The Changing Nature Of Friendship Over Forty
The year before I turned 40, I had a mental breakdown. The year I turned 42, I had surgery to remove a large mass in my colon. Between those two events, I learned who my friends really were and emerged with less than a handful of women who I really felt close and connected to.
Then, abruptly, two of them—separately— ghosted me. I asked each if there was something I had done or something perhaps they were going through. They both said no, but neither made any other effort at further communication.
Younger me would have obsessed over that and would have written long letters/emails of apology, even if I didn’t know what I did. When relationships ended, I always assigned the fault and blame to myself.
When I was in middle school and high school and would have some kind of girl-fight drama, my mother always took the opposing team’s side. “Oh, so-and-so has such a tough home life, you know… Well, maybe you said something that upset so-and-so…” These were almost always the types of responses I would get when I would complain that someone wasn’t being nice to me or leaving me out. Over time, the message I got was, whatever happens, it’s my fault and/or I should tolerate it because so-and-so has it worse than I do.
I also got the message from my older sister, too, that if my friendships weren’t good, it was my fault. I remember when I was a freshman in high school, after going through a painful breakup with my first real boyfriend and gaining a lot of weight, my big group of friends iced me out. “You need to lose weight and get your friends back,” my sister told me. Then she added that she thought I had pushed my friends away, not the other way around.
The message I got was that if someone wasn’t treating me kindly, if someone is excluding me or rejecting me, I’m the reason why—me—and it’s up to me to change and adjust so that I can gain that person’s affection back.
After years of being in therapy and then becoming a counselor, I understand that mothers and fathers and big sisters and brothers often take the other person’s side, so to speak. In many cases, they do it because they think they are shielding you from hurt, shame, or embarrassment. In the short-term, immediately taking responsibility for the demise of a friendship, immediately apologizing or accepting blame, will probably get you back in the good graces of the friend who shut you out — but in the long-term, the message you’re sending yourself is that your voice, your feelings, your hurt matters less, if at all. And it is this message that can lead to depression and anxiety over time.
As I got older, I realized that instead of, as my sister once put it, “cycling through friends,” what I was doing was allowing friendships that were no longer working to fade away. Friendships I made in college lasted a long time while we were all facing similar life stages, and then when my life went in a different direction, those friendships faded out. I stayed close with most of them for 10-plus years. Friendships I made through my first and second jobs were situational, and as I got married and had children, again my life changed — and so did those friendships.
Today, I have had the same best friend since we met 14 years ago, when our oldest children were less than two years old. This is an unwavering friendship that is rare because we’ve grown and changed individually — but none of that has been problematic in our friendship. While my closest friendships are less than I can count on one hand, people I talk to and socialize with regularly, I do have a network of what I call “mom-friends.”
These are people I know through my children, and while I do enjoy their company, due to time and circumstance, I don’t socialize with them outside of kid-related activities. I have the dance-moms and then the school-moms…we all can relate, at the very least, through the trials and tribulations of what are kids are all going through. We may not see each other all the time, but we’ve known each other for years and can connect immediately over dance recital rehearsal weekends, band concerts, or just the few minutes when we drop our kids off at each other’s respective homes for hangouts.
Recently, both of the women who ghosted me a few years ago re-emerged—one sent me a text, and the other I ran into when I was out and about in town. Both acted like there hadn’t been a long period of ghosting, but neither made an effort to re-establish what we’d had before.
While this would have reopened wounds if I were younger, instead it simply reaffirmed to me that it is truly best to let friendships fade when they no longer seem to be working. As the saying goes: “People come into your life for a reason, a season, or lifetime.”
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