Friend, Interrupted Part 2: Sudden Death

yep, this happens.

yep, this happens.

Prior to working on this series on female friendships I believed, wrongly as it turns out, that the end of friendship is something we don’t often discuss.  But even a cursory Amazon search will yield a host of books about this very topic  – and often, specifically about women’s friendships.  You can check out famous female authors writing about this in The Friend Who Got Away: Twenty Women’s True Life Tales of Friendships that Blew Up, Burned Out or Faded Away – or a clinical psychologist’s advice on this issue in Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend.  But since friendships, like romantic relationships are complicated, not all friendships end in the same way.  In particular what I want to talk about today is something that is often taboo for us to discuss but is also – unfortunately – a very common experience.  It’s what I call the ‘Sudden Death’ friend – the person who cuts you out of their life completely, unexpectedly, and without explanation.  Maybe this quote from Liz Pryor’s book What Did I Do Wrong? What To Do When You Don’t Know Why The Friendship Is Over, will sound familiar:

“It happens without warning, and it devastates you: Your closest girlfriend cuts you off completely. No more late-night phone calls and emails, no more catch-up lunches and dinners. She has decided for whatever reason to move on with her life and has left you to try to make sense of what happened. The experience can be as painful as the death of a loved one and as confusing as an unexpected breakup with a significant other.”

I have – for better or for worse – had more than one very close friendship end in this manner.  And it is heartbreaking.  It’s taken a lot of time to get over them.  I’m still getting over them.  But I’ve also started to see a pattern in these friendships – one that I’m hoping will help me avoid such a tragic scenario in the future – or at least, to get over it with less anguish if it happens again.  Because – as I have learned – friendships that end in this way are not about me – they are about the other person.  Now, this does not mean that I am either ‘innocent’ or a ‘victim’ – as a relationship of any kind takes two people.  However, the decision to cut someone out of your life with no explanation at all  – that takes only one person.  And that’s what sucks about it so much.  When we get dumped (by friends or romantic partners) if we can talk to the person and try to see where they are coming from and why the relationship needs to end for them – well, it can help us process it much better.  In the sudden death breakup the person who did not make the choice to end the friendship is robbed of a very basic human need: understanding.

But here’s the thing – understanding the type of people that end friendships without warning and without explanation can help you heal your way through these breakups.  Because in my experience sudden deathers have two basic things in common: first and foremost, in general these people have cut off – or Heathered – other close friends in the past.  And secondly, these sudden deathers often have difficulty addressing conflict in relationships.  Because we are human beings first and foremost, conflict is inevitable and knowing how to deal with conflict is potentially the most important tool for crafting healthy friendships (it is also the topic of my next post in this series).  So if you learn that a friend has a history of Heathering and seems particularly uncomfortable with/unable to address conflict or interpersonal issues with other people…tread carefully.  As I quoted in my last post (and am likely to repeat over and over): “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior”.  Sorry.

Just as it is important to suss out the type of friends who are apt to be sudden deathers – and distance yourself accordingly – it is also a good idea to understand how to react and process the situation if you find yourself suddenly and inexplicably cut off from a once-close friend.  If that happens to you, and I hope that it doesn’t, what follows is my advice on how to navigate these shark-infested waters.

Now somebody once said that you can’t please all of the people all of the time, but you can please some of the people some of the time.  But what I have learned – the hard way it seems – is that there are some people you can’t please any of the time.  No matter how hard you try.  No matter if you forgive and forget and try to embrace them with love.  “But I didn’t do anything wrong” – it’s a line I am known to say in certain moments – a plea in situations where I want the outcome to be different.  But what I’m realizing is that sometimes – even when you don’t in fact do anything wrong – there will be people who will still find a way to be angry at you, to not like what ever it is you did – even if you did nothing at all – and cut you out of their lives entirely.  And with those people, there is nothing you can do to change that.  Repeat: there’s nothing you can do to change that.  (Sorry again).

