When Friendships Fail

One of the things I’ve often hoped we here at SF would write more about is disappointment and failure—disappointment and failure, specifically, in spiritual friendship. It’s very easy to want to clean up one’s stories of friendship, not only for oneself but also for the sake of the hope we’re trying to instill in our churches. Those of us who write here want to see our churches change and become more committed to friendship, and many of us want to find places to belong and love and serve, so it’s always tempting, for me at least, to let the positive rhetoric overwhelm the actual lived experience of friendship, which often is more ambiguous and complicated than my publicly hopeful statements would suggest.

I want to try to say more about this soon—especially in relation to Tim Otto’s poignant review of my book about friendship—but for now I thought I would simply point to a wonderful essay by Laura Turner on grieving the loss of a friendship.

What I love about this piece is that it limns the experience of “falling in friendship” (“I covered my desire for deep connection with a thin layer of nonchalance, taking what I could get and never expressing that I wanted more”) and then losing it with such recognizable honesty, but it also does what so many of us have trouble doing: it turns the spotlight back on oneself, on our tendency to blame and paper over our part in a friendship’s demise.

Here’s Turner:

“Only the hand that erases can write the true thing,” wrote the German mystic Meister Eckhart. I think what he meant is that in order to construct something good, you need to be able to deconstruct what came before it. This applies generally: In order to create just societies, we need to be able to dismantle injustice; in order to cook a good omelet, we need to be willing to crack a few eggs, and so on.

It also applies on the personal level. In order for me to be the person I want to be, I need to be able to deconstruct the myths I’ve written about myself. When my friendship with M ended, my myth was that I was the victim. I was hurt, nursing wounds, feeling self-righteous and angry, and so I believed that the end of our friendship had been all her fault. More than wanting to examine my own intentions, I wanted to be able to place the blame squarely on her shoulders. I wanted to write the story without ever having to erase. There was too much satisfaction in refusing to revisit the story; too much sadness to get into it all over again.

A lot of us tend to imagine friendship, I think, on the analogy of other kinds of love. Our friends are like a brother or a sister, we say. Or our friends are such a permanent part of our lives, they’re like a spouse. Maybe better than a spouse, we think (and maybe we think that especially if we’re gay and celibate, like I am). For those of us who think that way, Turner’s essay leaves us asking what we do when those analogies break down, when friendships collapse. It’s a question I, for one, would like to read and write more about.

11 thoughts on “When Friendships Fail

  1. One issue with telling these stories is that tendency to lay blame that Turner speaks of…
    I’ll think I’m making every effort to “show what my part in the failure was” …and some sneaky piece of me will slip in a hint about my friend’s failures.

    Nonetheless, bringing stuff out into the light… and helping readers know they’re not the only failures… worth it!

    I think stories that go like this should count (as “friendship fail stories”) too:
    “ya know, I said this idiotic thing and alienated my best friend for 6 months, but then our mutual friends stepped in and told me I was being a jerk – and now I’m friends with her again!”

  2. Friendships mature and blossom and come and go. Friendships are fluid- especially because we do not have the expectation of permanence because there is no vow or commitment to abide by. That is the distinct difference between the intimacy of friendship and marriage. The only time I have lost a friend was over something that could not be reconciled because of a lack of forgiveness. But, it doesn’t appear that any offense happened in this writer’s friendship with the other woman. It appears more likely there was a drifting apart without the open discussion that they we are drifting apart. I think when we have a very close friend it is sometimes difficult to let go of them when they move on. Because we miss them so terribly and it hurts. We fail to realize their presence will be less apparent but the bond of friendship remains. We don’t visualize the future when we meet again after a long absence and we can celebrate our reunion. So often we lose touch and think that it is because the other person is no longer a friend when they really are; instead the friendship has a new dynamic.

    In this way friendship is a different relationship than marriage. Therefore, I derive from what Spiritual Friendship proposes is that those who are celibate should seek a similar commitment with a friends that would bind them together as soul mates yet without the sexual union. Or that they find a community of people to live with or they have a special calling to serve the church or sacrifice in ministry. And that those options would be just as fulfilling as marriage.

