Pam Cytrynbaum

Pamela Cytrynbaum

Because I'm the Mom

BFF or Toxic Mess? Big life events reveal strengths and faultlines in female friendships

Friends stress tests reveal Five Deadly Sins of BFFs

Posted Oct 18, 2009

It's always tough being the first friend in your best-gal-group to make one of life's big leaps. First one to get engaged, move away, get married, get pregnant. Among women friends, even though this is all good news, you're breaking a certain code. Frankly, you're wrecking things irrevocably because now they will never be the same.

I've always been that one in my crowd, so I know it's true what you hear, that friends - no matter how dear and close - have complicated, often deeply ambivalent or even hostile reactions when faced with best pals moving on.

I remember people telling me before my wedding to prepare for the fact that some close friends would let me down, and that I will never forgive them. There's something about those big events that make you more vulnerable, and your friends more vulnerable at precisely the same moment. Some friends will deliver for you in the most unexpected and astonishing ways - which you will never, ever forget. But it is true. Some will let you down.


Their own struggles with the issue you've embraced take center stage and demand to be heard and dealt with. For some friends, all the Five Deadly Sins of Friendship: envy, projection, betrayal, judgment, narcissism -- rear their ugly heads. Many of those relationships never recover.

Other friends will stay up all night with you on the night before you get married and talk through every single anxious thought, over and over again, (thanks Katy!) Others will make elaborate surprise gifts for you to open while you reluctantly drive (and sob) across the country with your new husband to your new lives and jobs, 2000 miles away from all you know and love. One gift each day, with a letter of love and support, to be opened at a particular moment of panic, in the car, on the road. Or they e-mail you a poem every, single day in your hard and scary last month of pregnancy, when you're still 2000 miles away from home and frightened out of your mind. (Thank you, Jessica!)

So it is with deep sadness, and shock, that I must report - again from the frontlines of friendship - that it is exactly the same when you're the first one in the group to have something horrifying happen. My brother's death - and my weeks of silence, grief and self-imposed isolation - have engendered the same range of reactions from good friends. There are those who call nearly every day, leaving messages that begin with "you do not have to call me back...just want you to know  I'm thinking of you..." and proceed to tell me a funny that makes me smile for a precious moment, or share an observation about how I survived something else, or about how grief is like an elevator deep down inside the ground, that even when you're actually going up, the doors open and it's still pitch black, so you don't realize you're going up but you still are. An observation that hits me hard, where I save the message, play it over and over because it helps me breathe. (Thank you, Dana.)

Or they come to Oregon from London or Chicago, despite insane obstacles and dragons they must slay to get there, just to sit with you, over tea, while you can't say much, and then, to listen, while you can't stop talking, because it's been an eternity since you've talked to any human being. (Heartfelt gratitude to Katy and Jess.)

Those relationships, one I thought could not be more solid, have deepened tremendously for me, even though I can hardly speak right now. Still, their consistent, selfless love and support are sustaining me.

And then there are the others. The women I thought I'd be safe with. The ones who, for whatever reason, simply could not put down their own burdens long enough to actually see mine. It is with a profound sense of loneliness that I must accept that those relationships are over, and maybe never really existed, because, I fear. I never really existed in them. These are friends who, rather than express sympathy or understanding, express rage, disappointment and judgment. In a variety of ways, some quite direct, they told me they experience my silence, my pain, my path through grief, as a deep, personal rejection and betrayal. One actually e-mailed to say she simply was not a big enough person to put her rage at me (at not being able to comfort me? Rage? Huh?) aside to actually comfort me.

For these women, these toxic friendships, my pain was beside the point. I was somehow not delivering something they believed they were owed. My brother's death was somehow all about them. I have to say that the women I'm talking about have been dear friends, are people I admire, are wonderful mothers and make huge contributions to their communities and to the world. It was a complete stunner to me to have my pain met with this reaction.

I was too shocked (and, frankly, exhausted and numb) to really process the loss of these particular relationships, until I came upon this post by a fellow Psychology Today blogger, Dr. Irene S. Levine.
In her blog, The Friendship Doctor, she wrote:

"Could YOU be a toxic friend? 5 Sure Signs"

This clarified it for me. Her description of what makes a toxic friend hit it. This released me. I'm out. I'm done. Big losses offer us a kind of friendship stress test. Some are going to pass; others will be revealed as detrimental to your health.

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