Most of us are familiar with that old Alcoholics Anonymous prayer which asks for the “serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”  Of all three parts I think it’s the last one – the wisdom to know the difference – that is most crucial thing.  It is also the hardest.  And for some of us, it’s even harder than hard.  Those of us that – by intention, by design, or by happenstance and history – find ourselves wanting to ‘save’ other people (even when it costs us our selves) may have the hardest time of all with this.  And when I say people who want to save others I don’t just mean doctors and firefighters –I also mean activists and teachers and social workers and community builders – all those well-intentioned people who see a broken system and want to fix it, who want to give people who might not otherwise have had it a chance to succeed in the world.  As a vocation, this is noble.  In personal relationships it can be devastating.

We all know what I mean, and I would wager we’ve all known someone like this in our past (or our present) – someone who we thought was so amazing and brilliant and perfect if only they would “X, Y or Z”.  And it really doesn’t matter what the XYZ is – sometimes it’s drinking too much, sometimes it’s lying, sometimes it’s just laying around/not living up to their potential, sometimes it’s a physical issue, other times it’s using certain words or volume and tone of speaking, or just taking things personally, or getting defensive.  But whatever it is – I’m here today to tell you that it doesn’t matter: YOU CANNOT MAKE SOMEONE STOP DOING X, Y OR Z….BUT YOU CAN SPEND A LOT OF TIME AND A TON OF EMOTIONAL ENERGY TRYING.  And if you do, here are the two things I can promise you: 1) it won’t work and 2) you will never get that time or energy back.  And this next one isn’t a promise but it’s damn likely: that person you were trying to change will probably end up resenting you for it – and you will probably end up resenting them too.  This includes people who are wont to end friendships suddenly and without explanation.  You can leave these folks a million teary voice mails, you can stalk them, ask mutual friends why they defriended you on Facebook, and I can almost money-back guarantee you that it won’t work, they won’t respond, and you will not come any closer to understanding why they walked away.

So if you are on the receiving end of a sudden death friendship here’s the best I can tell you: It will hurt – let it hurt.  Grieve the relationship – don’t let the person who walked away rob you of that.  But grieve it on your own.  Don’t go after that person, send them countless emails or leave messages begging them to just explain what happened – because it won’t bring you any closure.  As Wiz Khalifa said, “I don’t chase after anyone, If you wanna walk out of my life, then I’ll hold the fucking door open for you.”

Maybe it sounds harsh, but in the end you can give yourself the closure you need (that all healthy people desire) by realizing you are – or you will be – better off without that person in your life.  Even if it hurts.  Actually, because it hurts.  Since that hurting lets you know that you really cared about that person, and you are operating within the bounds of normal and healthy ways of connecting with others.  And as you go forward that door someone walked out on you through will be the same door a new friend – one who can love and care right back at you with the same devotion and generosity and kindness that you give to others – will walk into your life through.  So stay open to that – and as friends come and go through that doorway, and no matter how badly you may want to – don’t ever turn the lock.

Friend, Interrupted Part 1: On Heathering

the heathers

the heathers

In this piece in my series on female friendships I want to talk about a very particular type of friend that many of us have had – she can make us feel like we are part of a very elite group but without warning she can flip a switch and ice us out completely.  Her name is Heather.

I learned about this type of friend when, as a preteen, I was obsessed with the movie Heathers starring Winona Ryder (before she was a shoplifter) and Christian Slater (when he was actually cool).  I watched Heathers so many times that my then-best-friend and I had memorized one of the bitchy fight scenes between ‘Veronica’ (Ryder) and one of the Heathers, which we would randomly act out while in public.  If you haven’t seen this movie you should probably stop reading and go watch it immediately.  But if you don’t have time for that let me give you a quick synopsis.  The film centers around a very popular group of girls who are all named Heather (with the exception of Veronica).  Needless to say, the Heathers were awful awful people – obsessed with looks and popularity and (spoiler alert) ultimately punished by deadly revenge enacted by Veronica & J.D. (played by Slater in a not-so-subtle reference to Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye).  Of course, this movie – and it’s final climatic scene of outsider revenge came out decades before Columbine or any of the other school shootings that made the sexy outsider far less appealing.  But that’s not the point – the point of that film for me was really about the damage that friends can inflict on one another.

