When a Best Friend Moves Away
A teen’s separation from her closest friend brings wisdom and perspective.
Posted Jun 28, 2019
Her closest friend moved away exactly one year ago. Facebook, in the role of archivist, reminded her of the anniversary.
She and Elaine had been best buddies since they were ten. I knew that the girls had seen each other several times since the move, beginning with Alison’s visit to Dallas last August. Elaine had returned to her suburban New York neighborhood periodically as she completed her course of orthodontia.
Inevitably, their daily experiences diverged more and more widely. Elaine entered a private high school, studied exotic languages and esoteric topics, followed a different calendar with alternative holidays, and headed off on a five-week summer trip to Europe, touring and visiting family, while Alison remained in her public school system, continued studying Italian, and was leaving for her fifth summer at a camp two hours away.
She will visit Elaine again in Texas over Labor Day weekend. They have been soul-mates, the kind of friends who instantly pick up where they left off, reactivating a unique bond forged from having shared a critical period of growth together.
I was reminded of Harry Stack Sullivan’s The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry. In it, he emphasized the importance of close relationships in our character development and relational competence. He attributed a special importance to the unique “chum” relationship, a same-sex attachment formed on the threshold of adolescence.
I asked Alison how she feels now, a year later, about the separation, wondering what would strike her most strongly. Her immediate feelings came first, quickly followed by reflection: “I’m missing her more now as the school year is ending. We had so many rituals we created to celebrate the end of a school year, along with the memories of all the things we did together. But I’m kind of glad that we did not begin high school together. If we had, there would have been so many more painful memories as the new traditions that high school brought rolled around every year.”
Her words nailed the uniqueness of the friendship, one not easily replaced. She thought about ways in which they had so easily created projects and activities, memories they built and shared, their bond that continued independent of current utility or convenience. She understood that their closeness would remain for a long time even though geographical distance brought separation in more than miles.
She also understood that she had to let go of what had been, allowing herself to move fully into her present. Her challenges, now confronted at age 15, paralleled those of any grieving person left behind, those familiar to anyone in a long-distance love relationship.
The importance of close relationships to our physical, psychological and emotional well-being has been richly documented. Harry Stack Sullivan, generally considered the founder of an interpersonal approach to understanding psychological development and treatment approaches that grew from such theories — those as diverse as family therapies and relational psychoanalysis — emphasized how the close pre-adolescent friendship with someone of the same sex was critical in developing a strong attachment to an “other” outside of the family, whom one could love, along with “a real sensitivity to what matters to another person.” It is the latter that sets this special friendship apart.
Until this stage of development, relationships are generally transactional. They are about sharing companionship (having a playmate), practicing (mastering), learning social skills (cooperating or compromising), or identifying one’s place in a pecking order (competing). The attendant rewards tend to be those of social play, increased competence and independence, or gaining information about the self in social space. This new type of connection focuses on what one person can bring to another that may enhance the well-being of that person, with no payback or other reciprocity required. It is a means of “doing family,” or reaching out to fill a need, rather than “doing business,” or bartering, giving in order to get. The early research of Margaret Clark in collaboration with Judson Mills defined the difference between these communal and exchange relationships. (Updates in this discussion appear in the references below.)
For the middle school child, acquiring a “best friend” represents taking a step towards flourishing in love relationships of the future. With their “bestie,” children can safely explore trust and growth; they can learn to cope with the disappointments that are inevitable as we all-too-human adults falter and fall short of each other’s expectations. Sometimes, we must even cope with betrayal. Skills in maintaining and repairing relationships blossom. Following repeated hurt, we develop ways to examine and respond to the limits of loyalty. The essential relationship question, “How are we the same and how do we differ?” emerges again and again, eliciting frustration along with wonder as the increased brain power of the adolescent offers reflection and analysis. The special friendship offers a foray into seeing oneself through another’s eyes, thus doing what Murray Bowen called “differentiation from the family of origin” in the service of the ego or self. In other words, growing up.
Separation from the “best friend” often offers a first confrontation with relationship loss. Alison had already helped bury her great grandfather, as well as beloved pets, but losing Elaine in her daily life was different. What does it mean when someone critical to the evolution of your very identity, your self-image, is no longer available to share those activities, to discuss in person in a timely fashion, to muse about the nature of life and self and love and meaning? To allow you to repeatedly see yourself as an effectively caring human? The blessings of loving blend into those of learning to let go. The appreciation of a “special” person reinforces the reality that roles can be replaced but people cannot. The gratitude for a full heart yields to respect for the impermanence of all that lives in material reality. And so we move on, forging new rituals, memories, and relationships. We become more fully ourselves.
Copyright Roni Beth Tower 2019
Clark, M. S., & Mills, J. R. (2012). A theory of communal (and exchange) relationships. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology (pp. 232-250). Thousand Oaks, CA, : Sage Publications Ltd.
Clark, M. S. & Aragon, O. R. (2013). Communal (and Other) Relationships: History, Theory Development, Recent Findings, and Future Directions. In Simpson, J. & Campbell, L. (Eds.), The Oxford Handbook of Close Relationships. DOI: 10.1093/oxfordhb/9780195398694.013.0012
Kerr, Michael, M.D. “Chronic anxiety and defining a self,” The Atlantic Monthly 262: 35-58, 1988.
Sullivan, H. S. (Ed.) (1955, reissued in 2001). The Interpersonal Theory of Psychiatry. Taylor and Francis. https://www.taylorfrancis.com/books/9781315014029