Last year, one of my closest friends unceremoniously dumped me. It's more complicated than that; friendships often are. Marilyn* and I met in Santa Fe in 2007. We’d both just moved there; I came from the East Coast, and she from the West. She was wearing black Converse high-tops with pink laces and she was tall and slender and beautiful. The first time I saw her, I knew we would be friends. Call it fate, or the optimism of being 23; either way, I had consummated my dream of moving to the Southwest and everything was possible.
Marilyn was six years older, a year shy of 30. The first time we hung out, she drove us in her black Jeep Liberty to Ojo Caliente, a hot spring paradise 45 minutes north of Santa Fe. We told our life stories in the car on the way up; we were best friends by the time we drove back, the sky a shimmering shade of purple Santa Fe is so famous for.
And so began one of the most important friendships of my life. For three years, we were inseparable; when she moved to San Francisco to attend grad school to become a therapist, we stayed close for another seven years. For the last five years of our friendship, we didn’t see each other, but we spoke on the phone and FaceTimed regularly. During that time, I moved back to New York. In 2016, Marilyn got married in a tiny family ceremony, and asked if I would come out and spend a few days with her to celebrate.
A few months after her wedding, in early 2017, I flew out to San Francisco. I stayed with her for a couple days; though we tried, nothing felt the same. Our friendship had changed. I felt uncomfortable in her home. We couldn’t connect the way we used to. I had changed, and she had changed, and the changes were relatively undetectable 3,000 miles away, but they were glaringly apparently in real life. I cut my stay short. We emailed a couple of terse emails and lost touch. After a few months passed, I attempted a few times to get in touch. I felt conflicted: I missed her, but I didn’t know if I missed Marilyn, the person, or Marilyn, the memory.
Eventually, after about a year, she agreed to meet for a coffee while I was in her city. The day of our meeting, my boyfriend and I sped all the way from Big Sur so I would make it to the coffee shop on time. When we pulled up, Marilyn was sitting outside, wearing a denim jumpsuit and lipstick, and I thought, OK, maybe we can work this out.
We wound up in her office, sitting on the floor, while she ate her lunch. She had an hour between appointments. I thought we were meeting to catch up and figure out our friendship; she launched into a strange tirade about her incapacity for friendship.
I have considered the possibility that I may represent something that Marilyn is unwilling or unable to have in her life: a reminder that she was once young and untamed.
At first, I was upset. I took it personally, even though I don’t actually think it was personal. She expressed that these days, she spends time with her husband and their dogs, and her family from time to time; from everything I know about her, I don’t think that’s a lie. She told me that friendships just don’t hold weight for her anymore, that her priorities had shifted.
As time has done its thing, I've realized our parting makes sense. For the second half of our friendship, though we still spoke on the phone, our dynamic had changed, and so had we. Once upon a time, we lived in Santa Fe, and we were young and unattached and free. We sunbathed naked in her backyard and ate lavish dinners that she always generously paid for with her family’s money. It was a different time.
It has been six months since our weird conversation on the floor of her office. I think of her sometimes; she has made cameos in my dreams. If it were up to me, we’d still be in touch. But I respect her decision, and I’ve come to understand that the person I want to be in touch with no longer exists. Some friends can grow side by side, and love each other’s changes. I have many old friends with whom this is the mutual case. But not with Marilyn. And I can’t change that.
Perhaps someday we will reconnect. The romantic in me likes that idea. But also I have considered the possibility that I may represent something that Marilyn is unwilling or unable to have in her life: a reminder that she was once young and untamed. I love that part of myself, and though I don’t pull the car over on the side of the desert at two in the morning to have an impromptu photo shoot by the light of the full moon anymore; she doesn’t wear minidresses to dance on speakers anymore; we don’t hook up with each other and our friends anymore — I don’t deny or reject that part of me. I like the reminder: You were once wild.
Friendships end for different reasons, and they don’t always end with so much love. Jessica, 35, my ride-or-die BFF, tells Bustle that she felt “beyond relief” when she ended a friendship several years ago that was no longer serving her, after years of deliberation. “I didn’t know which venue to take — I was like, ‘How do I break up with her? What are the words?’” Jessica says. In the end, she wrote an email and kept it short. “If you really need to cut someone loose, you might have to say something that doesn’t address them directly,” she says.
Jessica wasn’t even sure that she was truly breaking up with her friend; she just knew she needed to pump the brakes. The relief she felt told her otherwise, though, and the experience taught her that it’s fine — nay, wise — to let go of friendships that aren’t working, regardless of circumstance. “That has led me to be very purposeful who I keep in my life,” Jessica says. “Once you get over the hump of being able to do that, it seems to open up the road to more meaningful friendships.”
