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When a Longtime Friendship Suddenly Ends

There was a time when we were inseparable.

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Woman looking at digital picture frame with the image showing friends becoming less happy.
Raúl Soria
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We met in the park when our daughters started kindergarten, watching our kids zoom down the slide. Susan and I discovered how much we had in common: movies, novels, cooking, politics, philanthropy and our daughters. She was a graphic artist, I was a college professor; we were both balancing marriage and motherhood with our careers.           

“I have to warn you — I have very strong opinions,” Susan said, laughing.           

I did, too, but in a quieter way.           

Strong-willed and charming, she was never boring. I’d been a shy child and was attracted to her outspokenness. As we grew closer, our daughters branched apart. Susan’s daughter had an SAT vocabulary before middle school and ate tuna tartare; my daughter existed on mac ’n’ cheese and gymnastic classes.           

We merged our families every Thanksgiving. By the time our daughters were tweens, they acted as if they’d been set up on a bad blind date at family gatherings.           

As my mother’s dementia advanced, Susan called every day, never tiring of my tears. I always listened to her problems.

“Thanks for pulling me in from the ledge,” she often said. “We get along better with each other better than with our husbands,” I joked.           

“Someday,” she predicted, “we’re going to live together as roommates.”           

At first, I ignored how controlling she was. She always picked the restaurant, the movie, the holiday menus. It seemed easier to be told where and when to show up. I was overloaded with decisions about my students and my ailing mother. She always had to be right and never apologized if proven wrong — even with her husband.           

Once I treated her to the theater, and she spent the intermission disparaging the actors, the playwright, the entire notion of live theater. Silently fuming, I regretted not speaking up to voice my opinion: She was an ungrateful guest, ruining my enjoyment. I was growing weary of her opinions and bossiness. Perhaps she sensed it.           

She boasted that her daughter was bound for the Ivy League, suggesting colleges for my daughter below her potential. I hated confrontations; the shy child inside was still holding me back. I’d silently feel hurt, and then she’d drop off homemade cookies at my door the next day.           

Her daughter flew across the country to college. Susan pretended not to be upset, although I knew what a void this would leave, as she’d tried to influence every aspect of her only child’s activities and interests. She assured me, “We’re going to have a great time as empty nesters!”           

Whenever we met, I sensed an increased tension if I mentioned how close I was to my daughter, less than a three-hour drive away.           

“Mine hardly ever reaches out,” she said, and changed the subject.           

We were both in celebratory moods when I took her out for a birthday lunch, an annual rite. She chose what we’d eat, which wine to order. We toasted as if we’d share every birthday forever.           

Yet after her birthday lunch, I’d text her, suggesting a long walk or a visit to a museum. “Sounds great,” she’d write back, “but I’m busy.”           

She kept being “busy.”           

Frustrated, I decided to wait for her to initiate. She never did. I was dumped. After sixteen years! I felt devastated.           

We didn’t have a specific argument or precipitating factor for our friendship’s demise. Like many, I’d drifted from certain college buddies and grown apart from a few friends when I had a baby. I remained baffled about Susan. Instead of inquiring, I let our bond wither. Perhaps I was ready to move on too. As much as I’d been attracted to her take-charge attitude, I didn’t want to admit, even to myself, that our friendship wasn’t a healthy one.             

“Sometimes she was mean to you,” my daughter observed.           

A lifelong friendship should be nurtured and cherished, but many have a natural rhythm and ending. “We have seasons when we flourish and seasons when the leaves fall from us,” writes Katherine May in her memoir Wintering. “Given time, they grow again.”           

Not always.           

I missed Susan, but less over time. The hurt took longer to recede. A year later I ran into her at our local farmers market. We stopped and stared, momentarily stunned. Then she turned away and rushed off in the opposite direction.

In her 70s, my mother claimed it was impossible to make new friends. But losing Susan motivated me to forge new friendships and reestablish others that had languished. Seven years after I last saw her, my social circle is stronger and still widening. Many of my closest friends are ones I made post-Susan.           

I’ve always regretted that I didn’t seek closure to the way we crashed from daily check-ins to silence. Nervously, on a recent whim, I bravely texted her, asking her to clarify why we broke up. She didn’t respond. Some friendships are seasonal segments in our lives. Not all of them are infinite. I’ve become less cautious about speaking up to a friend if a problem arises. I hope they’ll do the same with me.

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