Weaving the Fabric of Our Friendships

Guest blog by Joy Carol
Author of The Fabric of Friendship: Celebrating the Joys, Mending the Tears in Women's Relationships

Have you ever lost a friend and didn't have a clue what happened? Have you and a friend had a disagreement that got blown out of proportion and suddenly you no longer talked to each other? Have you been shocked when a friend stopped communicating with you? At some time, most of us will experience a complication or miscommunication with a friend that may leave a scar on our hearts.

Alice and Ginger were inseparable best friends as they grew up. But when they were in their 40s, they had a conflict that tore their friendship apart. "Ginger and I were very close; we shared secrets and problems," explained Alice. "Not a week went by that we didn't talk. Then Ginger started acting strange. When I sent her e-mails, she didn't answer. If I called and asked to have lunch, she said she was busy and would get back to me. But she didn't.

"One day in the supermarket, I saw Ginger: 'I'm confused about what's going on. Is something wrong?' She just shrugged her shoulders and walked away. Over the next weeks, she ignored me. I finally reached her on the phone and was told we were no longer friends that she didn't want me around. I had no idea what had happened. Eventually I gave up on our friendship, but it was devastating. It left an enormous hole in my life." 

Undoubtedly this kind of break is very painful, especially if one friend decides to end the relationship without providing an opportunity to discuss what happened, what was misunderstood, or what could be changed. Losing a friendship can be as upsetting as experiencing the death of someone close to us. Yet, we rarely speak about it, nor do we feel comfortable discussing how we might deal with such losses. 

Sometimes when a friendship ends, we feel guilty, as if we did something wrong. We may pretend that the break never occurred. If someone notices and asks us what happened, we nervously answer, "we had a disagreement." And, like Alice, we try to change the subject. 

In contrast, when a relationship with a spouse or a lover ends, it's expected that we talk about it and cry about our pain. We're allowed to complain openly about the problems of infidelity, financial troubles, alcohol or drug abuse, and any other difficulties that caused the relationship to end. If we turn on our radio to a popular station, we hear songs about sweethearts getting away, about broken hearts scattered on the road of love. But such is not the case with friendship. Why is it so different? 

In strong friendships, we feel accepted, supported, and loved. These relationships are enjoyable and beneficial. Often, however, the experience of friendships can be confusing and complicated. They can be encouraging or debilitating, trusting or disloyal, joyful or painful. It's baffling that some friendships have the power to sustain people even more than their families do, while others can devastate and destroy.

When friendships shatter, there are other dimensions to consider. Possibly we feel grateful, even flattered, when people choose us as friends. So when a non-obligatory, non-family relationship ends, we may feel like a failure. Perhaps we believed friendships were less complicated and more stable than family or love-related relationships. Consequently, if we reveal that our friendships have ended, we are admitting that we drove our friends away because they saw our defects. Thus, talking about an "ex-friend" causes us to feel vulnerable and inferior.

Usually friendships develop because of shared interests or common values. We choose friends because they appeal to us or they represent the person who we long to be. So when we find someone we think will be our "special friend," it's an exciting and stimulating time. We hope the relationship won't be burdened with problems, and it's only natural that we expect our friend to be supportive, reassuring, and dependable. Consequently we endow friendships with a naïve and unrealistic trust that friends will be available to us as long as we need them. 

But there is no real basis for thinking friendships should last forever. In reality, there are many reasons why they end. For starters, friendships are just as complicated as family or love relationships. Unspoken feelings and needs, envy, competition, personal ambition, unresolved anger, and lack of boundaries can easily wreak havoc on relationships. Friends do move away emotionally and physically from each other into realms of life that might not be familiar or comfortable for both people. Occasionally we discover that our friends are totally different than the people we thought we knew. Sometimes our friends-or we ourselves-find something new and more exciting than what the friendship has to offer and move on. The reasons are myriad.

Without a doubt, the disintegration of a friendship can be painful and sometimes devastating. This loss can leave an empty space in our lives that is difficult to fill. It's unlikely that we'll find another person with the same temperament, personality, even the imperfections, that attracted us and brought about our relationship. 

However, it is possible and beneficial for us to learn how to have healthier relationships, so we won't run the risk of being disappointed, disillusioned, or hurt. Karen, a medical technician in her mid-twenties, explains how this can happen. "Isabel and I met in college and became close buddies; we had so much in common. We laughed and cried our way through boyfriends, exams, graduate work. We were always there supporting each other. We pledged to speak honestly with one another, even when it was difficult.

"At one point, I felt like Isabel wasn't there for me, that she had let me down. But I didn't want to tell her that she had hurt me. I wasn't accustomed to telling women anything negative. Soon I started drifting away from Isabel. I imagined how I would 'punish' her by leaving her. Then I came to my senses. I didn't want to lose her, because she had been a wonderful friend for a long time. How could I replace her friendship? 

"For a while, I avoided saying anything to Isabel. I was afraid I might say the wrong thing and make matters worse. Finally I realized how important it was for us to talk about what had happened and to work things out. So I got the courage to speak with her. I tried not to make her feel defensive, not to accuse her of letting me down, but to tell her that I felt let down. 

