I am a big fan of your column. I am writing to ask you for your advice about a best friendship I have — or had, rather. We are 30-year-old women and when we met in middle school we became instant friends. Though we went to separate high schools and universities, we lived close enough that we hung out all through the years at least twice a month, often sleeping over at each others’ homes. It was a very wonderful friendship with many good memories. But there was a lot of heartache as well. This friend and I were so close quite possibly because we had very similar upbringings in life, both raised by immigrant single mothers whose husbands had walked out on the families. We both grew up in emotionally, physically and verbally abusive homes. We witnessed it between our parents and then at the mercy of our older sisters (yelling, screaming and hitting was the norm when fighting … as was stonewalling and not talking to the person you were fighting with). In short, we were both very much outgoing and shared the same sense of humour, but also the same issues: fear of abandonment, inability to communicate fear or anger, hostility, passive aggression, etc.
For the duration of our friendship, I had two serious relationships with men, one while in high school and the other in university. Both times having a boyfriend triggered our destructive tendencies; reacting to her fear of losing me, she would preemptively ignore me, which would cause me to act as if I didn’t care until we passive-aggressively called it quits on our friendship, for a while. Or she would pick a fight with me, verbally abuse me and yell at me, to which I would blow up and then we wouldn’t talk.
Two years ago I moved out of the country. I met a man the year before that, who comes from a wholly different upbringing than what I was used to growing up (affectionate, respectful, kind … where people actually worked out their differences by talking to each other civilly) and we fell in love. When his job promoted him, he proposed and we got engaged and I left with him. The day before I left, I had lunch with my best friend, though our friendship had been on the rocks for the preceding months, due to this third relationship in my life. My best friend variously cried and yelled at me, told me that I had let her down and disappointed her for opting to move away and for “not being there enough” for her in recent months, despite my attempts at reconciling with her before I left. A few months before that she and I were not on speaking terms because of another fight, and yet it was her birthday and I wanted to do something nice for her, so I mailed her a makeup compact as a gift that I knew she had wanted, with a card. At that lunch, I asked her why she felt like I didn’t do enough for her, and what about that present that I mailed to her despite our fight and not speaking to each other — wasn’t that proof that I cared for her? She replied to say that she was so angry at me for not doing more that when she received the gift, she had taken the makeup compact and smashed it against the wall and ripped up my birthday card.
The part of me that was trying to change to make my relationship with my new partner work was distraught at the fact that she would do that and then tell me so as to hurt me. Yet the old me (the fearful little girl who cowered in front of her mother’s tirades or her sister’s domineering ways) was satisfied and almost relieved, like “Ahha! She really does love me.” I know, not healthy. (I had many demons to address, as several fights with my partner made me realize. I had started going to therapy after a few months of dating him, first at his insistence and gradually more because I realized that the only way him and I could work was if I first worked on myself.)
A year ago my partner and I had our son and since he was born, and even in the months leading up to it, I have thought so much about the way I was raised, what I want to do differently, the type of family my partner and I are creating … this former best friend has not been a part of my life since we left, but we’ll be returning home next year and I’ve often thought about her, especially as we share some mutual friends and as she was such a seminal figure of my adolescence and early adulthood.
I loved her, I still do, almost as a family. It is perhaps because I did not get affection from my own immediate family that she became so important in my life. My question is, what do you think about friendships with abusive people. Are they possible? Or should they be avoided? I want to reach out to her, but I know we are so different now. She is a high-conflict individual, so despite her best intentions to date and eventually marry, she is still single. I feel that we are on different trajectories in life, but I still have a lot of love for her. I just don’t know if reaching out to her is a good idea, though I very much want to. There is a good chance that I will be rebuffed by her (after I had my son, she quietly deleted me from Facebook as a friend). And yet I would not want to live to regret a chance at saving our friendship if there’s a possibility that it can be resuscitated along new terms, especially as we were once such dear friends.
Her views on therapy are not very evolved, i.e. that it’s for crazy people. So I don’t really even know what we would talk about since I’ve become a much more reflective person than I was three or four years ago. I still really miss her and the good times we once shared when I was younger … What do you think Cary, when should we give up on people we love(d)? Thank you kindly.
Please sign me,
Missing My Best Friend
Dear Missing My Best Friend,
I think we love people to the very end. I really do. Maybe we can’t stand to be around them but we still love them. Maybe they hurt us and mess up our lives but we love them. Maybe we walk away shaken and it takes days to get right again but we still love them. It doesn’t go away.
There have been people over the years who have written to me about relationships where they felt like the only thing to do was to cut off all contact, and if that’s what you need to do, if that gives you the peace and security you need, then that’s what you have to do. I don’t hear you saying that, though. I hear you saying you love your friend and it’s hard. She treats you wrong. She doesn’t have a psychological perspective. She doesn’t have the ability to step back and see how she’s behaving and why. She still throws things. But you love her. If you were an addict and seeing her triggered addictive behavior, or if you were genuinely incapacitated after seeing her, then I would say unequivocally you have to cut off all ties with her. But I don’t hear that. I hear a tender but explosive friendship.
Maybe you can say to her, I love you and I’m your friend but I will not accept you treating me like shit. You might say, You can call me any time and talk, but I won’t be your dumping ground and I won’t be disrespected. You might say, I know how much pain you are in, because I feel it too, but it can change; you can get help; you don’t have to go through it alone.
It would be helpful to know more about her attachment to you as it relates to her family position. Did she, for instance, have a kind of on-again, off-again relationship with her father, where he showed up and tantalized her with his presence and then disappeared again? Was there competition between her and her siblings for his love, or competition between them for their mother’s love? You indicate you and she both had abusive older sisters. That says a lot. She may perceive every slight withdrawal or boundary as the precursor to abuse.
Of course, in spending a lot of time trying to figure her out, you may find you’re playing the role of placating the abuser. So be careful. She may take advantage of you. She may also, in a sense, be in love with you. In that regard, it will be helpful for you to ask yourself, What pattern am I repeating?
So what to do? I guess the main thing is to remember two things: you love this person; and this person is dangerous. Kind of like family, you know? You are free to see her but there will be consequences. You are free to not see her and there will be consequences to that as well. So how do you make the determination? Well, think analytically about it, about what settings and situations would be best to see her in, and what settings might be too redolent of family conflicts, and trigger her violent temper. Obviously birthdays are high-intensity situations for her. Maybe if you see her only in low-intensity settings, maybe you can maintain this relationship. Maybe she would visit your therapist with you. Maybe you could both go and talk about your relationship there. People change. Life is long. If you can maintain contact, in a holding pattern, seeing her now and then, maybe it will deepen again when and if she can achieve some emotional security.
It definitely sounds like you have progressed and have had some personal insights and she has not. She may have worse demons. She may not be as emotionally strong. There may have been abuse of a deeper nature that she has not shared, or that she does not have access to. She may have secrets; among her secrets may be that she has not just a history of abuse like you but also a personality disorder that prevents her from integrating her past experiences and growing. It’s hard to know. Your therapist might notice things that you have not seen.
It’s easy to see why you gave her the compact. It was her birthday. You gave it because it was what you could give. But how she perceived it was: Here is how you fit in my priorities right now. Here is what I can give you: This convenient plastic case containing oils and powders. Here, use this brush to make up your face. Now, isn’t that better?
No, it’s not better. She threw it against the wall. This gift that you could buy at any department store, she threw it against the wall to break it, because she doesn’t want what it says to be true.
But what it says is true. You still love her but you can’t give her what she wants, which is your total being. You do not have that kind of love to give.