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How Do You Know When It’s Time to Say Goodbye to a Friendship?

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By Dani Fleischer

It’s not uncommon for a fight between 5 year-olds to end with someone shouting: “You’re not my friend anymore!” There’s an honesty there that I can respect, a directness that’s refreshing: Let there be no confusion — this is where we stand.

Adulthood, however, is something a lot less clear.

I have a friend who I’ve known for almost 20 years. We’ve seen each other through a lot: cheating boyfriends, health problems, depression, divorce. We once went five years without contact because I was lost and selfish and couldn’t bear to have anyone in my life who believed in me. In that time she got married and I wasn’t there, and for that she has forgiven me. Which is all to say, our friendship is the durable kind.

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But over the past few years, there’s been a subtle shift that’s been hard for me to admit, still harder to explain. We still love each other. We still want only good things for each other. But separated by thousands of miles and very different lifestyles, there’s a distance between us that is beginning to feel insurmountable. And I’m left wondering: What do you do when you can feel a friendship fading?

I can’t deny that there’s some judgement and jealousy at play here as well. She works in finance, whereas I am a starving writer. She drives a 6-speed BMW while I drive to work in a 2003 Honda Civic that makes a weird whistling sound on cold mornings. I know it’s beyond arrogant to deem myself the arbiter of what’s meaningful for someone else, but I do judge her a little for what she’s chosen to do with her life. And I have no doubt that she has an opinion or two about decisions I’ve made that have left me at times unable to support myself.

The fact is that while I was off repeatedly losing my way and taking self-destructive detours, she was working hard and re-writing her resume and getting promoted. I’ve always admired her for that ambition, and the truth is that I’ve always envied her for it as well.

Over our past few visits, even though we laughed a lot and had more than a few moments when it really did feel like it once did between us, there was also this nagging feeling that we were playing a game of pretend. That we were just trying to convince ourselves nothing had changed.

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I couldn’t articulate what was wrong; I can still barely find the words. Only that we are both so far from who we used to be — that the years have changed us into other people, and these other people don’t know each other very well.

Over the past six months, I felt let down by my friend on several occasions, but I said nothing. The particulars seem irrelevant now, especially when I think about all the times over the years that she must have felt I let her down. Most recently, I got angry that she’d canceled on our plans to get lunch while she was in town, though the truth that I wouldn’t admit to myself at the time was that it wasn’t really about that. My anger had nothing to do with unreturned texts or canceled plans, or any of the particulars of our friendship. It wasn’t about all the hurt that’s been passed back and forth between us, the things that are bound to accumulate in any long-term relationship. I was angry because of all the ways that life changes and all the distance that those changes can create between people. Because fear and time and accumulated wounds add up to something unaccountable and incontrollable.

So I had a temper tantrum. I was recovering from oral surgery and probably not thinking clearly, and I began lamenting about how it’s only fair that those years of friendship add up to something — that all that time spent caring about each other should guarantee something permanent and comforting. And I couldn’t stand the uncertainty of it all — I felt like I needed to do something definitive and tangible that would, one way or another, move the story along. I needed to hand my discomfort to someone else.

So I sent her a text message, demanding to know why she hadn’t returned my last message (even though it’s not unusual for either one of us to have delayed responses). We swapped a few angry texts and then the next day it was as if I came out of a trance, and I realized that this was not the way to handle this. I told her that I’d call her once I finished recovering from surgery and felt like myself again.

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Last week I reached out to her and we scheduled a phone call, but then something came up and she couldn’t talk. That’s when it hit me — we’ve both already moved on from this friendship. I was hoping our phone call might provide me with a different answer, but I can’t avoid it anymore.

And moving on doesn’t mean I’ll ever stop loving her or wanting good things for her, nor does it mean that we’ll never speak again. It just means that we’ve both learned how to function without the support of this friendship, and that nothing feels particularly missing without it.

What I couldn’t accept the day I sent that angry text is that sometimes, there’s no way to fix a relationship except let it turn into whatever it’s supposed to be. And that waiting — that vague, amorphous state of not knowing — can feel unbearable. What I was really angry about was that there was no one to blame for whatever was happening to our friendship. No one was at fault. And having a target is always easier than facing a long horizon across a vast field as you wonder what’s going to happen next.

And yet that’s exactly what it means to be an adult–it means accepting change without burning the thing that has changed to the ground. It means moving forward without trying to minimize what’s being left behind.

It means looking out at that horizon and bearing witness to the loss of a friendship without denying everything that was once beautiful about it.

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