The friendship contract

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

63 comments

  • This is perfectly logical for functional friendships with functional women. It's not logical when you've been used and abused as a "friend" for a long time by a sociopath. Then it's like leaving an abusive romantic relationship: necessary to cut all ties and get the f$#k out of there.

    Commenter
    Time moves on
    Date and time
    December 19, 2012, 8:00AM
    • Yup, been there. Took me way too long to say to myself, "I am not putting up with this toxic crap and hoping it will get better any more". That's the only 'friendship' I've explicitly ended. Don't think anyone had ever called her on her crap before, judging by her reaction.

      Commenter
      photondancer
      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 11:12AM
    • I also decided not to put up with the arrogant "friend" who kept on sucking blood out of every possible humang being arround her (and her husband) for years, who went so many times too far in being blunt, "honest" and disrespectful, even towards sick and the kids. At one point you have to cut the tie and let them go. I never looked back and I do not have intetion to further explain myself. One email was enough and if I had to do it again, I would use the same words, the same method. Sometimes things just pile up but are not big enough to discuss them in isolation. Then, one day, you just have enough...

      Commenter
      lg
      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 12:49PM
  • I don't agree,Kate. I think it depends on the circumstances. You can't judge every situation on the basis of your experience. I ended two close friendships of nearly ten years without giving an explanation because I judged it was the best thing to do for my own health at the time. I had been diagnosed with primary breast cancer,which had spread to my lymph nodes. I had a 50% chance of being dead within five years. My divorce was due to come through any day. I had a young child to care for. At first, my friends were wonderful. But as time went on, their compassion faded. Eventually I hit rock bottom and realised they just weren't there for me. A huge chasm opened between us. Knowing them as I did, I decided that it was best for me at that stage to just stop seeing them, rather than be drawn into a long, emotionally draining discussion that would most likely end in a very distressing argument, which I just didn't need. I also decided to move, which was the best thing I could've done.

    Yes,I missed the closeness we'd had before and grieved for that. But, I always reminded myself that they showed what friendship really meant to them. They were the kind of friends I didn't need.

    Commenter
    Newlife
    Date and time
    December 19, 2012, 8:34AM
    • To me, friendship means forever. I have had friends stop talking to me and come back. Maybe I should draw an line, but my line is "Be the change you want to see in the world" which means, if you were once my friend you will always be my friend, end of story. Maybe not close bosom buddies any more, but I will always be there for you.

      Is that such a hard thing to do any more?

      Commenter
      Flingebunt
      Location
      Brisbane
      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 1:23PM
    • Flingebunt, you seem unable to understand that my point is that people have different experiences. You have extremely little idea of what my experience was. I gave only the barest minimum detail, yet you're so quick to judge. You seem to have extremely little capacity for empathy and compassion, which are now the most valued qualities I have in my friendships.

      Good day to you.

      Commenter
      Newlife
      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 2:24PM
    • Newlife - I hear you and I feel for you.

      When I was diagnosed with breast cancer I had 5 very close friends. Now two years later it's four. The fifth was in contact for the first 5 weeks, and then after saying she would call me next week, she just never rang after my first chemo. This is someone I had been friends with since we were 4. Two years later, she rang out of the blue. No mention of my health, what she did, nothing.

      I just can't get over it, and I will never forgive her. The truth is, some people are just not very nice.

      (My husband says a man would never do that to someone. And if he had a friend who was annoying him he would say so and be clear in his communication. Maybe its a gender generalisation but I kind of think he is right. )

      Commenter
      Lily
      Location
      CBD
      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 5:53PM
  • I remember once when yet another friendship of mine had collapsed, leaving me wondering what had happened, my mother in law said "All your friends horrify you at some stage", quite blithely as though it were a deeply accepted fact.
    The idea of a contract is interesting but it will only work if the people adhere to it (duh!). I think that people who have the ability to cut you off without an explanation are also likely to be the sort of people who would ignore said contract.

    Commenter
    Protagoras
    Location
    here
    Date and time
    December 19, 2012, 8:38AM
    • What a great idea- a friendship contract!

      I "broke up" with my best friend of 12 years a couple of years ago, and as part of my healing I became very close to my sister-in-law. She's now one of my best friends.

      So, when we fought last year, we had to approach it differently. Normally, both of us would have walked away from the friendship after that kind of big blow up, but she's married to my brother and is the mother of my much loved loved nieces and nephews. We *had* to deal with this problem and get it squared away.

      So we sat and talked it over- we cried, and we talked over the stuff that had been building up. Now, we can get through pretty much anything, because we talk about it right away (right now, we're both going through some crap and are 2000kms away from each other. Can't wait until I see her on Sunday to reconnect!).
      Because we had no choice but to see each other, we had to deal with it. And it was wonderful! I highly recommend making a point of bringing up the idea of a contract with your closest girlfriends while things are good- plan for the worst be prepared!

      Commenter
      At Work
      Date and time
      December 19, 2012, 8:50AM
      • When you don't want to be friends with someone anymore, you don't owe them anything. The friendship and the obligations that implies ends when you decide it's over, not when they decide you've done enough.

        Reaching out and trying to insist on a right to know why the friendship ended is grasping at straws, it's clutching at the ghost of something that isn't there. It isn't healthy.

        When the other person closes themselves to you, leaving yourself open and trying to demand they keep themselves open to you, for 'just a little longer, long enough to explain why', is poor boundary function and leaves your emotionally bleeding. The cure is to staunch the wound, close it off, so begin heal yourself, without them.

        Commenter
        Christian
        Date and time
        December 19, 2012, 8:52AM

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