Friday, November 9, 2012

Complicated Friendships

I ran into my blogging friend "Calamity Janet" this morning at the gym and, often on the same wavelength, we started talking about friendships and how they can change over the years.

"I've lived in Arizona since 1966 and have friends from Tucson who were once so close -- maybe when we were mothers with young kids or newly divorced -- who now seem like relative strangers," she said. "We've changed and grown -- or not grown -- and now some of us seem to have little in common."

Have you ever had a friend you thought you'd be close to forever -- and now you wonder how and why you were ever close?

Have you had a friend with a quirk that used to be funny -- but now, years later, you've stopped laughing and started getting irritated?

Have you ever had a friend that you sometimes love, sometimes hate?

Have you noticed that, as we age, long-time friends become even more of what they were before -- and sometimes that's very good....and sometimes not so good.

I took a deep breath and called my lone surviving college roommate Ruth the other day to wish her a happy birthday. And when she answered, I was both glad and on edge to hear her voice.

I was glad because, since the untimely deaths of my other three former roommates, I don't take survival lightly. I'm happy to hear she's alive and well.

We roomed together at Northwestern during my junior year and her senior year when we were thrown together in a tiny attic dorm room because we both had bad numbers in the housing lottery. We didn't know each other at all and had asked for specific other roommates -- both of whom also had drawn wretched lottery numbers and were assigned elsewhere. But we quickly adjusted and began to enjoy each other immensely.

I admired her intelligence, her audacity, her triumph over a childhood filled with an acrimonious parental divorce, the impoverished aftermath living in a trailer park, serial stepfathers and a Dad who didn't want to know her now that he had a new family. Having grown up with a different type of family dysfunction, I nevertheless understood well the feeling of being a perpetual outsider and forging ahead through pain and innumerable obstacles.

While we were -- and are -- very different people, I've always felt deep empathy and understanding for where Ruth has been and joy for the wonderful turns and choices in her life that have led her to a place of happiness and contentment.

But I was on edge when I heard her voice on the phone the other day because one aspect of her character has survived these many years: barbed teasing and casual contempt for what she sees as stupid life choices. It seems these days -- when we talk twice a year, on her birthday and mine -- that our conversations end up the same: with me feeling hurt and wondering why we're still friends.

This conversation started well enough.

I asked her how she was doing and her reply was a litany of wonderful things. I was truly delighted to hear that her law practice is going well, that she still found such pleasure in her work, that her wonderful daughter Catherine is doing so well both personally and professionally.

Then there was a pause and Ruth asked me about my life.  "Terrific!" I told her and braced myself for her arguments to the contrary.

And it hurt my heart before a word was spoken.

Then, predictably, she proceeded to tell me everything that she thinks is wrong with my life:

Retirement is a hideous mistake. It's the beginning of the end.

Living in an active adult community has to be the most depressing lifestyle ever.

How can you allow yourself to look so old?

Why don't you wise up and write a steamy sexy novel that will make some money instead of working on memoirs that no one will ever want to read? And blogging?? Give me a break! I keep forgetting to read your blog and if I --a life-long friend -- can forget, why would anyone else remember?

Your family is so crazy and dysfunctional. No wonder you and your siblings have such horrible lives....

What hurts my heart is not only the content of what she says, but also the fact that she would say it at all.

It seems to me that an important part of friendship is celebrating, not denigrating, differences and
giving each other the safety to share not only what is happy and good and working well in our lives but also painful confidences or disappointments. With my closest friends, sharing vulnerabilities, the whole balance of our lives, is a defining trait of the relationship.

One of my dearest friends has political views that are nowhere close to mine but we give each other the space to believe as we wish and defend each other's right to hold our own views. "Honey, don't torment our dear friend with our political views," she said gently to her husband during my recent visit with them. "Kathy feels differently -- and that's perfectly okay."

I have close friends who are addicted to bridge or who dislike cats or otherwise disagree with me in many ways, but the respect and acceptance we offer each other makes friendship not only possible, but perhaps richer for this loving respect of differences.

And I wish Ruth could hear and understand my quiet contentment with my life.

Retirement is allowing me -- and so many others -- to follow our true passions without the drudgery of working long hours at something that is not a passion just for that paycheck.

Living in an active adult community is an eye-opener -- providing me with many fitness role models and many cautionary tales in terms of taking care of myself. It is also a much more friendly place than my old L.A. neighborhood.

