friendship breakup

A few years ago…

…my son’s middle school friends mysteriously dropped him without explanation. Though devastated, he refused to talk about it no matter how gently I poked. But one day, after overhearing a rash of incoming prank phone calls through his closed door, he finally opened up. I held him in my arms, hot tears on my T-shirt. “You will find your people,” I told him.

As I consoled him, my thoughts traveled to my own soured friendships past. My last real falling out, I’d realized, had been about 20 years ago. With age comes wisdom, I figured, with a little bit of pride. I must have gotten better at vetting friends and no longer avoided conflict the way I did when I was younger. Maybe we all just eventually grow up — the rare perk of middle age!

But then a peculiar thing happened, as it often does when you think you have things all figured out. Life, that sly sneak, humbled me with the lesson that the more you learn, the less you actually know: In a brief whirlwind, I, too, lost a few friends mysteriously without explanation.

I came to think of it as Frexit.

And, boy, did it sting.

One friendship ended surprisingly abruptly when our children stopped being friends. Another few were slow drifts whose loss only came into sharper focus under the pandemic’s lens. And one couple, close friends whom my husband and I had known for over a decade, unceremoniously dropped us in a way I can only describe as Middle School Mean.

Making friends, I’ve realized, comes easily to me. It’s losing them I’m lousy at, even — and maybe especially — now.

I wish this could be a How I Got Over Them story. I wish I was one of those people who could shrug and say, Who cares? Their loss! But I’m the kind of person who stares out the window at the burst of birds flying together and apart and thinks, Why? I’ll puzzle over it while shampooing my hair. I’ll walk home from the grocery store singing a snatch of that Liz Phair song to myself, “And it’s true that I stole your lighter. And it’s also true that I lost the map. But when you said that I wasn’t worth talking to, I had to take your word on that.”

One friend loss in particular was impossible to get over because I’d hadn’t even realized I’d been ghosted.

Living in different cities, we were no longer in each other’s everyday orbit, but our decades-long friendship was warm and reliable with a magnet’s pull, like a dog who runs a thousand miles back to her family’s former home.

So assured was I of our bond, I corresponded one-sidedly with her for years, cheerfully keeping up for the both of us in unanswered texts and voicemails until one day, after passing milestones and the absence of a pandemic check-in, it finally sunk in: she doesn’t want to know me anymore.

To be fair, it wasn’t the first time she’d disappeared. She’s a free spirit and a bit of a flake. Forever losing her cell phone. Forever losing my number. The year after we both had gotten married, I had left countless messages with something big to share. When she finally resurfaced, I told her my news: I had had a baby.

“You are having a baby, you mean,” she said, her voice catching.

“No. I had a baby,” I told her nervously. “I have a little boy.”

An awkward silence gave way to tears.

“How could you have a baby without me?” she breathed.

“You stopped calling me!” I said, crying too. “I thought you didn’t want to be friends anymore.”

“How could you even think that, Rubisch?” she said.

We called each other by our last names, as though we were TV cops or people who played team sports.

Jones and I met in high school chemistry. I was the shy, new girl; the only freshman in a classroom of sophomores. She sniffed me out as studious, someone from whom, she later told me, she could cheat. She was the cool girl who dated the best friend of the boy I pined for from afar. There was something in it for both of us, I guess, but soon after, something sparked and we became inseparable.

We must have stood in front of a thousand mirrors getting ready for the concert, the party, passing the shared tube of frosty pink lipstick that practically crackled with mischief. We looked more like sisters than our own, actual sisters: pale skin, dark curls, blue eyes; suburban girls in thrift-store army pants and beat-up Converse sneakers.

The unspoken contract between us was that I would take care of her. I would be the responsible one who would help her navigate through life. She, in turn, would help molt my teenaged caterpillar into a less anxious butterfly. Hands tightly clasped, we pulled one other from girlhood into adulthood.

Our friendship made it through adolescence and the decades that followed. We went to the same college, danced at each other’s weddings and held each other’s children.

The last time I saw or spoke to her, she was in town for work and we talked and laughed so late into the night that she ended up forgoing her lux hotel and slept over.

But that was six years ago.

Now I don’t believe in Happily Ever After in romantic love — for me, that’s about hard work and renewed choice — but somehow when I meet a friend who makes my heart beat, I become giddy, like I found the other half of a winning lottery ticket. Friend loss is particularly wrenching, I feel, because it lacks the ritual of romantic breakups. In romantic breakups, we comfort ourselves with sad songs and movies (mine are Nothing Compares 2 U and all things Nora Ephron — I’m sure you have yours). We pull our friends around us like a weighted blanket to discuss our pros and our ex’s cons. It’s normal, even encouraged, to indulge in tear-smudged journal entries, tarot cards, pints of ice cream, wine and whine.

With friends, there are no such sad songs and routines. You might confide in a few people about this breakup but chances are, you ran in the same circles and can be met with embarrassment and loaded silence. A romantic breakup feels like grabbing a scalding pan from the stove with your bare hand — a searing pain that eventually heals and subsides. A friendship break is more of that creeping dull ache in your side that, although mostly ignorable, never fully goes away. There is secrecy and shame in admitting you were dumped by a friend. Even writing this right now, I’m imagining some of you reading it and thinking…what must be wrong with her?

My husband has bumped into the Middle School Mean couple a handful of times but I have not. He said they just pretend like nothing happened and gush about how much they miss us, as though we had moved to the last village on Earth without internet, and he just plays along.

But I can’t small talk and pretend we didn’t cry-laugh together on a thousand Fridays. Didn’t share years of parental worries, personal triumphs, work vents, takeout tacos, holidays, vacations. Didn’t expose our most vulnerable underbellies to one another on a weekly basis. I’m the kind of person who would run into them and say something so awkwardly grievous, I would play it on a loop for eternity. No, I needed to have a plan if and when I ran into them. A prophylactic retort-at-the ready, like George Costanza might. Because I want them to know that what happened was hurtful, but that I am okay.

My sister once told me about a Yom Kippur prayer, that, if not curing me of this friend loss heartache, certainly ameliorates and it is this:
I forgive you. I forgive me.

This is so simple but it stopped me in my tracks and I return to it often when I need it.
I forgive you. I forgive me.

For losing interest in you. For outgrowing me first. For anything offensive, annoying, deceitful or dumb thing either of us may have done or said. For just being our flawed, human selves.

I still haven’t run into those friends who dumped my husband and me and I don’t actually miss them, not anymore. I’m not going to lie: occasionally I’ll fantasize about them having, like, sudden onset couples alopecia. But in forgiving them and myself, I’m at peace with our break. We had a good run.

I did, however, figure out my George Costanza line.

I stumbled on it one day at random and it’s just the most shockingly ribald thing I could ever cook up. It’s nothing that can be published in an essay and I can’t even say it out loud without falling off my chair. I doubt I will actually say it if I do cross paths with them, but that’s ok. Just thinking of it grounds me, takes the thumb off the bruise. It’s exactly the kind of humor that would have once had us doubled and over and gasping, clutching each other in peals of laughter.

Lisa Rubisch started her career at MTV and now directs commercials and music videos for major brands at Park Pictures in New York. She also contributes writing to websites, anthologies and books, and has written other essays for Cup of Jo.

P.S. A small kindness I’ll never forget, and 11 reader comments on friendship.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)