Later we would see similar stories of female friendships blow up and play out in movies like Mean Girls or in episodes of Sex And The City (which, contrary to popular opinion, did not coin the term ‘frenemy’, though it may be credited with its popularity in our modern vernacular).  But back in the 90s we just had Heathers, and their special brand of ‘friendship’ – one that is far more common in females (though not exclusive to them) and one that I would also like to say is more common in high school, though my experience as a woman in her thirties has taught me differently.  If you need more evidence of adult Heathers, and you happen to live in L.A., you can check out Alice Johnson Boher’s one-woman show “How to Break a Bitch & Other Lessons In Female Friendship”.

I’ll wager that many of us have known Heathers – the female friends that smile to our faces and then talk mad shit behind our backs.  Heathers are everywhere, and they are a big problem.  Yet more problematic is when they turn and enact a verb: Heathering – when one Alpha Heather in a group of friends ups the ante by not only shit talking about a targeted ‘friend’ but also using her power to get the other group members to end their friendships with the target.  Now, I don’t think I have to tell you this but usually Heathering is about jealousy.  In high school it was jealousy about a prom date, a good grade on a paper, or even over said target shopping exclusively at Benetton (what.a.bitch!).  Unfortunately, these Heathers graduate from high school, and bring their special brand of jealousy into adult life.

Now, under normal circumstances one would imagine that our friends would be happy for us in these situations, but many of us have experienced the opposite.  Our successes make our friends jealous and they can lash out – talking behind our backs about why we didn’t deserve that marriage proposal, job promotion, academic grant, or other professional successes.  And it’s not just frenemies that do it.  Sometimes it’s your best friend in the world – your ‘ride or die’ (as my young friends coin their besties).  A good friend of mine told me recently some sage advice that she said I wouldn’t like to hear: “no one wants to see you happier than they are”.  After a lifetime of interacting with Heathers, I think she might be right.

Now, I haven’t seen this dynamic play out in male friendships, but I know better than to make sweeping generalizations.  What I do know, however, is that many women in our culture are taught to compete with one another from a young age.  Is there competition among boys?  Absolutely.  But somehow that seems to play out differently.  And perhaps it is because for generations boys have been taught to channel aggression and competition into their athletic pursuits (something that was offered much later to our young women and girls).   Indeed many scholars have written about how sports can help men channel that competition into healthier venues (though of course there is also a critique of sports and the culture of aggression and violence it engenders (no pun intended) as well).  So whether it’s about sports or not, there is something different about how boys and girls are socialized around issues of friendship and competition – something we can recognize even if we can’t name.  It’s the reason why Heathers or Mean Girls don’t really have male equivalents.

It’s also the reason why the following happened on a recent episode of Go On.  On that (hilarious) show, radio sportscaster Ryan (Matthew Perry) and his producer Steven are talking to Ryan’s assistant Carrie about her beautiful friend that Ryan would like to date. Carrie says a few negative things about said friend, to which Steven meows (because any critique of a woman by another woman in our culture is automatically dismissed as cattiness).  And then this happens:

Carrie: “I am not being catty, it’s just…complicated to be her friend, okay?  She wins at everything and sometimes I don’t like myself when I’m around her.”

Ryan: “Yeah, I totally get that.  Steven, you know our friend that we hate because he makes us feel bad about ourselves?”

Steven: “No”

Ryan: “Right, guys don’t do that because it’s deranged.”

