Coach Elizabeth Brink
When Friendships Change (or need to)
A lot of us have had our hearts broken by friends more than once. Many of us were left confused over how things ended or what we did wrong. In adult
hood, making friends is more challenging with busy lives and less energy for the initial building stage. All of this can make for seasons of aching loneliness.
It's easy to just write off losing friends as 'part of being human,' and it is that, but maintaining friendships is something we can develop skills in if it's important to us.
There's this saying about friendships: some are for a season, some are for a reason, and some are for lifetime. And yet, when a friend you very much want in your life walks away or one that you struggle to feel cared for by seems to cling year after year, this saying feels hard to hear. It can be a helpful reminder in the
midst of seasons of change in relationships that it's possible yours was not a lifetime one and that doesn't mean it didn't matter while it lasted.
I spent a lot of my early years in life chasing after lifetime friendships and shape shifting to acquire friends who would choose me first for anything forever. I also could not stand to be around the same people for more than a few weekends in a row, so this deep longing to be known and picked was also something I was, on some level, intentionally keeping out of reach.
The fear of not being someone's Person led me to hop around and embrace the Social Butterfly label. It w
as one of my longest worn and heaviest masks.
My Person came into my life in sixth grade when I very publicly verbally assaulted her for telling a boy I liked him. The following year I asked to carpool to a party and thankfully she said yes and her mom liked me. Kristen and I have been friends for 32 years.
We remain an unlikely pairing, but we've done the work through many changing seasons of life. I also believe there is a little magic involved, so I won't claim it's all because of our efforts.
When Kristen went away to college, I sent her a breakup email. I was sure that my life choices and impulsive decisions to live a little recklessly would be too offensive for her to want to be associated with me. We were young and in Texas, so I believed reckless living was reserved for kids with tattoos and grown ups who were hiding things. Her reply was very simple and to the point -- something like, "Are you trying to break up with me, or something? It's not happening."
Years later when she became engulfed in new motherhood, I felt sad and unneeded. I wrote something about us 'drifting apart' in a Christmas card (how dramatic of me), and years later she told me how pained she was to read that. She wasn't able to engage in the same way (because, baby! postpartum! ahhh!) and my trauma response led me to interpret it as abandonment. In turn, I hurt her because she was in such a deep state of overwhelm and I couldn't see her in that.
If she'd never told me how she felt it might not have made a difference in our current friendship, but the fact that she did tell me made a huge impact on my ability to love her and others better.
Kristen and I have chosen to love one another. We've made some kind of unspoken vow to be each other's bestie forever. We've been challenged throughout the years, but we've also gained a lot of experience working through together. I can't fully know what the future holds for our friendship, but I know that both of us are committed to doing what we can to preserve it.
Our drive to stay together as friends brings an incredible amount of safety to my anxiously attached system. I am able to make mistakes without the fear of being left. I have not experienced that in many relationships in my life, but I do think it's a big part of longevity for me.
I have many other friendships that never took off or operate at a more surface level, and I now see this as a beautiful tapestry, a necessary support kaleidoscope.
The friends for a reason or a season are still very REAL friends. They can add to our lives in meaningful ways, even if only for a moment. After many years of living in a coastal transient city, I learned that saying goodbye would always be painful but not enough to keep me from building connection the next time.
The truth is we need people. We need them in all shapes and stages of life. AND THEY NEED US.
When I feel unsatisfied by a friendship, I ask myself what's happening for me rather than thinking about the other person first. Often my reflection is that I just want those lifetime people - I am always longing for those secret sauce people who make transitions in relationships feel less scary and mysterious. It can make me less open to who is in my life right now.
The good news is these are skills you can practice and access in the bumpy parts of friendship. Here are a few things I believe help friendships move through transitions.
Open and honest communication: Speaking up when you feel hurt or unseen and giving the other person the benefit of the doubt and an opportunity to clarify or repair. This can feel really vulnerable and scary, but without it your relationship can begin to take on an imaginary life of its own in your mind. And as we discussed in group on Monday, that will often land on you assuming something is wrong with you.
Extending patience and grace to the other person: When we're examining tough spots in a friendship, it's important to include a look at things with their experience of you at the center. This may feel intensely vulnerable, but for the friendships you want to hold on to, or you think you do, this is part of doing the work. When we try to understand the other person's experience we sometimes find more information on what they need and how we are contributing to the challenges, too. We can ask ourselves, "Is this the time and place to say they really hurt me or can I can I hold that for just a minute and let this cool down?" Am I safe to wonder how they are experiencing me? When Kristen told me that my letter hurt her feelings I had what would be classically thought of as an RSD (rejection sensitive dysphoria) episode or a trauma-response trigger. It triggered immense shame and immediate flooding of my nervous system with fear of her leaving me. My thoughts swirled with things like, "she's mad at you for writing that letter. And she hasn't told you for months. This is bad. She's done with you. Grieve now." But that's not what it was. It was Kristen waiting until she could handle a conversation and saying to me what it was like for that year and why my words pained her.
Be willing to apologize and ask for apologies: In the world of attachment theory, we know that engaging in repair is the most important part of connection. Learning how to apologize in a way that really centers the other person is a critical skill for any relationship and at the heart of anti-oppression work. It takes practice. Most of us were not raised by people who were good at apologizing, but we can still learn. Perhaps that's a topic for another time...
Seek wise counsel: When it's just too much to sort through on your own, be sure the people you turn to are trustworthy and aligned with your personal values. We can be easily swayed by the opinions of others, so it's important that we protect our sensitive nervous systems when we're trying to sort through a tough spot in a friendship.
Remember that all relationships have periods of discomfort: We should expect transitions in friendships, especially when your people are growing and changing. If you're in therapy or a growth-focused community, like The Enclave, you are likely growing and unlearning and learning, and that means your relationships WILL experience changes. It is normal to hit rough patches, and sometimes we don't know if it's a patch until we're on the other side of it. We can get better at zooming out our perspective to remember that relationships take work. Sometimes there is mystery we can't force into the light.
One of the hardest parts of friendship, I think, is that there's no contract, no official commitment that makes it hard to just drop it. There is so much gray -- is this a transition or is this the end? That can feel deeply unsettling.
Our culture's disregard of community and interdependence impacts all of us, even down to the one-to-one friendships. We're more likely to see these bonds as optional and interchangeable rather than essential structures of support we must have to get by in life. We need greater capacity and deepened skills for loving our friends and being loved by them in the midst of seasons of change.
There are no perfect guidelines for relationships. Transitions in friendship are normal and sometimes have positive outcomes, other times painful ones. You don’t really know which it is until that time comes, which is why it’s challenging to commit.