I look my age and I don't mind. I've earned my wrinkles and white hair. I'm comfortable with the person I've grown to be.  I'd like to be slimmer for health reasons. But I truly don't mind looking every day of my 67 years. I'm grateful to have reached an age that neither of my parents was fortunate enough to achieve.

I may not ever be rich, but I love writing -- at long last -- what interests and inspires me. It isn't all about money, after all.

While my brother, sister and I grew up in a deeply troubled family and suffered abuse, we also learned a great deal, laughed a lot, and were inspired by the creativity and passion we saw in our parents and, especially, in our very special Aunt Molly. If given a chance, I wouldn't change how, where and with whom I grew up. My brother says he wouldn't either. Where we've been is so much a part of who we are now. And my brother and I agree, we're in a lovely time and place in life.

But it is a very different universe from Ruth's.

"Well, as far as I'm concerned," she was saying. "I refuse to date a man over 55 years old. I like them young. But my daughter made me agree that I won't date a man younger than she is."

I laughed. Ruth is a character. She is pretty and looks years younger than she really is. She and her 31-year-old daughter look like sisters. She's very smart. She's tough. She's resilient. She has truly earned her professional success. And she has been blessed with a beautiful, kind, and truly gifted daughter.

With all the blessings, why the harsh judgments?

We ended our conversation with promises to keep in touch and she mentioned once again getting together, with her using frequent flyer miles to come from Atlanta to Arizona to visit. But I suspect she won't. I breathe a sigh of relief.

And I wonder just what it is that makes me (and so many of us) hang onto friendships that hurt.

Sometimes, of course, we don't.

Years ago, I became friends with a talented young actress. We talked and visited every day. We shared confidences and clothes and went on innumerable diets together.  In hours and hours of talking and sharing, we told each other our fondest hopes and  dreams. And when she got a starring role in a popular, long-running television series, I couldn't have been more delighted for her.

Several years into her new stardom, however, the balance in the friendship began to change. She would call me at my magazine staff writing job asking me to run errands for her during my lunch hour. I knew she was on hiatus from filming at that time and asked why she couldn't do the errands herself. "I have a tennis lesson," she said. "And, besides, I thought you might be happy to help." The imperious tone gave me pause.  I was growing up and had a stronger sense of self. I wanted to be treated as an equal.

The last time I saw her, she had invited me to her lavish new home to celebrate my birthday and to talk about something. When I arrived, she looked at me with surprise, obviously having forgotten about the promised birthday dinner. But she had a proposition. "You live in such miserable circumstances in that dumpy apartment and are making so little money for that stupid writing job you have," she said. "I'll pay you $100 more a month and you can live in the maid's room here if you'll become my personal assistant."

I turned the offer down and she thought me terribly ungrateful. We haven't seen or talked with each other for nearly 40 years.

But Ruth, well, it's different. She has expressed caring and loyalty -- minus judgments and criticism -- during some of the lowest moments of my life. And when challenged on her hurtful behavior, she apologizes and says being critical and bossy is a habit, that she gets like that with people she cares about and doesn't mean to hurt my feelings.

But still...the pain is real.

I came across a quote from George Eliot the other day and it resonated with me: "Friendship is the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words."

As much as I dislike categorizing people and, certainly, friends, George Eliot's thoughts have prompted me to see certain complicated friendships in a different light.

There are close by or long distance friendships we gradually let go as our conversations dwindle and what once united us begins to disappear.

There are long distance, limited contact relationships -- and safety is maintained by distance.

There are long distance, intimate friendships with safety and joy however we connect.

There are close by acquaintances who will never be more than that, no matter how much time we spend together and close by new friends with whom I feel safe and loved.

Friendships built on mutual respect, caring and safety are a treasure whether they're new or have thrived through a lifetime of change.


  1. Great food for thought. Our old friends were who "fit" with us at the time; who we were, what we did, and when those things grown and change, sometimes the space we have for them or they have for us isn't as accommodating. However, I suspect in the case of your old roommate that despite her blessings, she still has residue from her dad's behavior that makes her feel very inadequate, and the only way to assuage that is to put others down.

    I have old friends that I feel the same about, although they will always be a part of my foundation.

    1. Shelly, you are so right in your assessment of my old roommate. That has always been my feeling, too, and is one reason I hold onto the friendship -- albeit from a distance.

  2. You're right: sometimes the best thing you can do is to walk away. And sometimes that's hard -- and sad.

  3. A very thought-provoking post, Kathy. Like Shelly, I sense that much of your friend's behaviour is due to her own scars and weaknesses, not yours.

