Friendship: A Retrospective
“Nothing hurts like a friendship break up.”
In my early twenties, I experienced my first friendship breakup. The details of that friendship and the reasons that led to it ending are not relevant. What is relevant is that I wanted out but I didn’t know what to do, how to do it, whether my reasons were valid enough to end almost a decade of friendship. Trying to figure a way out, I became less responsive to text messages, often choosing to reply to the outdated memes and thinly veiled insults she’d send with a few cry-laughing emojis and tossing my phone to the side in defeat. I eventually uninstalled WhatsApp altogether, just so I wouldn’t have to see her messages coming in. But they just kept coming and I kept on staring at the ceiling trying to push away the overwhelming dread that washed over me whenever I would hear a text notification.
Neither able to fight or flee, I just froze.
I was in that surreal stationary place one evening when I heard an unusual barrage of texts coming in. Then a phone call. Then three more, then another two texts. Clearly, someone was dead, so I pulled myself out of the funk to find out what was wrong. When I saw those messages I almost shit myself. The first message started with a tone of concern, why wasn’t I as communicative and if anything was wrong, but what was jarring was seeing the tone jump from concern to rage to nostalgia and then leap back to rage. How dare I throw away years of friendship, how dare I shut out someone when all they have ever done is be nice to me, HOW DARE I.
I deleted those messages, blocked and never spoke to her again.
As I entered my mid-twenties I swore to myself that I wouldn’t get into the same kind of friendship, that I would not make the same mistakes and that I would never let someone like that into my life. I do not recall taking any time off to heal and recover from what happened, introspect and breathe. Nature abhors a vacuum, right. So I filled my empty cup with new friends, happy that they were nothing like the other bitches I knew, and I told them all the time. It’s me, your new toxic boyfriend.
So imagine my shock when everything played out the same way?
So often women are told to minimize their feelings and perceptions for the sake of some greater good. We risk all kinds of slander and are tagged as bad and damaged for talking about sex. Mothers are not supposed to have desires that could disrupt their sacrifice to their children, like the need to socialize or have time for themselves. Wives are forced to stay with emotionally manipulative or downright physically abusive spouses to save face and uphold tradition or wherever “tutaambia watu nini?” falls within that spectrum. Long-suffering is ingrained in women to the point that the bar for something to be considered “too much” is unbelievably high. As it stands, women have to prove that we are eligible for compassion by proving that what we are enduring is worth somebody else’s time, and if it isn’t our energy must be redirected elsewhere, somewhere where something larger than whatever is being discussed is happening. Suddenly someone remembers the women in Turkana because their problems are bigger than ours.
We have to lower the bar for what must happen in our lives for our suffering to be acknowledged and deemed worthy of attention and care.
Most essays on female friendship usually reiterate the first line of this essay, ending one fucking sucks. The end of any relationship is difficult to cope but there is something more intimate about losing a friend, and in a society that prioritized hetero pairings and companionship articulating this pain is complicated. There is an underlying current of fear that it will be trivialized and mocked, that this very real pain is not worth all the emotions, that it’s not that deep.
These are the exact thoughts that are running through my mind as I write this. I am also reminded of the number of times I have wanted to write about this and have been discouraged by not only the voice in my head but also others around me, to keep these matters private, not to invite public speculation and not to cause any further conflict.
When I made the decision never to speak to my friend ever again, I was just doing what I felt best at the time. After what felt like months of strain and tension, I just wanted to stop feeling that way, and the less I talked to her, the stronger that possibility felt to me. When days of silence passed between us I was able to escape further into a fantasy that didn’t involve her at all. So when that fateful day of the dozens of texts and calls came through I was angry, but not at what was going on between us, but for her pulling me out of that fantasy. She had refused to just fuck off into oblivion, instead, she reminded me that she was a person who was part of my life and deserved an explanation. She refused the unfair burden of responsibility that I had placed at her feet, which was to interpret my silence.
No answer is not an answer.
