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Gone from our real lives but haunting our virtual ones: How friendships end in the instagram age

Anne and I were inseparable--then we drifted apart. But I couldn't stop watching the life she was living without me


Mary M. Mann
October 7, 2014 3:00AM (UTC)

The other girls are here already, says the hostess, at a table in the back. Technically we’re women, but that sounds like a word to describe our mothers, and “ladies”—smacking of misapplied gallantry and sisterhood sitcoms—is even worse. It’s enough to make you wonder whether we’re meant to be in groups at all.

Still, I sit down with the four girls/women/ladies, who I’ve known since I moved to the city four years ago, and feel lucky. Lucky to have friends who make time for each other’s problems and obsessions, who even ask to see the most recent picture of my dog though they know that means I’ll show them fifty. But there’s always a bit of sadness when I sit with them too. Despite the rhetoric of female friendship—childhoods of writing BFF on notes and wearing half-heart lockets and reading about kindred spirits in "Anne of Green Gables"—the majority of all friendships, male or female, don’t last forever. I’ve had some experience with this already.

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But if we have a last day, it’s not today. We drink and talk about work. We eat and talk about boys (men? dudes?) With elbows on the table we talk about family and heartache and clothes. We talk about other friends, conversations that go something like: “Have you seen so-and-so? How’s so-and-so’s new place? So-and-so finally broke up with that cop!”

Someone asks, “Have you seen Anne?”

And I answer, “Just on Instagram.”

The rest of the table will sigh and nod. We all have those people who’ve disappeared from our in-person lives but still haunt our virtual ones.  We watch these ex-friends live their lives on a screen, wondering how real this photographed happiness is, whether they’ve changed or remained the same, whether things would work out better if you’d met today.

When Anne and I met at an internship we were both still new to the city, single and essentially career-less. Our first night out together, we broke up a fight between two pool players and the bartender gave us roses as a thank you: an epic beginning to a friendship we were sure would be epic in the more traditional sense, long and storied. But we’d only been friends for about six months when I began dating someone, then a year later started grad school, and Anne complained about my lack of availability. She’d met a guy too, but had a bad breakup—so bad that she stayed at my place for a few nights. Still, I was never able to go out as much or stay out as late as she wanted, and she let me know I was a bad friend; I didn’t love her enough. I began to avoid her because I’d end each interaction feeling guilty, but my exasperated avoidance naturally upset her more.

We grew apart slowly—a lunch here, an after-work drink there—until one day, after two years, it was just over. We’re no longer friends but nobody told the Internet, so I still see her face every day: laughing in a bar with new friends, smooching a guy, traveling to an exotic locale. I watch her life happen on my phone, big and bright and well-filtered.

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Yet we haven’t reached out to each other since her last birthday. I sent her a birthday card and received no response, no invite to her highly Instagrammed party, and I don’t blame her: we were no longer real friends by then. I was actually relieved not to be invited, and this relief makes me suspect that maybe she was right, maybe I didn’t love her enough. I scroll through pictures from the birthday I wasn’t invited to and can’t help but think: if we were friends, real friends, shouldn’t I want her back?

***

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Proust wrote that even very close friends will, “after a certain year…cease to make the necessary journey or even to cross the street to see one another, cease to correspond, and know that they will communicate no more in this world.” The choice was as simple as that, in Proust’s 19th century milieu—if you didn’t cross the street and were careful which social functions you attended you could reasonably assume you wouldn’t see your ex-friend, especially if they engaged in the same stratagem.

Given the writer’s love/hate relationship with socializing in general—friends called him “the best of listeners” and claimed “one never got bored at his house,” while Proust believed, as Alain de Botton has written, that friendship was “a lie which seeks to make us believe that we are not irremediably alone”—one can assume he would’ve held a similarly binary view toward Instagram and Facebook. Social media makes it easier to start a friendship (friend or follow) and continue one (like, comment, chat), but awkward to end one. Picture Proust, lying in bed with his phone, scrolling through photos of Lords and Ladies (actual ladies, not “hey ladies!” ladies), and seeing the ex-friend he wouldn’t cross the street for. Does he like? Does he comment? Does he continue to scroll, but remain aware of that ex-friend’s virtually shimmering life as the day goes on? Or does he make the definitive statement of unfollowing or defriending?

I can’t speak for Proust, but I’ve certainly thought about unfollowing Anne. Her photos in my feed are a daily reminder that friendships don’t all last, that I’ve failed her and she’s failed me and it’ll probably all happen again and I can’t even guess with whom.

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She might not even notice if I unfollowed her, but then again she might, and anyway I’d know. The decision feels so permanent. On the off chance we were to rekindle our friendship, would I re-follow her? Then she’d definitely know I’d unfollowed her. If she knew, would she be hurt? Would unfollowing permanently close the door to future peace?