    It could also be that an unacknowledged part of her is actually envious of what you and Bob share and enjoy in your active and happy retirement. Envious too of the fact that you feel no need to keep looking younger than your age in order to fulfil the expectations of professional and social success that she obviously still craves.

    Given what you have written, I think a couple of phone calls a year is the safest link of friendship for both of you nowadays.

    1. You're right on all counts, Perpetua! Thanks so much for the insightful comments. I think they're all very true.

  4. Kathy, this post hits many important things we hardly ever talk or understand at all.

    Most of us don't ever understand why certain people make us feel empty and hurt after we leave their sight; most of us hang on and on with friends who are not friends but characters in a play, playing old myths in our lives, the mother figure, the big sister, the patronizing bitch...

    Your honest analysis is a breath of fresh air.
    And this conversation needs part two!

  5. Characters in a play? That's such an interesting thought, Rosaria! It's so true with families and also with friends.

    Now...where do we start with Part Two?

  6. Hi Dr McCoy,
    Humans sure are a complexed bunch....

    Childhood experiences are entrenched in the behaviours of most people and is hidden somewhere deep in the subconscious and surfaces when the needs arises.

    People who feel good about themselves don't usually feel the need to inflate their ego by putting other people down.

    Those who feel some degree of dissatisfaction and insecurity with their own lives compare themselves to others and they even imagine themselves superior to someone else.

    The humble person is not interested to be superior or better and will not criticize because they are not self absorbed and are more caring of the other people that to themselves.

    One little book that I read several years ago that helped me a lot was called THE FOUR AGREEMENTS by Don Miguel Angel Ruiz.
    It's a practical guide to personal freedom. It also has a companion book by the same name.

    1. Be impeccable with your word
    2. Don't take anything personally,
    3. Don't make assumptions
    4. Always do your best
    They are good rules to live by.
    There is another book called The Fifth Agreement but I haven't read it yet.

    I always like reading your blog as I find it fascinating.

    I'm not formally educated on the subject so you can take this comment with a grain of salt. Your friend Ruth drains out your energy because she needs that energy to boost her ego. The best way to disarm her next time is to praise her up and down before she has the chance to tear you down because it's what she needs in my opinion. You may even be surprised.


  7. Excellent rules for a satisfying life! Thanks for the reminder.

    What's curious about Ruth is that I DO praise her up and down and keep the conversation focused on her and her wonderful daughter as much as possible. And then she still goes on a tear. I think it has a great deal to do with her traumatic childhood and the defensive behavior that got her through some tough times and that is part of her arsenal still even though one would think she doesn't need it anymore. Underneath it all, there is a small wounded child....which is why I continue the friendship in a limited way.

  8. You are a great friend because you still are compassionate toward Ruth even though she hurts your feelings every times. I think that she needs prayers for healing her childhood wounds.

    Have a great weekend Dr McCoy.

  9. I wouldn't call next year, and I' d cross her off my Christmas card list...if I sent Xmas cards. That said, I 'd probably call her out on her behavior. "Why would you say that to me?" Some people really don't realize how toxic they are. I have an acquaintance who posts pity me comments on Facebook and then wonders why no one offers to help her. She responds to others postings with comments like "how nice for you that you have people in your life who care about you." It's not what she says, but the subtext that is annoying.

    Yep, friendship is complicated and I appreciate my friends from both my real life and cyberspace. Thanks for giving me food for thought.

  10. "With all the blessings, why the harsh judgments?" So well said!! thanks for the reminder.

  11. Dear Dr. Kathy,

    if Ruth hurts your heart even before she has spoken isn’t it time you ditched her altogether? It’s simply not good enough to excuse one’s bad behaviour and unkindness by saying ‘that’s how I am’.

    She wants you to change but can’t see that she needs to change herself. She really isn’t worth the heartache, which I am sure you feel, because you spend so much time in this post explaining that your life makes you happy. Almost as if you were apologising or needed to convince yourself. This woman is no friend, she saps your confidence.

    1. Thanks Friko and Nana for some thought-provoking comments! I will keep your suggestions very much in mind.

      Tracy, thanks for your comment. I'm glad the post is food for thought!

  12. Dear Kathy, recently a friend said to me that most of the friends I have are acquaintances because they have not come to visit me here in Missouri nor have we spoken on the phone. Their lives have gone on since I've been here for 3 1/2 years. And so I'm exploring what the word "friend" means. I do know that all those people I've always called "friend" do give me support and encouragement. And that's a great gift.

