Inviting a Monkey to Tea

Discovering lasting contentment

When Old Friends Stop Being Good Friends

Honoring the friendship without keeping the friend.

Friendships change, and not always for the better. Sometimes we find that a friend with whom we have had a long and important relationship is no longer someone that we particularly like or enjoy being around. Perhaps the friend has changed and become someone different or perhaps we have changed, and what used to work in the friendship no longer works.

Very often close friendships, the ones that feel like family, are like family. But what aspect of family -- this is the important question. A friend might present a similar challenge as a parent or sibling, and thus elicit the same feeling in us that we had with that family member. We then interpret that feeling as love and attachment. We say that friend is "like family," because in fact they are. We are often drawn to and surround ourselves with people who remind us of our parents, which then gives us another opportunity to correct the experience that occurred with our early caretakers. This unconscious drive to re-script the past with a new outcome is one reason that we stay hooked into certain long-term but unsatisfying/unhealthy friendships.

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As we become more self-aware however, we can examine our long-term friendships, particularly the ones that no longer feel good, and investigate what our sense of deep connection is actually built around, and whether that connection is something that we still want or need in our life. The flavor of the relationship may indeed be familiar, and familial, but is it still nourishing to who we are now?

It is easy to talk theoretically about friendship, but what are we to do when an old friend with whom we have a lot of history is no longer someone we like or respect, or worse, is unkind, competitive and/or critical of us? Now don't misunderstand me... I am not suggesting that we bail when the bumps come or when it no longer feels good all the time. There is no doubt that long-term friendships require seat belts and hard work, and most of the time they are worth the effort. This is not about bumps in the road of friendship. But what about when the effort is no longer producing a relationship that is nourishing or pleasurable -- when our old friend is no longer someone we like to be around? Ultimately it should feel good to be around our friends, at least at some level. It certainly should not feel bad. After all, friends are people we choose to include in our life. When it feels bad much of the time, we need to make a change.

Today's blog is not about relational strategies, however. Rather, it is about our relationship with friendship itself, and specifically how letting go and accepting the true lifespan of a friendship can align with a larger understanding of what friendship really is.

Mistakenly, we are taught that the only way to honor our history with an old friend is to stay in an active relationship. We believe that to let a friendship go because it is no longer nourishing or enjoyable (and may even have become harmful) is to dis-honor our history with that friend and eradicate the place that they occupied in our life. If we acknowledge that the friendship does not serve us any longer, it is tantamount to saying that it never had any value at all. We believe that what is true in the present must be consistent with what was true in the past -- one continuous experience. Otherwise the past cannot be true.

Unfortunately, we have it backwards.

When we allow an important history to be infiltrated with resentment and un-friendly feelings, we are in fact not honoring the friendship and not treating it with the love and respect that the friendship's history deserves. We are injecting something sweet with poison. We don't know it, but we can hold someone in our heart, actively, in the present moment, honoring the profound place they hold in our life history -- and -- at the same time, also know that the friendship's time may have passed. When we can be honest about a friendship, and about the season of life that the friendship belongs in, then, we can be truly grateful for the miracle that a friendship is. Trying to force a friendship to keep bearing fruit past its season is a disservice to its profound nature.

As humans, we are works in process and continually changing throughout life. There are friendships that belong in different places and at different times, with different versions of who we are. Because a friendship's time has passed does not mean that it was not and is not important -- still. To demand that a friendship continue past its rightful time can be an attempt to turn it into something it isn't, which is to take away from what it is. Sometimes the only way to get to have a forever friendship is to let it go in the form that it was and allow it to take on the form that it needs to be -- all the while holding it steady in your heart.

Copyright 2013 Nancy Colier

Nancy Colier, LMSW, Rev., is a psychotherapist, interfaith minister and the author of Inviting A Monkey to Tea: Befriending Your Mind and Discovering Lasting Contentment.

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