Long-lost friendship

After 30 years it pains me how these once-dear friends are so cold and aloof!

By Cary Tennis

Published January 19, 2005 8:00PM (EST)

Dear Cary,

Many years ago, as college was ending, I became friends with a couple who seemed to truly like me for what I was. They befriended me when the guy I lived with left me and I was devastated. They moved to another part of the country, and when I met someone else, who became my husband, they encouraged us to move nearby. When we did (and we were broke) we actually stayed with them for six weeks. That put a strain on the relationship, but when we got our own place and time went by, it seemed to repair.

Around the time we found our own place and found temporary jobs to pay for it, we contacted a relative of mine who lived in our area -- actually nearer to my friends than to where my husband and I put down roots. We introduced them to each other; everybody got along; we did many things together.

More time went by, and my friends and my relative began to do more things together, often things that required money, which we didn't have, like travel to exotic places and sporting activities with expensive equipment. We were rarely involved and, even though we couldn't have afforded to join them, were not invited.

I had some health problems and, to be frank, became obsessed for a while with overcoming our difficulties in having a child. We finally did have a child and were thrilled to pieces. (They had no problems having a large family and hiring help to manage it.)

At some point, it became obvious to me that my friends were no longer my friends. They no longer asked us to join them in activities. They found excuses not to participate on occasions when we invited them. However, they became increasingly friendly with my relative -- the kind of friends who are practically family. When I discussed the situation with my relative, I was told (among other things and at various times) that they just didn't feel anything in common with us, that they didn't like our friends (though I could think of few occasions when they actually met any) and that with my infertility obsessions and financial problems, I had been too "needy."

I can understand having a friend and then no longer feeling the friendship suit fits. The thing is, I'm still quite close with my relative and, because of that, our paths (my ex-friends' and my path) cross all the time. My husband is unaffected by this. When he sees them, he's friendly and chatty, as if there never were anything wrong. I usually want to burst into tears. I feel that it's not fair -- that it took me longer than some to find my way in the world, but now I function quite well, thank you, and yet I don't get a second chance. But I really just wish I did not have to see them again and be up against my not being good enough. I resent, yes, my relative's friendship with them, and I am jealous of what they share that leaves me out.

There are many aspects of this situation that I've had to omit, as we're talking of a span of nearly 30 years. I hope it's clear that I'm not saying I'm perfect -- I'm sure I was obnoxious and not a lot of fun at times, and if they didn't like the way I dressed or how we decorated our house or brought up our kid, they were entitled to their opinion. I just want to know how to deal with my feelings of depression and despair when my relative tells me that they will be attending some function together.

Please give me some clue on how to deal with this. I know all about the 12-step programs' pledge to not be bothered by things one cannot control. But I am bothered. And before you tell me to get a life, I want to tell you that I have a fine one -- a decent job, a great family and some success in my art.

In Between a Relative and a Hard Place

Dear In Between,

The only thing I can think of to suggest is that you try, really try, to understand how this loss of friendship fits into the larger pattern of your life. If you are lucky, as you consider it, you will find that it is so painful because it violates certain vital principles that you hold sacred, and perhaps offends your essential individual nature. In doing so you might rediscover the strength and power of those principles and your nature.

You might start by asking what general need or value is being breached in the ending of this friendship. I'm guessing that you value integrity, individuality and loyalty, and that you value the struggle that has brought you to the present. You have apparently overcome some stubborn obstacles in order to mature into a person who is relatively contented and happy. It was perhaps a pivotal moment in your life to be befriended by this couple, and for them not to recognize your eventual victory over life's obstacles must be deeply disappointing. You were taken in by them, in more than one sense -- you were rescued but then abandoned.

It also seems possible that some of your attachment to this friendship has to do with darker forces within you; perhaps you have been betraying yourself in some way by clinging to this friendship. That is, if you no longer genuinely admire this couple's success ethic, their materialism and their elite social values, if you feel that you and they have met a fork in the road and taken different paths, perhaps you are not being true to yourself in continuing to want their approbation. Perhaps you no longer entirely approve of them, yet you want what they have and you want their approval -- perhaps just because you never got it!

It is normal to want the shiny stuff that other people have. But it can distract us from our true natures. Look within yourself and try to give ascendancy to your truer, deeper values, the ones that have seen you through all the trials of the last 30 years. My guess is that you will never attain the recognition from them that you crave. It might be that you will have to recognize yourself. Again, I suggest you sit with this and try to feel how it fits into the story of your life.

Perhaps it is even true that your very victory over obstacles is itself what has made the relationship fail. Consider this: Is it possible that your friends to some degree actually preferred you in your dependency? Have you ever thought about that? Sometimes we are more interesting and charming to others when we are screwing up. Sometimes people want to take care of us when we are weak, in order to feel strong. When we become independent and achieve our goals, we do not offer them the same opportunity to feel competent and in control. So they lose interest in us. If the relationship bears traces of the parent-child relationship, when the child matures into independence -- and has a child of her own! -- the parent may long for the old dependency and show no interest in who we have become.

If the relationship died to some extent because you evolved into an independent person, that gives you something to celebrate as well as mourn. When we mature, we leave behind dependent relationships. Perhaps the meaning of this is that you have made a painful passage into a new life in which there is no room for this old dependent relationship. If so, perhaps your grinding, gnashing resentment can turn into something more like a bittersweet celebration.

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