    There is one person here in Missouri whom I thought was a friend in Eliot's terms ("Friendship is the inexpressible comfort of feeling safe with a person, having neither to weigh thoughts nor measure words.") but whom I've discovered wants just to change me into her clone. And so I simply see little of her because being with her more than a little feels masochistic to me.

    And talking on the phone with someone who clearly wants me to change doesn't feel like friendship to me. So we talk little. And I like that a lot!!!! Peace.

  13. This post struck a chord in me as well. There is a fine line with some friends where the effort/benefit edges into "not good for me" territory. As I get older, I try to realize that when I'm getting "that" feeling, it's time to let the relationship drift away. If you are really feeling torn, perhaps you could explain to Ruth in a friendly way that despite discussing her behavior and despite hearing her explanation, you will not accept it in the future, and follow through? That would give her another chance, but draw a line in the sand as to what you will take from her. And if you do need to stop calling her, let her know that if she ever changes she is welcome to try again with you?

    This quote came to mind: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” (Aristotle) The way I look at situations like this is that peoples' bad habits - whether they like it or not - make them people who are unpleasant to be with, by virtue of them repeatedly doing it. People can change at any age - if they feel it is worth it. If a friend "cannot" change, it is more likely that they don't want to badly enough. And doesn't that send a message all on its own?

    My two cents :) Good luck with a tricky - and wrenching - situation.

  14. Kathy, if we were chatting right now, I would probably have much to discuss with you about this friendship. It is somewhat comforting to me to know that you have a friend like this in your life because I have a few of those kinds of friends also. Or, I have at least one friend that drives me so crazy that I wonder why I continue to think of her as a friend. I have finally stopped checking in with her at all. I am over her inability to understand that she offends when she needs to be in control of all situations and conversations.

    You two are such polar opposites it does seem strange that you are friends, but I also think you both must gain great insight into your own choices about life by remaining friends. You reject her approach to life. She rejects yours. Yet, you seem to deeply understand each other. Friendships surely are complex and complicated at times.

    1. It would be so fun and interesting to sit down and chat, Sally!

      You bring up an interesting point: I think we do gain insight into our own choices by talking with friends whose lives have gone in other directions. I don't reject Ruth's choices except by living differently. The only direction of her life with which I might disagree, were I in the same position, would be dating -- and dating younger men. Otherwise, it's hard to argue with the value of hard work and the tender, but firm parenting that produced a truly lovely daughter. At the same time, my arguments with her do force me to take a look at my own choices and realize that these were and are the right choices for me.

      It's all so complicated, isn't it? And a struggle with a friend is sometimes worth the effort -- and sometimes not.

  15. I have a college roommate, an old friend, who has troubled me for the last few years. It started with political views and now encompasses financial matters. I hope for the best when we see each other, but I have seriously considered just ending the relationship. Such a loss, I think. But maybe not. I understand your dilemma.

    1. Isn't it alarming when someone with whom you once had much in common morphs into a person you don't know -- and don't necessarily want to know?

      I have another long-time (formerly) close friend who, after a lifetime of Democratic voting, became aggressively GOP lately, spewing the code words that told me this change of political heart was entirely race-based and that both horrified and saddened me. Also, the financial gap between us has widened over the years and this friend has no concept of what life is like for a lot of retirees. He continues to work at a very high paying job and collect Social Security benefits as well -- and alludes to his Social Security as "fun money" and thinks it wouldn't be so bad if cuts were made to Social Security because it's not essential (to him) after all.

  16. When my mother's only sister died, my mother said to me, her only child..."Now, who is going to tell me the truth? Bobbie always told me when she thought I wasn't doing my best, being the best I could be...Now, Janet, you have to tell me. Don't be solicitous...tell me if I'm not taking care of myself, my clothes, the house, like I once did." I think Ruth is like your sister and feels safe with you. She knows that she can say anything and you will love her because your relationship is far more important than words. I think she would be crushed if she thought she had hurt you. I always thought my Aunt Bobbie was cruel...then I learned that my mother felt that she was her best friend. Life is strange! I hope you'll tell me if you think I'm losing it, Kathy. Love our talks!

  17. Wow, Janet! Thanks so much for your insights. I think you've hit on something very true and important. You're not losing it at all, my friend! Thanks so much!

