Memoir: Where Did Our Friendship Go Wrong?

Chalk it up to bad judgment, a momentary lapse that was punished by total rejection. The story of how a painful rift helped one woman become a better friend

by Jacquelyn Mitchard
jacquelyn mitchard image
The writer at her former home in Wisconsin with her ever-loyal friend Hobbes
Photograph: © James Schnepf

There was still a ritual to go through: the process of dismantling our friendship. A couples vacation had to be canceled; substitutions were made for a seminar in which both of us were to teach; friends had to be alerted lest they invite us to the same dinner party. What I felt replacing my grief was terror. A woman without at least a few come-rain-or-come-shine friends is a woman on an ice floe, drifting. Two years before, in December, one of my scant handful of extraordinary friends, a woman I’d known for more than 20 years, had fallen into a coma when she contracted a rare form of strep. She never awakened. My oldest and once dearest friend was disabled by a chronic illness. This didn’t make her any less beloved, but our contact was often by phone. Our activities were limited. My fourth, and now perhaps closest, friend was much younger, in the throes of making babies. I happened upon an advice columnist named Marla Paul, who after going through an experience similar to mine had written a book called The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making and Keeping Good Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore. “Right away,” she wrote, “I started wondering, gee, who’s going to be there for me? Women rely on our friendships. We need them. I was desperate. It was like, well, there’s no one in the tai chi class. How about the woman who did that bra fitting? She seemed nice. It’s so awkward. You can’t come on too strong, or the person will back away. But you have to put yourself out there. We have to remember that most people do want friends. Most people are delighted to meet for lunch.”

That was the last thing I felt able to do.

Instead, I could think only of the bounty of memories Liz and I shared, the ways in which time had intertwined our families and our other friends. How could all that trust and laughter, touch and comfort and encouragement, be gone in a moment? After the rift, I stopped using the phrases that had been ours. A Thai waiter had once told Liz, “There are three kinds of people. Number-one kind of people? Want to die, can’t.” And that was the message we left for each other when times were hard: feeling like number-one kind of people.

That was how I felt now. Missing her was nearly an ache, proving again to me that most of what we know as emotion is rooted in the physical.

Oddly, it was Liz who unknowingly started me on the path to life without her. A note arrived from an acquaintance: “Saw Elizabeth at the gala, dancing the night away. I asked about you, and she said she hadn’t seen you lately. Where have you been hiding? I talked Elizabeth into joining our running club. What are you doing for fun?”

What was I doing for fun?

Drowning my sorrows in Bugles and onion dip?

I made a big decision. This was a big loss. I decided to visit a therapist.

In our three meetings, she helped me see deeper into my grief, to ask myself why I was having so much trouble adjusting to life without this one person. I did have other dear friends, old and newer, whom I had all but neglected in giving so much of myself, the very best strawberries of my personal life, to Liz. Wisely, however, Liz had made sure to maintain close ties with her other friends: Twice a month, for instance, she drove for two hours to meet another playwright, named Asia, for breakfast.

Did that hurt, the therapist asked? Yes, I said, quickly adding that Liz and I had had our own traditions. Do you think Liz would have gone so far for you, she asked? In fact, I’d quizzed Liz about that very thing, and her answer had been curious: She’d asked me why it mattered so much. And although when I mentioned a new person I’d met, Liz would sometimes say things to me like, “Do I have anything to worry about?” (this touched me deeply), she always meant it as a joke. For me, it was serious. I thought someone more glamorous and secure, someone like Asia, would take Liz away from me. What it boiled down to was that I was only one of the elements that made Liz’s life happy. While the same was true for me, Liz took up a whole lot more real estate in my heart.

First published in the July/August 2012 issue

Share Your Thoughts!


Maricia Johns07.15.2012

Hello, I loved the article and in fact wrote about it on my blog. Take a look.

Marie 07.06.2012

This article really hit home, as I recently ended a 20+ year friendship. But I was on the other side of the fence - I was the one who walked away. My friend had been through tough times, financially, maritally, emotionally, and I'd stood by her. Yet for several years I'd had an increasingly uneasy feeling when I saw or talked to her. The worse things became in her life, the more she put down others, and the more she insisted she 'deserved' things like a trip to Italy and a luxury car, when she hadn't even been able to pay her property taxes in a year. She took that trip and bought numerous items she could not afford, then cried to me that she didn't have the money to take her cat to the vet or to fix her washing machine. Annoying, but we'd been through so much, I didn't speak up. Then she did the unforgiveable - in an email. Her son had gone on a campus visit to the college my son attends. Her email explained, in most insulting terms, that the school was just not good enough for her child. (I think the exact words were "He saw so many kids who could have been cast on Jersey Shore. Now he knows why Snooki spoke there.") That was the last straw. I never replied to her email, and I never called her again. I don't wish her any ill will, I just don't need someone like that in my life any longer. It took a few months for her to realize she was no longer a part of my life. She invited me to her son's graduation party (I declined) and called a month later to ask a favor (I declined). I never gave an explanation - I didn't feel obligated to do so. She had violated our friendship so thoroughly, there was no turning back. So I hope that my friend learned the same lesson as Ms. Mitchard. To keep a friend you need to be a true fried.

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