The Last Taboos

What we all think about, but never talk about

Learning to Leave Unloving Lovers and Unfriendly Friends

Betrayal is gender-blind.

Betrayal is Gender-Blind
Heartbreak: An Equal-Opportunity Destroyer
Out of the blue, the woman who had once been my closest friend and confidante left me a message that she was in the hospital. We hadn’t spoken in two years. I decided, after several days of agitated deliberation, not to call her back.

It was one of the hardest, and smartest, things I’ve ever done.

At first I was gratified—even thrilled—to hear her voice again, speaking my name. “Hello, Jeanne,” she said, informing me of her whereabouts, in the slightly stilted tone that I remember she uses when she’s uncomfortable: “I’m getting some tests, an MRI and some others. I think I’m all right. We’ll talk over the weekend.” My first impulse was to try to reach her immediately. But something about her message and the way she delivered it, both what she said and what she omitted, gave me pause.

I remembered all too clearly our last conversation. Then I had been the one in the hospital—for an entire month, with a dangerous but curable form of leukemia—and I had asked her to come and see me when I felt desperate for her company and some edible food, and she neither came, nor called, nor sent me anything, abandoning me on one of the darkest nights of my life. It took her two days to call me back with some sort of lame excuse (the food in the hospital was just fine, she thought). She had used the same tone then. She promised to call later and explain, but she never did.

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“Why on earth would you call her back?” said my husband, who knew the whole story. “Be careful.” His pronouncement seemed so bald, so final, so devoid of hope. It disturbed and frightened me because I didn’t want it to be true. Here was my chance to get back the one woman in the world who spoke my language when I thought I had lost her forever.

We had been soul mates and professional colleagues for twenty years before she vanished, each other’s bulwark in life. She was brilliant, mordant, and astute, and I loved that she never suffered fools. Our conversations were my stimulant and my solace; “I’ve never talked to anybody the way I talk to you,” she told me once, and I felt the same way. But even before she deserted me, the fallout from an extended marital crisis had made her increasingly self-absorbed and subtly demanding, and I found those conversations less mutual as time went on. Her fuse also got much shorter, and I, who prided myself on addressing problems in relationships, somehow never felt I could reveal my growing discontent without risking the fallout of her displeasure.

Despite her shocking behavior, I missed her so intensely that I wasn’t ready to give up on her yet, so I made excuses for her, putting the best possible spin on that twenty-second message: Clearly I wasn’t forgotten. She was seeking me out; she was turning to me in her hour of need. Maybe she felt all the things I hoped she felt, but couldn’t put them into words. Maybe she was reaching out, in her way. Being hospitalized must have brought me to mind. Maybe she identified with me, felt sorry about the way she had acted, and wanted to make amends. It must have taken a lot to make that call; after all, she risked getting me on the phone, and then she would have had to explain. I was glad that I hadn’t been home, because caught unawares I would certainly have followed my first instinct and engaged with her, even if all she wanted was advice. But shouldn’t I at least give her the benefit of the doubt after two decades of intimacy, acknowledge the effort, and send her a brief email asking what she wanted to talk to me about?

I couldn’t immediately see the message for what it was: the presumptuous, self-absorbed expression of a person who now only thought of me to make use of me—for support, for attention, for the medical expertise I had often provided for her in the past. I couldn’t accept that anybody who could leave that message, regardless of what she had once been to me, was no longer capable of apologizing, or worth being given the opportunity. The person I wanted back in my life didn’t exist any more, and hadn’t for years.

The first sensible thought I had was to do nothing, to wait and think it through. If she was sincere, if I really mattered to her still, she would certainly call again. I listened to her message twice more, and asked my husband to listen as well in case I was misinterpreting. So much seemed at stake that I felt I had to be careful; onefalse step and she might retreatforever. The fate of the relationship seemed entirely in my hands, a thought that in itself should have tipped me off to its precariousness.

Then two songs came into my head.  I found myself singing them aloud, over and over.  “Cry me a river, cry me a river. I cried a river over you,” I belted as I walked around the apartment pondering my options. This bitter torch song segued into Linda Ronstadt’s “You’re No Good.” the unofficial anthem of all reformed masochists—and of masochists trying to reform.  I hadn’t thought of it since the Seventies, and very satisfying it was to sing:

Feeling better, now that we're through
Feeling better to be over you
I learned my lesson, it left a scar

Now that I see what you really are…

But why, I suddenly asked myself, was I singing about exorcising a tormented love affair after getting a cryptic call from a former friend?  Because the state of mind that she evoked in me—the paralysis, the desperate attempts at self-control, the justifications that couldn’t justify, the anxiety that a wrong move on my part could doom it, the strangulated fury, the feeling that parting would be unendurable—was exactly the same.

I had heard that same heedless tone she used, in far more brutal circumstances, from the first man I felt I couldn’t live without. He was a wry, lithe, elfin-eyed graduate student with golden curls and a BMW motorcycle who was on a six-month fellowship in the sciences from another university, and I was an intense, lonely eighteen-year-old sophomore. My parents’ marriage was disintegrating and I made him my refuge, though he could not shelter me. I would do anything to have him reach for me, even though his tie to me was ambivalent at best, even after he told me he preferred an old girlfriend in another state. The night before he left town forever, my darkest until the one on which my friend forsook me, I waited by the phone that never rang. When he finally came to say goodbye the next morning just before he rode out of my life, he explained gratuitously that he had been consoling another women who was broken up by his leaving. Unprotesting and dry-eyed by force of will, I let him kiss me goodbye and promise to stay in touch. 

But even this did not break the spell. To my astonishment, he actually did write and call me over the next year, often to ask advice about other women and to tell me about his travails with them. “You’re the first person I think of when I want to talk,” he said, and despite everything I was gratified to hear it because it meant I was special to him. When he came back to see me briefly the following summer I welcomed him with a combination of vengefulness and excitement.

My entire adult life, my long career as a psychoanalyst, and thirty-three years of marriage to the man who showed up every day I was in the hospital as well as every other day, had not severed the bonds of hunger, despair, and enraged humiliation I buried in 1966. My reactions to my friend’s call catapulted me back to my long-lost lover and exposed a wound that had never healed, that I had not even realized I bore. I knew the outlines, but the full brunt of the experience had lain, unmetabolized and radioactive, a template I thought I had excised long ago, until I heard her voice.

The parallels between these two people from opposite ends of my life were both eerie and enlightening. The common denominator was that both seemed so essential to me that I would do anything to keep them, to the point of ignoring information that would make a more rational person flee. Betrayal is gender-blind, and sex is a sufficient, but not necessary, component. A woman can hurt you as much as a man. Oscar Wilde was right about friendship being more dangerous than love because it lasts longer.

Masochism is an equal-opportunity destroyer, and crumbs from the table are the same, whether they are offered by men who kiss your eyes and then turn away, or women who prize you and then disappear when the going gets rough. It can hide behind the most beguiling facades, and it can seduce you at any age if your history makes you susceptible. The trappings of midlife empathy can be as deceptive and compelling as adolescent passion, as skin-deep as beauty. And the cure is the same: walking away. It took me almost half a century to realize this, and only three days to do it.

 

Jeanne Safer, Ph.D., a psychotherapist in New York City for 40 years, is the author of 5 books on taboo topics.

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