This is the sort of thing I obsess over when I can’t sleep and my mind grabs for worry. It’s always personal stuff, which somehow compounds things, since there’s the worry and also the guilt for self-indulgent worrying. I’d feel virtuous if I was up all night thinking about climate change or even work, but melting ice caps or looming projects are never on my mind at one in the morning. Instead it’s always people, usually friends, even more usually ex-friends, and not just Anne. There are older rifts, pre-Instagram, so the wounds are less fresh and the reminders less regular. But all it takes is a brief daytime prod at memory—an innocent question from my mom, a crumpled birthday card found under the bed, or in Anne’s case a grinning Instagram photo—to wake me in the dark non-hours of night, wondering what I did wrong, what she did wrong, what we did wrong.

**

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“What’s wrong with me?” and “What’s wrong with her?” sum up most comments on The Friendship Blog, an advice site run by psychologist Dr. Irene S. Levine, who wrote the book on friendship termination: "Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend." According to Levine, there’s not necessarily anything wrong with either party if a friendship ends. After sending out surveys and conducting interviews, she found that “contrary to myth, the large majority of friendships—even very good ones—fall apart over time.”

Predictably, I came across The Friendship Blog late at night. That evening’s bout of insomnia was sponsored by an old email from an ex-friend that popped up as I searched for something else.

When Maria and I met, I’d just transferred colleges due to raised tuition and lack of funds—I was embarrassed and lonely and had a long-distance boyfriend who asked, a few weeks into my new life, if we could have an “open” relationship. Maria was my first friend at the new college, and our relationship had a pattern: I clung to her, then acted aloof because I was ashamed of being clingy, then I glommed right back on. Given all this, I’m not surprised she didn’t answer my calls once we graduated and moved away, but it still hurt—however irrational, I wanted my worst self loved as much as my best self.

But we remained friends on Facebook (social media rears its head again) and two years later, when the site informed us we were living in the same town, she asked if I’d like to get dinner. I declined. I was mad and ashamed and wanted her to know she hurt me. Now I no longer have a Facebook account, and haven’t searched for Maria on Instagram. Today I’m more ashamed of pettily refusing to go to dinner with her—smacking her down for not loving me as much as I’d wanted her to—than I am of all that came before.

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More often than not a fading friendship is just that: bad timing. She needs a party buddy to get over a breakup, you need a study buddy to finish your thesis; she wants closeness, you need space. Whatever story forms around a break-up—I did something wrong, she did something wrong—its roots are usually in circumstance.

So why make up a story at all? It seems we assume guilt or lay blame in order to make sense of failure—according to Levine, women especially “have a difficult time separating from each other because emotional connection is so highly valued and broken friendships are seen as failures.” But if the majority of friendships eventually end, then why class a breakup as failure? Historian Patricia Spacks offers a clue in her observation that eighteenth-century women, deprived of the rights to engage in meaningful activity, spoke of friendship as a duty that “converts social life into moral necessity,” thus giving their lives purpose. While we don’t speak of friendship as duty anymore (if we did I suspect it would be insulting), we still behave as if it is. “Eighteenth-century idiom makes friend a synonym for relative,” writes Spacks, and this practice will sound familiar to anybody who’s ever watched "Sex and the City" or listened to Sister Sledge or written LYLAS in a school yearbook.

Perhaps a fault-finding, shame-ridden reaction to friend breakups is vestigial as the appendix, which prompts the question: what if we didn’t lay blame or take on guilt? Could we do it, and if we could, wouldn’t that actually make us kinder to both our ex-friends and ourselves?

**

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Back in the restaurant, the five of us girls/women/ladies have finished eating and drinking and are now just sitting around, napkins on the table, telling stories. The moment is comforting and also a little embarrassing because it’s so unintentionally cliché, as if "Sex and the City" directors crafted it—it makes sense that the "Girls" pilot featured a scene discussing that Prada-wearing elephant in the room of female friendship.

We settle the bill, hug goodbye, go our separate ways. The walk home is long and I get out my phone, scrolling down Instagram as I wait for various lights to change. While I was at dinner, Anne had posted a photo: not of herself laughing uproariously or kissing someone or generally having the best time ever, but of a bag of tater tots. Looking at it I remember a rainy day cooking crappy food—not tots but boxed mac and cheese with hot sauce and crushed crackers—then Anne getting out a pair of scissors, me sitting on a kitchen chair above newspaper, and her cutting my hair.

Our friendship wasn’t all good, but it wasn’t all bad either, and though I’m wary of going back to constant contact, it also doesn’t make sense to do this: watch her life and talk about it with other people but not acknowledge her. Maybe there is a boon to post-friendship social media, better than a world in which we simply refuse to cross the street—the amorphous “we’re not friends right now and I don’t know if we will be but that doesn’t mean I’m pissed at you or that you’re a bad person” that a simple click on the heart icon might convey. Just as the light changes, I like her photo.


Mary M. Mann

MORE FROM Mary M. Mann


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