  18. Friendship is an interesting thing, isn't it? I had 3 special childhood friends (one is now gone) which truly have been the BEST friends in my life. The four of us were separated for about 30 yrs--each raising families and doing our own things. When we all turned 50 in 1992, we started getting together once a year for several days to catch up. Even though we had been apart of a long time, when we finally did get together, the special friendships were all still there. It was awesome... Three of us are still alive but when we lost Susan a couple of years ago, we haven't been able to get together since... I hope we can sometime. I enjoyed those annual times together...

    I also had (past tense) another special friend whom I didn't meet until about 2003... She and I became good email buddies --and started a different kind of friendship. I thought I could say anything to her (and her to me) --and that it would be just between us 'best' friends... However, I was devastated to find out that she was sharing 'my' thoughts with others --and wasn't really my good friend afterall. That hurt me --but needless to say, we are no longer friends.

    YES---friendship is an interesting thing!!!! Life provides us plenty of opportunities for good friendships and not-so-good ones.


  19. Oh, Betsy, I hope you and your other friends from long ago can get together soon to celebrate your friendship and Susan's memory. Life is far too short -- both for not seeing dear friends and for holding onto toxic friendships.

  20. In life you meet people at the right time for the right reasons and as the reasons change so do the people and life goes on. You come into a persons' life for a reason and they into yours.You stay in a persons life for a reason and they in yours.
    Where else but from a true friend, who knows you, can the truth be heard?
    I like to speak the truth and have the truth be spoken to me regardless of how hurtful it may be because it helps me to think about things and situations and I would assume my input would help another person do the same.
    If I didn't care, I'd say nothing and just be polite and impersonal.

    Your friends seem to have confidence in your abilities to succeed, to be better. And why not enjoy what you are doing and still work at being better.Having challenges in life is always a good thing. Keeps you going.

    You are alive, living where you want to live, doing what you want to do and also hurt cause people disagree with your decisions.
    Well so be it. They disagree, as I am sure you also disagree with their lifestyle. Nothing worse than seeing an 80 year old woman look and behave like a 23 year old.
    lol but then nothing is worse than seeing a 23 year old behaving and looking like an 80 year old either lol and we see lots of that too. What is good about living in todays' world, is that you can make choices for yourself, to be yourself and if you are happy then I am sure your friends are happy too. It's just that they want more for you and thats ok too.
    have a good one.

  21. Interesting and insightful perspective, Lady! Thanks so much!

  22. What a complex and thoughtful post. I have a hard time trying to reconcile friendship with hurt. I know some folks just don't see or hear themselves, but it always distresses me when that happens. What I see through your words is a life that makes you divinely happy and content. And you know, that's really what we all want. And it's what we want for our friends. And I'm so glad you have it.

  23. This Post really resonated with me. Relationships can and often are very complex and have flows and ebbs over Time. There are some that pick up where they left off effortlessly even after long absences. But one thing that my Dear Old Dad used to say really rings true to me at this Season Of Life... NOTHING sorts people out like Trouble. If Life unfolds with some Issues that become Chronic and you don't have much, if any, control over, like ill Health or difficult circumstances beyond your Control... it can become a very isolating Journey because Life Issues make most people uncomfortable, even those that were once close, and Involvement is Optional. Until it's you there is often very little point of reference or the desire to burden oneself with someone else's problems. I Thank God for the Land of Blog that my young Grandson Introduced me to and set up my Blog for... to connect with a Wonderful Community of Kindred Spirits and cultivate Friendships around the World... during a dark period when our Family was faced with many Challenges and even the Dearest of Friends were often conspicuous by their absence. This Post is Encouraging in the Truth that this too is Normal and just a part of Life, your Transparency to Share makes many probably not feel so much like the Lone Ranger when Friendships alter and we're often left wondering 'Why... or How did this happen?"... so there's really no need to Personalize it... just move forward and have appreciation for what is left... rather than what has been lost.

    Blessings from the Arizona Desert... Dawn... The Bohemian

  24. BTW: I Love Calamity Janet's Observation. One of my Closest Friends is very blunt and doesn't often have a filter about what she says... however, she is the 'Realist' Person I have ever met and I LOVE her for that Distinction! I know that with K. I will always hear what I need to hear... and not just what I want to hear... and often that gives me pause for introverted reflection about things most people aren't saying to me, but she feels enough Love to. I don't Believe my Friend has ever intended to Hurt... just Keepin' it Real!

    Dawn... The Bohemian