"Isabel was more open than I thought she would be. In fact, she was relieved that I opened the door to resolving our problem. This encounter actually strengthened our relationship. Now we're more willing to express concerns and air problems that come up rather than let them simmer under the pretense that all is well. I'm confident that in the future we will share openly our feelings and needs. Certainly my unwillingness to say what I felt almost caused our friendship to fail. I doubt we will ever be in danger of that happening again."

As Karen and Isabel's story points out, developing reliable, workable relationships requires a great deal of effort, courage to be honest, patience, and compassion-for our friends and ourselves. If we add doses of maturity and wisdom to the mix, we will be on our way to more satisfying friendships.

To enrich or improve the quality of our relationships, it's helpful if we recognize and understand what makes friendships more wholesome. Although there are many components that make up an authentic relationship, these three are especially important: 
1. Know and accept ourselves for the people we are
2. Be realistic about what "friendships" are
3. Learn to communicate our needs and feelings in healthy ways

1. Know and accept ourselves for the people we are

To have solid friendships, we first start by becoming familiar and comfortable with ourselves. Self-awareness and self-esteem are key ingredients in all relationships. If we know who we are, either we are satisfied with our own resources and talents, or we can try to improve and enhance them. When we have positive feelings about ourselves, we won't frantically cling to relationships for our self-worth. 

Another valuable benefit of self-acceptance is that we are less sensitive and defensive about criticism, disapproval, negative comments, or rejection. Small problems roll more easily off our backs, and we aren't as emotionally concerned about how we are perceived. We can recognize if harsh comments aimed at us are deserved or if they are misdirected or projected from someone's negative feelings about themselves. 

When we feel comfortable with ourselves, we can laugh at some of our silly reactions and less-than-wise endeavors. An "armor" of humor can protect us from a lot of anguish and grief while giving joy to others. 

2. Be realistic about what "friendships" are

Like life itself, friendships and friends are not perfect nor are they consistent; they have both good and bad qualities. When we know and accept ourselves, we are able to let go of unreasonable assumptions about what friendships should be, and we can appreciate friends for who they are with their strengths and weaknesses. Often what we want to believe is a "friend" really isn't, and it's difficult to determine whether someone is a real friend. True friends are there through good and bad times; they accept us when we aren't our best; they easily handle changes in our relationship; and they are open to talking over things that go awry. Some "friends" are women we've grown accustomed to having around, even though they might not be very caring or supportive. Others are essentially givers of pain and negative energy, but we still think of them as "friends." We need to examine this last category and decide whether to move on. 

Another unrealistic expectation is that our "best friend" can be all things for us. But that's not possible, nor healthy. No one friend, sister, spouse, or parent can be everything for anyone. Often women are disappointed and sometimes dumped, because a "best friend" couldn't meet their needs. Having a variety of friends will keep us more balanced and help us meet our diverse needs. As in every aspect of life, it's better not to put all our eggs in one basket. After all, most friendships do end at some time. Friends move, die, become ill, or get involved in all-consuming activities or relationships that don't allow time for us. So cultivating new friends is a good strategy.

By evaluating and recognizing friendships for what they are, we will find that some relationships are worth putting energy into and others are not worth pursuing. Occasionally no matter what we do, friends exit our lives without our ever knowing why. Such ex-friends may not be brave or mature enough to explain their reasons. Rather than stewing about that or endlessly struggling to reclaim the friendship, it's better to cut our losses and move on. With a more realistic perspective about friendship, we can approach relationships in a wholesome manner and enjoy them for what they truly are.

3. Learn to communicate our needs and feelings in healthy ways

Women who have self-worth are more capable of being truthful about their needs and feelings. Many women, out of their desire to be accepted, appear confused about what they want or need. They say what they think others want to hear. If we inform friends who we are and what our limits are, they likely will enjoy and respect the authentic us more than the counterfeit one. Also we can steer clear of being used by stating a firm no rather than a wishy-washy yes. Of course, we too need to respect our friends' limits and needs.

On the other hand, we may miss opportunities for growth, because we are too easily hurt. The potential to learn something about ourselves can be blocked by overreacting to critical comments or being thin-skinned. If we can openly consider our friends' suggestions and criticisms, we may learn something about ourselves. 

Although airing problems may seem risky, it's better than heading down the road of failed friendships. Talking about difficulties in non-accusatory tones and clarifying misunderstandings without inflicting guilt are healthy ways to resolve complications. Relationships become more workable when we use straightforward words that communicate what we mean rather than "beating around the bush." Friends appreciate not having to guess what we're saying. However, whenever we speak frankly, kindness should be practiced. Brutal honesty is cruel and damaging-and unnecessary. 

Finally, as singer Janis Joplin said, "Don't compromise yourself. You're all you've got." If we know and accept ourselves, are realistic about what "friendships" are, and clearly communicate our needs and feelings, we will have stronger, more wholesome friendships.