    But it is not fulfillment in others that we should seek, nor fulfillment in service. Jesus is the fountain of living waters. Our fulfillment is in him and as we are filled by him we pour ourselves in self sacrifice for those in our life. This is not suffering in pain but suffering by being kind and patient when you don’t feel like it. Or denying yourself some alone time because a friend needs you and so on. True giving and sacrifice is not suffering in a self imposed prison rather it means that we give up the self for the needs of others. But Jesus promises that he will provide for us what we need as well. This reminds me of a common joke I have heard a hundred times about the drowning man,

    ***A fellow was stuck on his rooftop in a flood. He was praying to God for help. Soon a man in a rowboat came by and the fellow shouted to the man on the roof, “Jump in, I can save you.” The stranded fellow shouted back, “No, it’s OK, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me.” So the rowboat went on. Then a motorboat came by. “The fellow in the motorboat shouted, “Jump in, I can save you.” To this the stranded man said, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.” So the motorboat went on. Then a helicopter came by and the pilot shouted down, “Grab this rope and I will lift you to safety.”
    To this the stranded man again replied, “No thanks, I’m praying to God and he is going to save me. I have faith.” So the helicopter reluctantly flew away. Soon the water rose above the rooftop and the man drowned. He went to Heaven. He finally got his chance to discuss this whole situation with God, at which point he exclaimed, “I had faith in you but you didn’t save me, you let me drown. I don’t understand why!”
    To this God replied, “I sent you a rowboat and a motorboat and a helicopter, what more did you expect?”***

    So when friends are absent, and community is absent and vocation is absent and you find yourself like the drowning man then a beautiful soul comes into your life who wants to be with you, a helper, a companion, a complement to your broken sexuality and gender confusion, who reaches through that cloud of suffering- with a hand of mercy- a hand which says we can do this together, two is better than one. The church still asks us to forsake that option.

    If I can expand a little.The other day I watched an amazing documentary which inspired me and filled me with passion. It was so extraordinary I was bursting with desire to watch it with someone. Instead I watched this documentary in my room alone without anyone to share it with and that reality made me weep uncontrollably. I cried because I couldn’t share what I experienced with another human being. If my roommate was home I would have asked her to watch it with me. Yet there are many times my roommate is busy. She is an extremely busy person. You see, often friends or family are occupied with their own lives. Many of my requests and invitations go unfulfilled. I don’t blame them at all- but sometimes it hurts. And the lingering effects of that suffering of being alone- yet not lonely- but having no one around I continually share with God because it would be too much to burden people with.

    But I think God is saying to us “You give them something to eat” in other words we who are on earth are responsible to feed others in the tangible sense as well as the spiritual sense. We also have to allow ourselves to be fed and nurtured by those around us. Case in point what if you are feeling down and it is the trans person at work who notices you and tries to cheer you up? Will you refuse their good cheer because they are trans? Or will you accept it and laugh along? This is how we sometimes reject the good God is sending our way. God is sending us out to feed others but also sending others to feed us- the hope of the Gospel- the peace of the Gospel and his love for all. His reconciliation. It’s a state of mind realizing that it is of no benefit to fill our minds with condemnation and fearfulness or futility. We are made to help each other. That is what pleases God. I don’t think life as a single person should be an ongoing effort of manufacturing things to do in order to be fulfilled.

    After those experiences it struck me that when you are in a committed relationship with someone they have a special obligation to spend time with you. When I was in a committed same sex relationship my requests for her presence never went denied . In fact we longed to see each other after work and couldn’t wait to have dinner together. It’s not that I felt empty without her. I wanted to share with her my day and I wanted to hear about her day just as much. We helped each other.

    When we graduate from our family and go out into the world, as western culture encourages us to do, we often find that people don’t need us ( we- are- not- needed ) and often times we want to offer ourselves but there may not be opportunities which fit our schedule, our capacities etc… Each person has different cards dealt to them in life and only God know how to fill those gaps. Often we miss what God is trying to say to us personally because we have determined in our own minds what he expects of us because this is what we were taught. But there is a difference between living on the earth as organic human beings and our awaiting salvation. What is God’s grace for anyways if not to sustain us as we grapple with experiences, and events in our life, our imperfections and what we were born into. What troubles me is when we don’t value the truth about ourselves and we try to mold ourselves into something else. That is when we cause undue suffering.