Refusing to speak to someone without terms for repair is a strange, childish act of destruction in which nothing can be won. Like all withholding, it comes from a state of rage, and states of rage are products of the past. As some say, “If it’s hysterical, it’s historical.” By refusing to talk without terms, a person is refusing to learn about themselves and thereby refusing to have a better life. It hurts everyone around them by dividing communities and inhibiting learning.
Sarah Schulman, Conflict Is Not Abuse
“I was just doing what I felt best at the time.”
One major struggle in this adulting thing is having to accept that a large portion of our lives has been spent on autopilot. We have been replicating behaviors and repeating stories that we heard from our parents, guardians and any other figure of authority in our lives, which can mean anything from a teacher to an authority figure that you saw on television. This isn’t a fun realization because it means accepting that for 20+ years you’ve been moving mad without knowing, probably basing your friendship, relationship and overall conflict resolution models on your grandparents, parents, siblings or even a very special episode of The Cosby Show. It means coming to terms with the fact that we have often said and done things because we think we are supposed to say and do them, we have said and done things we are used to saying and doing, we have said and done things we are used to seeing being said and done. In all likelihood, there are very few times that we have given the actual moment a chance to present itself as it is. Instead, we treat it like one that is similar to something else we have already experienced. We rarely experience life with our own perceptions and interpretations.
I do not belong to the “my parents beat me and I turned out OK” brigade. My parents did not beat me, although I have no illusions that that automatically means I turned out okay. Whether traumatized through physical violence or other forms of intimidation meant to control, it is difficult to deny the negative effects of being demeaned constantly as a child. They spill over into adulthood and manifest in many ways. An example of this is how we are not particularly skilled in tolerating differences. We tend to have disproportionate responses to perceived threats – we are either very comfortable in our trauma and unable to see past glaring red flags or on the flipside, see everyday normative challenges and conflict as threats, assault, and abuse. For example, when I am faced with what I perceive to be aggression I shut down and refuse to respond. This is a defense mechanism I developed as a child; an action I knew would force those around me to stop and wonder what was wrong because it was out of character for a loud, bubbly and interactive child. But I’m not a child anymore.
I was being very childish when I was dealing with the end of this friendship. I was deeply invested in seeing the justifiable act of wanting an explanation for my abrupt silence as violent aggression. By nitpicking at the tone and intensity of her messages, I contorted her intention to frame myself as the harassed and she as the harasser, which would justify not talking to her. Now almost six years later, I realized with some embarrassment that I chose to have an enemy rather than a conversation. I doubt that if I had picked up the phone, I would have been able to articulate exactly what was bothering me about the friendship. By the time I had reached the point of shutting down I was unlikely to be open to the possibility of repair. I don’t regret the end of the friendship, just how I went about it. I think I would have been a fundamentally different person had I said something.
We can harp on all day about the complexity of human life and how we’re all so different and experience things on a wide spectrum of diversity, but let’s face it, we love black and white thinking. A simple binary is always preferred. Who is right and who is wrong? Who is the hero and who is the villain? Who is the victim and who is the abuser? And when we feel slighted, it is very hard to debate with us that hey, maybe you’re not the victim here?
It is a sign of maturity and decency to acknowledge that often it is all parties that participate in making mistakes that contribute to conflict in relationships. We bicker, have differences in opinion, we are sometimes inconsiderate – shit happens. All this is part of the human experience. But sometimes we do not want to face ourselves, our participation, our painful pasts, the facts of our projections, the effects of distorted thinking and mental illnesses on our daily lives. People may not know how to deal with feeling bad about themselves. We may not know how to understand our actions and are terrified of the implications of the meanings of our lives. We have learned to either deflect or cope by replaying pre-recorded stories about ourselves and our interactions with others, and these stories become integral to our identity. There is a lot we fear that might be upended if we abandon these dated narratives and choose to say something new about who we are, what we’ve done and what we’ve participated in. It forces us to reframe several experiences and look at the same evidence with a brand new eye. This is not easy.
