Why is friendship so painful?

My friend is very dear to me but things have gone wrong. How can I patch it up?

Published June 20, 2011 12:01AM (EDT)

Dear Cary,

I've been friends with "Christy" for almost three years, and we have a lot in common. We have similar senses of humor and always have a lot to talk about. Very occasionally, we will have tense moments when politics come up (we are at opposite ends of the spectrum and generally we avoid the subject), but for the most part our friendship has been a real blessing for us both. We met when we were both recovering from devastating breakups and we helped each other out a lot. Now we both have boyfriends and are happy in our relationships, but our friendship has recently taken a beating.

Christy has always shown a tendency to get jealous, and she thinks (perhaps correctly) that I have more friends than she does. When I went back to school to get my master's degree two years ago, Christy complained often that school was taking me away from her -- and she was right. School kept me extremely busy, both academically and socially. My brunches and happy hours with Christy went from weekly to monthly, but I always made time for her and we still spoke on the phone and chatted online. I met my boyfriend, "Matt," about a year ago, and Christy complained that now two things were taking me away from her -- school and Matt. Our birthdays are a few days apart, and this year I suggested that we have a joint birthday party as we did two years ago. She said we shouldn't because she would be embarrassed by how few people showed up for her. I had a party anyway, and Christy came with her boyfriend, "Pete." Matt tried really hard to chat with them, but they were not friendly and made no effort to interact with him. A few nights later, I met Christy for happy hour, and after a few drinks she proceeded to tell me everything that's wrong with my smart, funny, sweet boyfriend. She complained that he didn't pick up on her sarcasm, said it's condescending when he talks to Pete about planes (Pete works in the airplane industry), and said that Pete doesn't like when Matt brings up Disney, even though we all know Pete is mildly obsessed with Disney. This wouldn't have been so bad, but she made it clear that Pete really dislikes Matt and that she only puts up with Matt because she can see he makes me happy. As far as I can see, Matt has done nothing to warrant their continued unfriendliness, and Christy has consistently shown that she doesn't care for him. Her icy behavior makes Matt nervous, and I'm sure that contributes to the awkwardness that she sees as his personality flaws. I have never seen any reason why she should dislike Matt and it hurts me that my dear friend has been so hard on someone I love. I left our happy hour crying and haven't talked to Christy since. I want to save this friendship, but how do we get past this? I can only imagine what it will be like next time the four of us are together, even if Christy and I manage to make up. Unfortunately, I had to let Matt in on part of what Christy said, because I came home crying. He'd noticed that Christy and Pete aren't friendly to him but has never complained about it to me because he knows I want them all to be friends.

Hurt Friend

Dear Hurt Friend,

In friendship and love we are like children. Like children we feel in extravagant measure.

We want what we want, and we like what we like, and our likes and dislikes are primitive. We are primitive in our friendships. And to understand this it is necessary to understand that we are this way to an extravagant degree. It is not just that we are sort of childish in our friendships. We are very childish. We are not in control of how childish we are. Our childishness is not a component of friendship. It is the essence of it. We are more like children than children are.

Not only are we like children, not only are we primitive but we are possessed by archetypes outside of our awareness that want what they want regardless of what we, the thinking, reasonable, adult people want.

We attempt to apply reason but reason is no match for the ferocity of the child who has been scorned by a friend. Reason is no match for the fierce attachments of friendship or the rage of a child who has found in a friend the utopian reflection of her own fondest dreams for herself. What can console a child who has lost a friend? Nothing.

Your friend wants what she wants. She wants you. She wants it back the way it was. She wants you as her friend without your boyfriend. She doesn't care who he is. She wants you, her friend, and she wants as much as she can have of you. She does not want a brunch once a month. She does not want a joint birthday party. She wants her beautiful friendship back the way it was, when she would be excited to see you and hear every detail, when seeing you on the street lifted her heart, when hearing your voice on the phone made everything seem OK. When you two bonded over your devastating breakups, it was like you were two survivors in a lifeboat. It made everything matter. You clung to each other. It was a beautiful time. Although the adult in you knows things must change, the child, who provides the true beauty of friendship and its extravagant pleasures, the child is not pleased at all. Things have changed and the child does not like it one bit. The child is throwing a fit. This fit the child is throwing is a testament to the strength and beauty of your friendship. Do not pretend that it is simply unreasonable. It is unreasonable in the way that love is unreasonable. For friendship is love. It is not practical. It does not care to adjust for new boyfriends and new jobs. A friendship such as yours offers that rare and coveted escape from stodgy, warped and arid adulthood that we treasure as children and rarely recapture.

So this is truly sad. Forget about the boyfriends. Sure, you must have boyfriends and they must talk to each other at parties. But that is not the friendship. The friendship is you and your friend, and I beg you not to let this thing go. She loves you. She may be acting like an idiot but she loves you. She may not be able to admit it. She may for her own childish reasons find it necessary to say she loves you by harping on your boyfriend's imperfections. But what is that? That is only her way of saying that she wants no impediments between you, that she loved your friendship more than she can say, that she is inconsolable at its fraying, that she wishes with all the futile ardor of all futile human wishes that she could return to the garden of childhood where friendship was magic.

To rail at the idiocy of adulthood in this way is, I think, healthy! To rail at all that we lose when we try to be adults is good! To pretend that adulthood's pleasures can hold a candle to the fantastic passions of childhood's wonderland is folly, pure folly. We grow old and craggy. We take jobs that rob us of our strength. We host silly parties where adults try on costumes badly and where boys no longer battle openly but engage in haunted and covert sniping over trinkets of status, where women hide their passion for each other behind finely calibrated snubs and putdowns of those outside their circle, where each of us carries with us the enormous burden of loneliness and we want to hug or sing or play extravagant games but instead we sit stony and mute on couches or we gather in shallow kitchen chatter, all the time wishing that what we had once could return. To protect ourselves from the devastating and crushing grief of loss we pretend that this is fine, that this is what we enjoy, meeting for brunch now and then, "catching up" with each other, when really the joy and terror that we wish to share is the joy and terror that can only be shared by children hovering together under a tree out of the earshot of adults. We wish. We wish as hard as children. We wish for things. We wish for the extravagant friendships of children. But we are expected to let those things go silently, easily, freely, like adults are supposed to do. We are not supposed to cry. We are supposed to be adults. But friendship is not adult. Friendship is holy and crazy and engulfing. It is mad. We are mad children. So let us cry and grieve when business and boyfriends or in the case of us men when wives and families and the puny consolations of work take our friends from us. Let us shake our heads and rend our clothes and curse the heavens for putting us here where we must grow old and lose joy.

She's your friend. Go to her. Hug her. Kiss her on the cheek. Kiss her on the lips. Patch it up. Don't be such an adult about it.

Citizens of the Dream

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By Cary Tennis

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