My Friend Breakups Have Taught Me About Love, Loss, And The True Meaning Of Companionship

“You cannot send that,” my friend told me. It was the aftermath of a breakup and I was in the angry-missive phase, firing off long email messages—a plaintive "why?" one day, an indignant "how could you?" the next. My friend was reading all of the notes for me, acting as a pressure valve so that I would not send them. Even in my heartbroken state I understood it was one thing to spew all my pain into a computer, quite another thing to share with the person who had caused it.

For an entire summer, I wrote the emails. My friend read them. She patiently let me vent. She hugged me when I cried. She reassured me that there was nothing defective about me, even though here I was, 33-years old, once again, dumped.

Is this the time to mention that when this happened, I had been with my husband, Nick, for ten years? (Or to say that thirteen years later, I still am?) Nick was not the one causing me so much agita. In fact, in my life, it’s rarely been the busted up romances that have sandpapered my heart; it’s always the friendship breakups that leave me devastated.

Nick was not the one causing me so much agita. In fact, in my life, it’s rarely been the busted up romances that have sandpapered my heart; it’s always the friendships that leave me devastated.

For years this made no sense to me. Who sits in a dark room listening to emocore, writing angry emails about a lost friendship? Friends, while not exactly disposable, are replaceable, the same way that say, a favorite sweater is. If you lose it, you can always buy a new one.

Here I was, going to pieces. Over a sweater. Clearly, there was something defective about me.

The first friend to dump me was Eliza*. We met at the start of 7th grade after she spotted my gold horseshoe necklace and we bonded over our mutual love of all things equine as 12-year-old girls will. For the first six weeks of school we spent every lunch, every weekend together. We shared a tent on the school camping trip. Right after, she fell ill with appendicitis. When she came back to school, it was as if her affection for me had been removed right along with her appendix.

Right after, she fell ill with appendicitis. When she came back to school, it was as if her affection for me had been removed right along with her appendix.

I didn’t understand. “Why are you mad at me?” I wrote in the notes I stuffed through the vents of her locker. “I miss you,” I told her, cornering her in the breezeway outside of English class. “What happened?” She looked uncomfortable in a way I would not recognize until years later when I was on the giving end of it, hiding from some guy I’d been into until the exact moment when, inexplicably, I wasn’t and then wanted nothing but an ocean of distance between us.

Back then, though, it was all a mystery: why Eliza stopped being my friend, why it took me the rest of the school year to get over it.

Language limits and language defines. We have so many words to describe romantic liaisons—boyfriend, girlfriend, lover, partner, spouse…etc.—but what word is there to describe the people we love deeply, who we are not related to, and with whom we are not having sex? There’s just one. Friend. There are variations—best friend, BFF—but it all boils down to friend. The girls I went to high school with are friends. The neighbors I chat to each morning are friends. The people on Facebook whom I’ve never even met before are friends. And the small of group of people, with whom I share my deepest self, to whom I expose the flawed human I am. Also, friends.

How can that one word possibly contain all that vastness? It’s almost as if the shallowness of the language keeps us from fully acknowledging the depth of the relationship.

We need a new word.

How can that one word possibly contain all that vastness? It’s almost as if the shallowness of the language keeps us from fully acknowledging the depth of the relationship. We need a new word.

Danielle and I met at the health food store where worked, standing side by side at our cash registers. We shared a frustration wrought by the chasm between the lives we imagined for ourselves and the lives we were actually stuck in. (We were twenty; it goes with the territory.) I had just come home from two years of living in Europe and was aimless and uncertain of what to do next. Danielle recently broken up with her boyfriend was living, unhappily with her father and stepmother.

We ached to get closer to those mythical lives we imagined. We took the first halting steps together, renting a two-bedroom apartment in the Hollywood flats. Giddily, we decorated it with giant Sonic Youth posters and a velvety mauve thrift store couch, which was where we sat, eating out of to-go boxes, after our long shifts of waiting tables (a step up from the health food store). In whispered voices, we conjured the outlines of futures we craved, which here, in the shadow of the Hollywood sign, with Jane’s Addiction blasting over the stereo, seemed somehow more attainable.

Those futures included falling in love. As luck would have it, Danielle’s arrived faster. She met a guy. A month later, he moved in with us. A tense month later, I went away for a weekend and came back to find they’d negotiated with our landlord to trade our two-bedroom apartment (which he wanted for incoming relatives) for a one bedroom (which they wanted for themselves). They transferred the security deposit (half of which was mine) to the new apartment and shoved all my stuff into the raccoon-infested garage behind the building.

When I put up a modicum of resistance, the boyfriend threatened to beat me up, while Danielle watched through narrowed eyes.

I grabbed my clothes, got in my car and drove back to my parents’ house, where for the next few months, I moped. I got into a fight with the manager at the restaurant, and impulsively quit, even though I’d loved my job, had really liked the manager. I took another job at a wine store, and rebuffed invitations to attend tastings or learn about wine from the friendly guys who worked there. I cried in the car home.

When I finally managed to get my share of the apartment deposit back, I took it and the rest of my savings and bought a ticket to Europe. I needed that ocean between, not just me and Danielle but between me and my shame.

