The friendship contract
About a year ago, one of my closest friends stopped talking to me. I still don’t know why. I called and texted, but she didn’t respond. I sent her lighthearted emails, checking in, and then longer messages. I’m confused, I wrote, can you please explain what’s going on? Are you OK?
When she didn’t respond, I crept onto her Facebook page like a spy, watching from what felt like an uncrossable distance as she cheerfully updated her status, left little clever comments under her other friends’ posts, and proceeded as though I had never existed.
We met in uni, where she was one of the only other women in my graduate course, and we grew close almost instantly. We stayed up all night sometimes, in my tiny studio apartment, talking about our entire childhoods, about our weakest moments, about our clinging, urgent hopes. When we were apart for a summer, we wrote sprawling letters. We were close enough to last a lifetime, I thought.
It’s fine, I’m fine, I told myself, as I began to obsessively catalogue the things I might have done wrong. Aha! It was that fateful time I asked her if she would like to try the foie gras when I took her out for a fancy birthday dinner. She was a vegetarian! How could I have been so stupid and insensitive? She must have thought, “If she doesn’t know by now that I don’t eat meat, she probably doesn’t know anything about me,” and then decided to protect herself from the benign (but crushing) neglect of my botched attempts at friendship.
That must have been it. Maybe that was it.
Actually, honestly, I had no idea what “it” was. I was left in silence, to agonize, replay the tiny moments, interpret and reinterpret, and finally, exhausted, move on. I thought of a boyfriend she’d had—a guy she’d been in love with for a long time, who’d suddenly broken it off. Wounded but determined, she’d pursued him anyway, and again and again, convinced him to talk to her, to explain.
“Do you think I should stop contacting him?” she asked me.
“Yes,” I said. “Don’t make yourself vulnerable.”
But she made herself vulnerable anyway, and he responded by trying to explain his perspective, by putting his decision in some sort of battered context, so that she could try to make better sense of it.
After she disappeared from my life, I felt like I imagined she must have, reaching out to that dashing, disinterested boyfriend. I was reaching out to her, trying to wring some sense out of the situation, but unlike him, she didn’t bother to respond.
And the whole thing made me think about how female friendships work. How different they are from romantic attachments, much of the time. We share our souls with each other, our most secret secrets, sometimes, but so often, we don’t know how to fight. We don’t learn how to be hurt by each other and keep going.
At least, I don’t know how to do that. And the friend who left me didn’t know how either.
I have always had close girlfriends. My friendships with other girls and women have often been profound, supportive, fulfilling, and desperately needed. For a lot of my life, I’ve had a best friend. And inevitably, something has gone wrong, and too often, we have split immediately apart, injured, trailing long filaments of messy emotion, but without attempting to bind ourselves together again. We simply don’t know what to say to each other when things fail. It would be intensely awkward, maybe, to admit that we are angry, fed up, that our feelings are hurt, that we feel neglected or offended. So instead, we just leave. Sometimes, years later, we come together again, once we are fully, separately healed. We politely avoid the subject of our former downfall.
Recently, I became friendly with an editor I was working with, and soon we were Skyping regularly, sharing stories of our personal struggles and talking about our partners and other relationships. I live in New York City and she lives in Chicago, and one day she asked if she could come visit. Spontaneously, I invited her to stay a week. We both work from home, so we agreed to work together at my table everyday and then hang out.
I was so nervous about meeting her in person for the first time. When she called to say she was a block away, I did a little dance of anxiety around the apartment.
“What if she doesn’t like me! What if we don’t get along! What if!”
“Don’t put so much pressure on this,” my husband said, amused and a little bewildered. “Why does it matter so much?”
But I was scared, because I had realised by then how vulnerable it makes me to share my life with close women friends, and how much it hurts when they vanish.
And then there she was, at my door. We hugged, and we were both a little awkward. But after a few hours, we were talking the way we had on Skype, spilling everything, laughing, comparing notes. And at the end of our awesome week together, my new friend said something that caught me completely off-guard.
“I want to have an agreement,” she said. “A kind of friend contract. I hope you don’t think this is totally weird of me. But I want us to agree right now to be honest with each other. If something is bothering you, I want to know about it. If you feel like I’m letting you down, please tell me. We can talk about it. I don’t want to lose you because you don’t feel comfortable telling me what’s going on in our relationship.”
I stared at her, stunned. I looked down, trying to organise my thoughts.
“A friend contract,” I repeated.
“Yeah,” she said. “Because sometimes women just stop talking to each other, and they never explain why. I’ve lost too many friends that way, and I want to start out right with you. I really want to stay friends with you.”
No one had ever said anything like this to me. I felt myself blushing. I wondered if I would be able to be honest, if something was really bothering me. I could do that with my husband, and I’d done it with boyfriends, but I’d never admitted to a friend when I thought things weren’t working. That type of honesty had felt out of place, almost forbidden. But it was the kind of honesty that I knew any long-lasting, close relationship needed.
“I’m in,” I said, before I was even sure about my own capabilities. “I don’t know if it’ll be easy for me, but I want to try.”
“Cool,” she said. We both laughed a little, not sure what else to say. We changed the subject.
And just like that, I entered into my first friendship contract. I can’t tell you yet how it will go. I don’t know. I just know for sure that I’m ready for something different in my relationships with other women. I want to know that I can count on my friends not to disappear, and I want them to know that they can count on me. And if, for some reason, we have grown too far apart or managed to offend each other so much that reparations seem futile, I want to know about that, too.
I think we all deserve an explanation, when a close relationship ends. When you have shared your most secret secrets with someone, and they decide they can no longer see or speak with you, it seems like they should at least attempt to let you know why, in as considerate a way as possible. Even if you were “just friends.” Because friendships are some of the most important, influential, soul-nourishing relationships we will ever have.
As girls and women, it’s possible that we learn early on to be polite to each other in a way that sometimes interferes with honesty and prevents us from revealing our true feelings, even when they are threatening our relationships with our friends.
So maybe it would help if we began many or all of our burgeoning intimate relationships with a friend contract. At least, until we learn how to fight and keep going.
“I agree to let you know how I feel.”
It seems like a good place to start.