    Sorry for the long comment but I am almost done 🙂 and have one last thought. I love watching documentaries and I recently came across a film about foot binding. It was gut wrenching to watch and realize that women were subjected to this torment for a thousand years. And even after laws were passed to ban the practice people persisted with it. When the foot is bound the toes are made to bend unnaturally and the foot is formed into something unlike a foot but which the Chinese at the time thought was the ideal, beautiful and even erotic. It was said that after two years the pain would ease off but women were made cripples as they hobbled along for the rest of their life. Some died as a result if the foot got infected and the wounds did not heal. This resonated with me so deeply because just before I saw this film I made a remark to a few friends that I sometimes feel as though I am like a tree which is having its branches pulled and tied back. The branches reach for light so the tree can live; we are reaching for light as well. When we pull back the branches we starve and shrivel up. I think it clicked within me that we are binding our souls unnecessarily to mold ourselves into someone’s ideal. The model of perfection. But is that what saves us? And I question is it really God’s ideal? What is Christ-likeness? When I think of Jesus I never think about his sexuality. I think of how he passionately opposed hypocrites, upheld justice, healed the sick, was a friend and a neighbor, had dinner with everyone and had pity on all.

    Perhaps God understands us better than we do ourselves. Perhaps he sends us people, helpers and I think that sometimes help comes in the form of a lifelong partner. So I hope people won’t refuse any hand that reaches out to them and desires to join them in their exciting walk with Christ.

    • Hi, Kathy!

      I, too, have gone through times of needing to keep distance from this or that friend, or “give her space.” And it’s the darnedst thing: in those times, again and again it seems the things I think of are.. what I would say to “that one friend”!

      I also noticed your mention of time…
      Laura Curtis wrote: “We had all the time in the world, buckets of it, running off of us, unfolding itself ahead of us.”
      I’ve thought a lot lately about how, after that college-age-period, people are so prone to thinking “I don’t have enough time” to hang out with friends.
      It gets to the point where sometimes I avoid asking a friend who I know is busy to spend time with me, or I avoid asking a friend at the last minute.. because I don’t want to hear a “no.” (though it’s not always a “no, I don’t have time for you.” Sometimes it’s a “no, not this summer.” at times, those things sound alike, though.)

      God bless.

      • Hi Vikki

        Yeah, time is a huge aspect to it all. I love that expression- buckets of time! I think our lives go through seasons of having buckets of it and then having little drops of time for each other 🙂 Perhaps it is a matter of seizing the opportunities presented to us and perhaps God leads us to people and people are led to us. And those are people sometimes outside of our immediate friend list. And those happenstance meetings can have interesting beginnings and journeys ha! I think for me that realization has been a paradigm shift.
        God Bless you as well 🙂 !

  3. This is timely, as was the link. I’m in the middle of what I hope will be a restored friendship, eventually. It fell apart two years ago and took me about six months to calm down and realize she’d just pulled away because she had to, not because I was gay and/or she didn’t love me anymore. There was a mutual friend who is an alcoholic, and she’d had to pull away from this person, as well–but I was so entrenched in a crazy quest to be a “good” friend to the alcoholic one that I was acting like an addict myself. Or at least like an imbecile. My life was utter chaos.

    After backing away from the alcoholic friend myself, I went through the, “Oh please God,” stage of looking for any sign things were “better” and I could invite her back. Then the, “Not no, but hell no” stage of being so relieved to have sanity instead of its opposite that I decided I’d never want any involvement again. It was incredibly tempting in this stage to blame the alcoholic for the loss of my other friend, as if it were all her doing or perhaps she’d even orchestrated it. (Granted, she does make up things that injure others reputations, but this was absurd–I created plenty of reason to back away from me, all on my own!)

    And now I’m at the point that mercy and not being a damned fool are starting to balance. Where I can say my mea culpas, but not flagellate myself. Where I can think, my friend is not being cold. She is a lot older and more experienced than I am at life and is being sensible. And I want her to be–I want her to take care of herself; she is precious to me. What would I want to see if the other one came to me and wanted to reconcile? Something a darn sight longer-lasting than the two seconds it would take to shout, “All better!” I would want things set right, and I would want time to see they were staying that way. I’d want to see her, from a distance, busy about it, because there are other things in her daily life that desperately need fixing and take precedent over contact with me.

    Prior to when it all began (right about the time she began pulling away from the other woman, and thus probably had some idea of what it would cost), my friend suddenly said to me one afternoon, “Do you know how wonderful it is to have someone who is wowed by every little thing you do? Please don’t ever stop loving me the way you do.” When I at last came to her like an adult, almost a year ago, she said very quietly, “I didn’t want you to go away.” These are things I hold onto. That and the way she looks at me again, now, and smiles with her eyes, and occasionally starts laughing about something funny I’ve emailed her. She doesn’t want me to go away; she wants me to show confidence and stability.