The thing is, this essay diverges greatly from my praxis. There isn’t a bit at the end that says “and then I picked up my phone and called her and we’re meeting for drinks next week can’t wait to tell you all about it xx.” It’s not even to say that I grew out of this habit of shutting down when uncomfortable or hurt, or that now I end all friendships maturely and amicably. If anything, this essay was prompted by the fact that I have cut off an inordinate amount of people this year, and save for one, all in swift silence. The one time I extended the possibility of repair I was met with silence. (Its called karma baby! And it goes around!)
That friendship came to a complete end; it and many others had to for this essay to be written. I have abandoned several drafts about friendship, and this is a coherent piece birthed from messy paragraphs scattered across numerous notebooks and Word documents. There are many reasons why this piece wasn’t published until now, and I am so grateful that I
procrastinated waited. Because I was still convinced that I was the one who was wronged, my thoughts were a jumbled mess, leaping from full out narcissistic rambling to exaggerated weepiness. I was pointing to minuscule details and turning them into moments of outrage simply by deeming them so. Truths can be multiple and complex, and the complexity is all in the details. When confronted with putting these details down it was really easy to see that most of the scenarios I focused on were a smokescreen to a larger problem. There were deeper issues I was refusing to face and address. They would require me to admit that not only I was an equal participant in creating the conflict, but I was the primary source of its escalation through my resistance to solving it.
Friendships that are more often than not based in leisure are easy to abandon as soon as something unfavorable happens. There is little to no incentive to actually think a division through and move forward. We have to foster relationships strong enough to hold us when we go up against the institutions that oppress us. We should roll up our sleeves and start doing the hard work of learning how to work through conflict and pain as if our lives depended on it – because they do! While we can decide to focus on cultivating our own gardens, it is hard to create alternatives in isolation. The real work is reaching across the scars that oppressive systems have left us with, making kin across these divides, and repairing and maintaining trust.
Questioning My Feminism: Whose Movement Is It Anyway?
I am getting older, and it’s once you hit your late twenties all the self-care literature marketed to you is emphatic on people falling to the wayside and outgrowing people and not being afraid to be alone as you wait for your perfect tribe. While all this is true to some extent, it’s best to remember that the self-care industry currently rakes in 10 billion dollars, and capitalism thrives on individualism. There’s not much to be desired about doing everything for yourself, buying everything for yourself, struggling to survive and solve complex problems on your own. I do not want to depend on me, the gospel of Beyonce be damned. Independence is not a desirable character trait, it is a defense mechanism, an adaptation to not having community. It is hard to create alternatives in isolation because relationships are the centerstage in which healing takes place.
The modern maxim that “you don’t owe anyone an explanation” is part of that individualist culture. We all have a right to intimacy, and withdrawing that intimacy without any specific reason is a form of punishment and everyone involved suffers. The one on the receiving end of the silence is forced to make up stories to soothe the anxiety that you’re causing since you won’t say anything, and you’re not able to ever grow past whatever conflict is causing the shutdown. Your resistance to resolving problems will mean that you are doomed to repeat the same action because you refuse to see yourself in a different light – when faced with conflict you will always choose to be the victim and never be accountable for your actions. Your past pain will dominate over every other possibility and you will remain stuck.
What do you stand to lose if you stop telling those stories and decide to tell a new one? What narratives will be upended when you allow yourself to reproduce other people’s understanding of the same situation? Will you learn how to tolerate temporary discomfort or will you continue to resist the small but difficult intimacies that are necessary for transformative relationships?
I don’t know if I’m going to reach out and talk to some of the people I have cut off. I cannot say what I’m not going to do again because it’s no longer enough for me to say who I am not. Who am I? What do I believe in? What I do know for certain is that I can choose my own narrative. I am allowed to reimagine myself and my role in my current and future friendships & relationships, to look at the evidence of my life and tell a better story, one that makes my life a living testimony of my intentions, rather than a regurgitation of others’. The scope of what is possible for me has gotten so much wider.