Tessa, 28, tells Bustle that she encountered something similar to my experience with Marilyn: “A love friendship, like a sister,” she says. But her friend made some lifestyle choices that didn’t resonate, and they grew apart. There was no fight; she and her friend just couldn’t be friends anymore, because the foundation of their friendship had changed.
At first, it was hard for Tessa to let go of her friend; eventually, they had a conversation and agreed to end their friendship. It may have been right, but it wasn’t easy. Social media was cruel — seeing her friend on Instagram didn’t help to ease the sting.
Part of letting go of my friendship with Marilyn has been about realizing that the old “make new friends, but keep the old” adage does not always apply.
After five years of “mourning the loss of that friendship,” they reconnected, Tessa says. “As soon as I had really let go, and really surrendered — like, ‘OK, I’ll just trust the universe is going to take care of her,’ not trying to control it,” she says, she and her friend were slowly able to restart their friendship.
Today, they are still friends, and Tessa, like Jessica and me, has gotten choosier with her friendships. “I don’t want to expend any extra energy to someone who’s not a friend, someone who I don’t want in my life, someone I don’t want to build something with,” she says. “The people who really love me and the ones I love are the ones that matter.”
As licensed marriage and family therapist Esther Boykin tells Bustle, “Letting go of a friendship, in a loving way, can be so challenging. We really are conditioned to think of friendship as a lifelong thing, unless someone does something egregious, but friendship, like any relationship, can grow apart.” And it’s true: Part of letting go of my friendship with Marilyn has been about realizing that the old “make new friends, but keep the old” adage does not always apply. Life is long, and not every BFF actually turns out to need that last “F” affixed to their name.
“We often connect with friends, especially in our youth, based on context,” Boykin says. "Where we live, where we go to school or work, or mutual friend groups can be the initial foundation for our adulthood friendships. Some of those friendships will grow into a deeper, more intimate emotional bond, and some will naturally fade away over time.” But it’s not all tears and tiny violins.
“We grow and our lives change, and often that means friendships change and occasionally end,” Boykin says. “This ending, though sad and painful, can also be a gift.”
I have started to slowly reframe the end of my friendship with Marilyn that way. It was a great friendship, but then it changed. That doesn’t make it a bad friendship, though. Marilyn will always be one of my great loves.
I think it really does just boil down to change. Or, as Boykin puts it: “When friends are able to clearly and kindly tell you that their life or priorities have changed, it frees you from the emotional energy of trying to maintain a one-sided connection.”
The last few years of my friendship with Marilyn, that’s exactly what was going on. It was rare that Marilyn called me; I usually called her. I could sense she was reticent in our friendship for a long time. I chalked it up to other things — her relationship, distance, life — and I tried not to take it to heart. But it was difficult.
In the end, I believe what happens is always what’s supposed to happen, and rather than pining over friendships lost, the whole thing is an opportunity for growth. “Many times, it’s simply a matter of re-prioritizing as you learn what you need more of in your friendships,” Boykin says. “Learning to take these changes as a natural part of your life's evolution, rather than a failing in some way, will give you the ability to assess what you need in friendship as well.” This has been true for me. Since things with Marilyn ended, I’ve been slow to advance friendships that I’m not sure about. I’ve grown closer to my nearest and dearests, and further from my sort-of friends. I haven’t been so gung-ho to hang out for the sake of hanging out.
“Thank the friend who had the courage to be honest about their current capacity to be close to you, and take it as an invitation to seek more of the things you need in other relationships,” Boykin says.
Licensed marriage and family therapist Michelle Farris, author of Eliminating Codependent Behaviors, points out something I was already acutely aware of: My exit interview with Marilyn was a gift. “Being able to ask questions as a way to try to understand why the friend ‘chose out’ is important for healing,” Farris tells Bustle. “Not knowing the reason why creates a lasting hurt that’s hard to heal.”
The year that Marilyn and I didn’t talk, between the second-to-last time I saw her and the last, was so painful. I didn’t know exactly why we weren’t in touch, and so I filled in the blanks with stories I made up. “Being willing to have a ‘goodbye’ conversation can help you complete whatever needs to be said in order to move on,” Farris says. “This also gives you the opportunity to get some constructive feedback for your own growth.” All in line with my own experience, and all true.
The other night, I dreamt that Marilyn asked me to go on a trip with her, and I dropped everything to join her. When I woke up, I realized that, if something along those lines happened in real life, I would probably do just that — much like a romantic breakup, I’m not completely “over” our friendship. And why would I be? Heartbreak often takes years to settle and fade, and friendship gets in the bones in a very distinct manner. I’m OK with being a hopeless friendship romantic. And I’m also OK with letting go with love.
*Name has been changed.