    It’s frustrating at times, though, to not be able to walk over and put my hand in her coat pocket, or all the little things. It’s tempting to tell myself this is *purely* because the alcoholic friend did frightening things like blocking the friend’s car in so she’d have to converse if she wanted to leave, or physically smashing into one or the other of us after seeing us together. That’s no doubt partly it; but mostly, it’s the same reason I wouldn’t say, “Sure! Let’s go out to lunch, and here’s my new number; call anytime!” A whole lotta mea culpa is tucked into this situation.

    There is sourdough starter coming to life in my laundry room, slower than I’d like. Memories of her are bound up in the waiting, and the baking–I used to make her a loaf every week or so. Now I’m becoming grateful for a chance to offer up sorrow at the loss of her, the loss of time, and to pray just for whatever is best for her, not for me to find something that “works.” She’s not an object. She’s my friend.

    • Rebekah wrote:
      “but this was absurd–I created plenty of reason to back away from me, all on my own!”
      That made me go, “yep, sounds familiar!”

      and I liked this…
      “..I’d want to see her, from a distance, busy about it, [setting things right] because there are other things in her daily life that desperately need fixing and take precedent over contact with me.”

      Sometimes you just have that one really broken friend… so some days you’re like, “yay, I’m such a great person. or I’m really weird… because the only person I want the attention of is someone who nobody else in this room wants to talk to.”

      I’ve had two different friendships really, truly restored within the past year or so.
      I really despaired over one of those friends!
      She doesn’t live in the same area as I do now, but it seems to me that she’s full of strength. Her joy is my joy.

  4. I read “I covered my desire for deep connection with a thin layer of nonchalance, taking what I could get and never expressing that I wanted more” as unrequited sexual attraction. We can choose to be celibate but we can’t choose to be asexual. Denial of sexual attraction is the road to hell. Choosing not to act on sexual attractions may or may not be the road to heaven. Choosing to be celibate while pursuing a friendship with a sexually attractive persons is like attending gamblers anonymous but going to the race track for lunch every day. One of the most noble things I ever heard anyone say and which engendered in me the deepest awe and respect was from an eighty-one year old nun who told the class the reason the reverend mother announced over the loud speaker that uniform shirts must be buttoned up to one button below the collar is because revealing one’s chest incites lust in us (she included herself). This is why I appreciate the Islamic tradition of full body coverage, it acknowledges the sexuality of others.

    • Hi Irenesverd

      I am not so sure I see the logic in your sentence “. Choosing to be celibate while pursuing a friendship with a sexually attractive persons is like attending gamblers anonymous but going to the race track for lunch every day.” I have a quibble with that because you are equating choosing celibacy with a recovering gambling addict. I don’t see the connection. Are you saying celibate people have to stay away from attractive people? Maybe you can clarify ?

      • Hi Kathy,

        I commented on the quote out of context. I haven’t read the book. But based on the sentence ending with “…I wanted more”, I’m assuming “something more” is sexual contact. I may be wrong in this instance. I’m not saying celibate people have to stay away from attractive people, rather, stay away from people we (celibate people) are attracted to. My analogy to gambling references the urge to bet which assumes the hope of winning. I don’t equate the choice to be celibate with recovering from gambling addiction. Like many non gambling addicts who don’t place bets and rarely think of gambling, most celibates aren’t sex or love addicts and rarely obsess about a beloved person. But if such should arise, I would hope in the interest of maintaining celibacy let alone peace of mine, a celibate would stop pursuing a friendship with a person from whom he/she wants more. I understand it may be different for you and others. I hope this helps clarify what I meant, albeit, you may not agree.

      • Thanks for the clarification. I have been told I am a moral relativist so technically I agree with everybody’s right to have an opinion and hold a belief, therefore, I must agree with you based on where you are coming from what you have been taught….. However, in reality I am struggling with believing people- especially those who insist they know what they know, what they know, what they know to be true- when what I really see is people holding beliefs based on what they are taught via traditional, denomination, their christian culture, where they grew up or where they landed after repentance. Therefore I probably don’t agree with you entirely because I question everyone’s claim to moral authority over someone else because of grace and conscience. God’s grace over everything we get wrong. And our conscience because of what we believe. Language is a huge barrier both in etymology and current doublespeak it is very hard for us not to look at culture and consider accommodation for people out of compassion, mercy and justice.
        With regards to lifelong celibacy some LGBT Christians will never find peace no matter what they decide and that is horrible place to be. But one should not go against their conscience because if we think something is sin it is sin. Paul brought this up in Romans 14 and it seems to me it is a moral relativist argument – unless I am missing something.

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