Since then we’ve been treading lightly. Our relationship is one I want to preserve, though apparently that will require me to stifle myself, Edith Bunker style. I think she feels the same way. For now.
Defriended by Default
Another reason friendships end is that as people grow and change, one friend wants to redefine the relationship, and the other doesn’t. That’s what happened to Genevieve Schmitt, a Livingston, Montana–based publisher of an online motorcycle magazine for women. “Last year I had a falling-out with my best friend of 15 years,” Schmitt says. “I’m no longer the freewheeling, go-with-the-wind, live-on-the-edge person I used to be—and Betsy is. She wants to run around like we did in our thirties, looking for a husband in all the wrong places, while I got married last year at 44. I’ve grown up, moved on, apparently in a different direction from her. But I’m sad, because we have so much history together. I’m still reeling from this. It’s like breaking up with a boyfriend.”
Just as getting married can violate the unspoken contract between two friends, so can becoming unmarried. After her husband of more than three decades died three years ago, Ruth Fitzgibbons, a public relations executive in Dallas, realized that all her good friends were couples. “I still see them regularly, but I’m often odd man out at gatherings,” she says. “Finding friends who are single is really quite a challenge when you’re in your fifties.”
For one Manhattan lawyer, various threads of her life’s fabric unraveled at the same time: “My husband left, my son graduated from college and moved cross-country, my daughter started college, and my law firm’s future became precarious,” she says. “My friends carried a heavy load for me during this phase. Most of them were extremely kind and sensitive. But not this one woman. She and her husband didn’t choose my ex over me, as some friends did; they just dropped both of us. I made an effort to reach out to this woman and was rebuffed, which left a big hole in my life and made me realize our friendship had been pretty flimsy.”
Redefining your professional identity can have the same effect. “After I left my longtime job, I had a period of uncertainty, which one of my friends seemed to feel threatened by,” reports Janet Chan of New York City, a magazine editor turned editorial consultant. “Over the years she had always been the one who could depend on me, and my suddenly being needy made her uncomfortable. She made me feel guilty that I wasn’t, as she put it, ‘the same Janet.’ Finally I realized that staying friends with her just wasn’t worth the effort.”
The kind of winnowing experience that Chan and the Manhattan lawyer went through exposes something about friendship that we’d rather not think about: that many close bonds are marriages of convenience based on mutual need rather than deep regard. Women tend to congregate in groups that share circumstances, says Susan Shapiro Barash, author of Toxic Friends: The Antidote for Women Stuck in Complicated Friendships. “We mirror one another in our similar experiences, so if the circumstances change for one friend, that often creates tension,” she says. Maybe you were brought together by being two Alabama belles facing an endless Wisconsin winter. Or you were the only Deadheads in the office. People frequently think they have friends at work—or church or the tennis club or any location where like-minded people gather—when in fact what they have are “work neighbors,” says Barbara Bartocci, a motivational speaker from Kansas City, Kansas. “Once you move out of the ‘neighborhood,’ you’re no longer thought about or included.” Of course, sometimes a relationship that begins by happy chance ripens into a lasting connection. My friend Patty and I started a toddler playgroup when we were both isolated new moms. Our kids stopped hanging out together years ago, but our grown-up dates continue, with us talking about books, politics—well, anything. But for every friend like Patty, there’s a mommy whose name I can barely recall.