Guys might in fact do that, but in my experience at least, they don’t do it nearly as often as women do.  And not because women are deranged and men aren’t, but because jealousy isn’t the same in male friendships as in female ones.  I can’t explain it, but I can say – from first hand experience – that it is toxic.  So in the interest of weeding out toxic friendships here’s a handy guide to figuring out if your friend is a Heather:

*She comes to the rescue when you are having a hard time (going through a breakup, losing your job, etc.) but disappears when things are going really well for you.  This is clue number one.

*Clue number two: she has Heathered other people out of a friend group before.  In the otherwise unimpressive movie Side Effects, a character said a line that I haven’t been able to shake from my consciousness (and so you’ll probably see it repeated in future posts): “The best predictor of future behavior is past behavior”.

*And finally, your friend is a Heather if she regularly talks shit about her other friends (note that this is the biggest clue).  Furthermore, if your friend is talking about someone else to you then you can put money on the fact that she is talking about you to someone else.  Now, we all talk about our friends – so what is important is to fetter out those folks who talk about others in malicious ways designed to get you to agree with their own negative assessment of these people (as opposed to just sharing information among friends in a positive way, like, ‘Oh my god, did you hear that Ann is engaged?  Isn’t that awesome?’ or ‘I’m so happy that Margie got that grant for her research – she really worked hard on her application’).

So, if you find that your friend is a Heather here’s what you should do: back away, and find some new friends.  Sorry – I wish I could tell you there was another way, but there really isn’t.  And be aware that as you distance yourself from your Heather you will inevitably get Heathered by this individual (and anyone she has under her thumb).  That’s ok.  Know that it isn’t about you, and that by eliminating these people from your life you can make room for more positive influences, and friends who are truly happy for your successes.

[Next up in the series is one more bummer post about a certain type of friend you’ll want to avoid, but after that I promise to post a thing or two about how to create and maintain positive friendships.  In the meantime, if you have a story about your own Heather, or a request for a topic about friendship you’d like to see covered here, post it in the comments below.  Thanks for reading, and happy friend making!]

Girls Gone Wrong: Galentines, Valentines, Blah Blah Blah

Long before Amy Poehler claimed the best zinger of the 2013 Golden Globes when she referenced the Zero Dark Thirty/Kathryn Bigelow controversy noting that “when it comes to torture, I trust the lady who was married to James Cameron for three years”, Poehler’s character on the hilarious Parks & Recreation invented a new holiday: Galentine’s Day.  As Leslie Knope explained it:

“February 14th, Valentine’s Day, is about romance. But February 13th, Galentine’s Day, is about celebrating lady friends. It’s wonderful and it should be a National Holiday.”

This holiday has been warmly received by many, boasting it’s own Wikipedia entry, a tumblr, and numerous blog posts.  And it’s no wonder.  Because ever since Sex And The City’s Carrie Bradshaw uttered the famous sentence “Maybe our girlfriends are our soulmates and guys are just people to have fun with” many women have embraced this idea – on February 13th and beyond.  And that’s cool.  It’s important for us all to celebrate our friendships and not just our romantic relationships because – for men and women alike – our friendships shape who we are as people, and they can define us in important ways.

Now, if you think that I’m taking this opportunity on Valentine’s Day to talk about the magical, My Little Pony-esque, slumber parties and mani/pedi types of friendships between women I’m sorry to disappoint you.  Rather, today I’m introducing something decidedly non-Cupid inspired: a short blog series on women’s friendships, and in particular, what happens when these friendships end.

Because if it’s true that as women our female friends are our soul mates, then our breakups with friends (and we’ve all been there) – can be as, or even more devastating than a breakup with a romantic partner.  And it’s something we need to talk about, even if we may not want to.  So stay tuned, dear readers, for a little thing I like to call “Friend, Interrupted” – a series about how to get over breakups with our closest female friends without Ben & Jerry’s and without losing our faith in the power of friendship.