I spent most of my twenties and early thirties falling in and out of fast best friendships with women who were as wrong for me as the men I dated.
The trajectory was always the same: meet someone new and seemingly awesome. Grow excited about our shared affinities. Bond fast, become inseparable, confuse inseparability for closeness, and call closeness “best friendship” before actual closeness had time to develop.
I’d always divulge too much too soon, rushing to provide supportive best-friend words that were disproportionate to the amount of history between us. I’d feel important that I was the one she called during crisis situations—which, given how short a time we’d known each other, seemed awfully frequent. Then I’d somehow fail to be there for her during one of the many dramas, and she’d accuse me of failing to live up to the standards I helped set.
Suddenly, the “best friend” title would feel burdensome, like a scratchy wool dress I couldn’t remove unless someone else unbuttoned the back. We were both guilty: We had agreed to be best friends before taking the time to become best friends.
This happened maybe four times, which feels like three times too many. Once I identified the type of woman I was almost exclusively drawn to, I tried to recognize the signs, read the warnings, and pay attention to the dark tugging in my gut when something felt off. I slowed down and didn’t rush into friendships like I had, so by the time I met Delia*, I thought I had it all figured out.
She rushed our friendship, but I slowed the pace. I found her charming and funny, and spending time with her was a total blast. But whenever I left her company I felt either drained or bad about myself. Because I couldn’t quite name the feeling or how it related to her, I allowed the friendship to pick up speed and ignored whatever didn’t feel right. Instead of noting the danger signs, I drove right past them toward the feeling of sisterly connection I so desired.
One night when Delia and I were out for dinner, we had the following conversation. I remember it because it wounded me, and also because I wrote it down when I got home.
“I’m going on a blind date,” I told her.
Delia wiped Sichuan chicken from her lips. “With who?”
“Someone Maggie set me up with,” I said.
“Do I know him?”
“No, he lives upstate.”
“Where upstate?” she asked, leaning toward me.
“Tivoli, I think. Maybe Cold Spring.”
“I probably know him! Who is it?”
“Graham Hunter,” I told her, my mouth full of Chinese broccoli.
Her face dropped; she looked stunned.
“Really? You’re being set up with Graham Hunter?”
“Yeah, why?” I put my chopsticks down. I felt instantly disappointed about Graham Hunter.
“Do you know what he looks like?”
“No. Is it awful?” It was awful. I knew it was awful.
“No. It’s not awful. It’s the opposite of awful. Graham Hunter is gorgeous. He’s like, amazingly good looking and extremely funny. I just don’t see it.”
Now I was stunned.
“So I’m ugly and boring?” I balled my napkin up and put it on the table.
“No! I’m just saying…he’s really good looking. Like, super-handsome. Gorgeous handsome. And hilarious. One of the funniest people I know. I just…I don’t get why you’re being set up with him, that’s all. I don’t see it.”
For weeks, I felt ugly and boring. I was feeling ugly and boring when the New York Times included me in a roundup of downtown New York culture-makers. Delia was the last person to call me that day.
“So I guess you had a good day,” she said.
I didn’t like her tone.
“Yeah. It’s been fun. I got a writing assignment, so that was good.”
“Oh, someone wants you to write a blog post, or something?”
“No, actually. Someone at New York Magazine contacted me and asked if I wanted to write a feature.”
“Wait, what? They want you to write a feature article for them? Like the cover story?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“Why did they ask you?”
“What do you mean?” Now I really didn’t like her tone.
“You had your photo in the paper. It was a photo. How’d you get such a plum assignment because your photo ran in the paper?”
“Well, I’m a writer. It states pretty clearly that I’m a writer.”
“Yeah, but it was just your photo. How do they know you can even write?”
“What’s your point?”
“My point is that I sit at home every day, writing and pitching magazines to absolutely no avail, and you get your photo in a newspaper and now you’re the one getting writing assignments? How fair is that?”
“What is it you think I do with my days?”
“It doesn’t matter anyway. We want different things. I want people to know me as a writer and you…I don’t know what you want. I guess you’re just happy if people know you.”
Delia did have a point. Why did they want me for that job? It was just my photo and a small blurb; my writing wasn’t represented. I didn’t deserve the assignment based on a photo—she was right—but still, she didn’t have to be right in my direction.
The day after that conversation I heard Mike Albo on This American Life. He was reading from a new book he’d written with Virginia Heffernan called The Underminer: The Best Friend Who Casually Destroys Your Life. Listening to him taking on the insincere voice of the undermining best friend, I was struck with a queasy familiarity, overcome with such sharp clarity that I felt the plasticity in my neurons change. Delia wasn’t my friend; she was my underminer. She didn’t want the best for me. None of the women I’d rushed into friendships with were my friends. They were underminers! I was an underminer-attractor!
None of the women I’d rushed into friendships with were my friends. They were underminers! I was an underminer-attractor!
That one word was more meaningful to me than the word narcissist, which I’d previously applied to describe the type of friend to whom I felt drawn. Narcissist was just a basic noun, while underminers were nouns acting as verbs—I could never feel myself being narcissismed, but I could feel myself being undermined. The word liberated my feelings and validated my experience in a way I couldn’t have done on my own. Now that I understood what Delia was doing, I had a legitimate reason for walking away from our friendship, and I did.
The word underminer changed everything by giving the Delia’s of the world a name, and it provided me with the realization that I actually already had many best friendships. But these friendships, unlike the ones with underminers, had been built slowly, over time. They were healthy, made from actual love and not from the platonic in-love-ness that women allow themselves to get caught up in feeling for one another.
And it wasn’t long before I realized that while it was true that Delia was an underminer, it was also true that I was one as well. I undermined the possibility for true friendship by rushing the friendships, growing close too quickly, closing off the possibility of genuine and lasting connection.
Delia was the last underminer I allowed that far into my life. Once I learned to recognize the signs of an underminer, and to trust my own intuition, I was able to avoid friendships that weren’t genuine. I may have ignored the signs in the past, barreling past on my way to what felt like a close friendship. But after Delia, I stopped ignoring the signs. I chose to always follow my intuition. And since then, I’ve been underminer-free.
(*Names have been changed to protect the truly awful.)
Cover photo: kevinomara/flickr