and feels very… unstable to me. The article touches on this sharing similar ideas around how friends won’t really be there to care for you when you need it. Having somewhat recently created a care web of sorts in the form of a living plan solely made up of friends, I want to push back against that narrative.

The author herself seems at a loss about what to do, which makes the article all the more enjoyable and interesting to read. I can’t pretend I do know but I am trying. It takes a few forms — forcing myself to call people, writing postcards, sending audio messages, putting important dates in my phone (and reaching out when the date comes), having intentional check-ins no matter how long I’ve been friends with someone, etc. My newest, intense twist is to literally physically show up where someone is for an extended period of time. I started doing this a bit accidentally and now I see it as being a big way I want to nomad going forward.

These actions though don’t really mean much without a wider context and, to get to the point, I truly believe we must learn to re-learn each other as part of friendship and plan for the decades like you would a partner. When a friend feels wholly unrecognizable, see it as a call to connect rather than a reason to divide. It can be exciting, like you have a whole new set of things to talk about! In line with this, talk to friends about friendship. Ask questions like “how can I best show up for you in this time of your life?” even if the answer is to lower expectations around being in touch. For some touch and go friends, this has worked so well to get on the same page around and to have lasting relationships.

During the depths of COVID, I realized I was coming up on 10 years since I started college and met some of my close friends. 10 years! A damn decade. I was luckily enough to see them all during a lull in COVID and celebrated it with them, drinks on me style. “Can you believe it’s been a DECADE? How cool! I can’t wait for more.” Call me sentimental (I am) but I know this matters and I am beyond excited to see two get married later this year. Don’t wait for the decades though — celebrate, say thank you, ask questions, check in, have tough conversations, make it through.

A random selection of just a small sampling of those I’m lucky to do life with and precious moments of the last year connecting, relearning, thanking, and celebrating:

In any case, some favorite and very random quotes mainly for my future self since the article is behind a damn paywall:

The unhappy truth of the matter is that it is normal for friendships to fade, even under the best of circumstances. The real aberration is keeping them. In 2009, the Dutch sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst published an attention-grabber of a study that basically showed we replace half of our social network over the course of seven years, a reality we both do and don’t intuit.

Were friendships always so fragile? I suspect not. But we now live in an era of radical individual freedoms. All of us may begin at the same starting line as young adults, but as soon as the gun goes off, we’re all running in different directions; there’s little synchrony to our lives. We have kids at different rates (or not at all); we pair off at different rates (or not at all); we move for love, for work, for opportunity and adventure and more affordable real estate and healthier lifestyles and better weather.

We are recruiting them into the roles of people who once simply coexisted with us—parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, fellow parishioners, fellow union members, fellow Rotarians. 

There comes a point when you have to wake up in the morning and decide that it doesn’t matter how you got to whatever sorry cul-de-sac you’re circling; you just have to find a way out.

What both of these traits have in common is that I seem to live my life as if I’m under siege. I’m guessing my amygdala is the size of a cantaloupe.

You feel bereft, for one thing. As if someone has wandered off with a piece of your history.

The percentage of Americans who say they don’t have a single close friend has quadrupled since 1990, according to the Survey Center on American Life.

According to Hojjat, failures of reciprocity are a huge theme in broken friendships. That stands to reason—asymmetries of time and effort can continue for only so long before you feel like you’ve lost your dignity. Talking with her was like playing strip poker with someone in a down parka.

Unfortunately, what the research says about these friends is depressing: It turns out that time in their company can be worse than time spent with people we actively dislike. 

Practically everyone who studies friendship says this in some form or another: What makes friendship so fragile is also exactly what makes it so special. You have to continually opt in. That you choose it is what gives it its value.

“The pandemic has taught us the importance of mass mutual reliance,” Perel said. “Interdependence has to conquer the lonely, individualistic nature of Americans.”

It’s a painfully familiar dynamic in a friendship: One friend says, Get a grip already. And the other one says, I’m trying. Can’t you see I’m trying? Neither party relishes her role.

If our friends become our substitute families, they pay for the failures of our families of origin. Elisa’s was such a mess—a brother long dead, parents long divorced—that her unconscious efforts to re-create it were always going to be fraught. 

The problem is that when it comes to friendship, we are ritual-deficient, nearly devoid of rites that force us together. Friendship anniversaries. Regular road trips. Sunday-night phone calls, annual gatherings at the same rental house, whatever it takes.

You can go months or even years without speaking to a dear old friend and feel fine about it, blundering along, living your life. But discover that this same friend is dead, and it’s devastating, even though your day-to-day life hasn’t changed one iota. 

Of course, as Elisa points out (with a hat-tip to Audre Lorde), all deep friendships generate something outside of themselves, some special and totally other third thing. Whether that thing can be sustained over time becomes the question.


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