If Danielle had been Daniel, and I had been the capital G girlfriend, my sorrow would make sense. I would have felt entitled to my heartbreak. But to be this cut up? Over a friend? Something was definitely wrong with me.

If Danielle had been Daniel, and I had been the capital G girlfriend, my sorrow would make sense. I would have felt entitled to my heartbreak. But to be this cut up? Over a friend? Something was definitely wrong with me.

My story is not unique. Most women have a friendship breakup in the vault—the one that got away, the one that broke her heart, the one whose heart she broke. Maybe guys do, too, though I’m not so sure. Men are not allowed such intimate friendships, at least not in the heterosexual realm. When I was younger, if two guys were to stay up all night whispering in the dark, then fall asleep spooning in a single bed they would be gay. Girls who did that were friends. And if they stopped being friends it was because they grew out of it. Because they moved apart. Because girls were fickle or bitchy. There was little mention of broken hearts, but our lives are littered with them.

Jenn and I had been friends as teenagers at drama camp in suburban Los Angeles met and reconnected in our twenties after both had moved to New York City. We grew close, our lives having a certain pleasing symmetry. We were both former drama geeks from the Valley and now writers living in Manhattan. I got married a year before Jenn. She got a book deal as I was writing my proposal. Right as she was about to have her first baby, Nick and I were trying for our own.

About two weeks after Jenn gave birth—a tough delivery followed by some postpartum issues—she asked if I’d do some grocery shopping for her. I said of course. On a hot summer afternoon, she called me with the grocery list. I was in a busy store, scribbling down the items on a scrap of paper (this was 2003, before iPhones) when she mentioned a kind of bread from a certain bakery. Imagining the logistics— the subway ride downtown with groceries, the stop at the bakery—I sighed.

In spite of the heat, I felt a chill come from the line. Jenn accused me of being passive aggressive. I reassured her I was happy to help, but it was hot and it was a lot of stops. She explained that I could do all the shopping at a grocery store that carried the bakery bread and then take a taxi over to her house and she would reimburse me. Back then, I was so broke, cabs never occurred to me. But problem solved. I took the subway downtown and did the shopping, excited to see Jenn and her son.

It was not mutual. In the dim light of her apartment, holding that impossibly small baby, Jenn told me how hard it was for her to ask for help. I suggested she was reading too much into a sigh, that maybe her postpartum depression was clouding her emotions. The temperature in the room dropped again. I left. That night, Jenn emailed me a polite thank you for the groceries. I emailed her back saying no problem and asking about a walk in the park. She replied that she was still upset and needed time to process.

And so, the friend I had spoken to several times a day went radio silent. I’d expected it to be a day or two but as the days turned into weeks, my sadness grew. As the weeks grew into months, so did my anger. For fucks’ sake. It was just a sigh!

As I stewed, my friend Marjorie (her real name) held my hand, read my emails. She was sympathetic to me, but having had a baby herself, also to Jenn. She forbade me to contact Jenn. I had to wait.

And so I did. At the end of the summer, Jenn emailed asking me out for coffee as if nothing had happened. I told her I was hurt and needed an apology if we were going to resume the friendship. Jenn politely told me to have a nice life.

And so I did. At the end of the summer, Jenn emailed asking me out for coffee as if nothing had happened. I told her I was hurt and needed an apology if we were going to resume the friendship. Jenn politely told me to have a nice life.

And then Marjorie got mad. “Your friendship is too valuable to throw away,” she fumed to me with all the righteous anger one reserves for the person who dumped their friend.

Marjorie treating Jenn and me as a breakup finally allowed me to see it, and all the other fallouts, for what they were. Loss. The pain began to make more sense, to seem inevitable, even. After all, when you are emotional Siamese Twins with someone, the separation is bound to draw blood.

And yet, where are the songs about these relationships? Where are the poems? The movies? Where is the culturally cathartic shared heartbreak?

And yet, where are the songs about these relationships? Where are the poems? The movies? Where is the culturally cathartic shared heartbreak?

It doesn’t exist. After all, who writes a song about losing a sweater?

Since Jenn, I have been dumped once more, this time by a guy friend, for reasons I still don’t understand (I sent him a birthday card last year in case this whole thing was a giant misunderstanding but he didn’t reply so I guess not). It didn’t undo me this time. Maybe because it was quiet (he just stopped communicating) or maybe because I no longer believe there is something inherently wrong with the way I conduct my close friendships and understand that the price for those kind of friendships is sometimes (though less often these days) payable in tears. All of this I learned with the help of my friends, the ones still standing, the ones who will see me through.

* Names have been changed.

Gayle Forman is a journalist and bestselling, award-winning author of young adult books. Leave Me is her first novel for adults.

The novel is the story of Maribeth, an overworked working mom who's so busy taking care of everyone else, she doesn't realize she's had a heart attack. When her recuperation proves to be a burden on everyone, she makes a drastic decision: she packs a bag and leaves and reexamines her life from a outside perspective.

Images: Vero PhotoArt/Unsplash