Good friends enrich our lives, make us feel optimistic, are people to share life and intimacy with. There are few things more valuable than a good friend, particularly a lifelong friend. Sadly, for a variety of reasons, friendships sometimes stop being enjoyable and mutually beneficial. Friendships that sour, if they cannot be saved, are worth ending. The signs that a friendship has reached this point are relatively straightforward, though they may be tricky to recognize. Here is my view, for whatever use it might be to you.
If you are born to angry, fighting parents, or parents at war with others who take out their frustrations out on you, or parents unable to cope in some essential way, it is difficult, seemingly impossible, to learn certain skills needed for living peacefully in the world. The things a child needs, and doesn’t get from parents, will be sought from others. Sometimes this works out beautifully, often it doesn’t.
I stumbled through this dark obstacle course landscape for many years, making friends with people who stood in for my parents, trying to reconcile things through these chosen relationships that may never be reconcilable, working haphazardly with surrogates standing in for difficult parents. The people I found mutual affinity with were often as damaged and incapable as I was of even knowing what it was we were lacking. Some of these folks remain my closest friends today. Many of these friendships ended unhappily, which, in hindsight, could have been predicted.
These relationships, on one level, bore the heavy psychological burden of trying to fix things I needed to find ways to heal in myself. I eventually came to see a common pattern in the demise of these relationships. I present the most salient warning sign that a friendship is moribund, for whatever value my observation may have to you.
The relationship with your parents is central to all other relationships, and the better you can grasp what you got and what you didn’t get from the people who raised you, the more clearly you will be able to see and understand yourself, what you need and what you have to give others.
We can only give someone else what we actually have ourselves. If you never learned mercy for yourself (a crucial thing to learn, in my experience), you can’t really extend mercy to anyone else. Mercy to others, when we give it, flows from mercy to ourselves. Not everyone is capable of mercy, sad to say.
People who sincerely insist they love you, if they hate themselves, can only give you the version of love they have. People who never resolve the painful contradictions many of us get from inexpert parenting, from being raised by people who haven’t resolved their own childhood hurts, can only blindly pass on what was done to them. At least that’s how it looks to me, in so many cases I’ve seen.
Parents often inculcate painful conundrums in their children, in ways they are unaware of, starting at an age when the child’s psyche is supremely malleable. In order to see themselves as moral actors, they usually continue to defend this unconscious practice as having been in the best interests of the child they love, no matter what harm they may have done. We need to make peace with what was done to us by parents who truly believed they loved us more than they loved themselves.
In friendship, the psychic imperative to solve essential riddles like the ones implanted by inept parenting does not operate with the same urgency. Friends can sometimes help, but not always, and care must be taken not to unduly burden friends with such difficult psychic matters. People who have massive, unquenchable expectations of friends are called ‘energy vampires’ and need to be dealt with in the manner of regular vampires, with a stake and a heavy hammer.
Friendships are voluntary and can end at any time, for many reasons or for no good reason. A friend who claims to love you, but will not yield an inch when you describe hurt they’ve caused you, obviously is not someone you need to keep in your life. In friendship there is a much better option than letting yourself be mistreated and tested over and over. There is no reason to tolerate merciless treatment, having your friendship, and your character, continually tested. Addition by subtraction is almost always a relief in these cases.
A sure sign that a friendship is over is when there is no good will left in the relationship. The benefit of the doubt stops being extended back and forth for the annoying little things we all do. These things become intolerable, insurmountable, indefensible, though everyone usually gets very defensive.
This happens when, for whatever reason, one party stops listening to the expressed needs of the other. In my experience, there is really no way back from that, once the pattern of one person minimizing, attempting to rationalize away, the other person’s discomfort becomes clear.
Seeing the pattern clearly will depend on how confusingly we were raised, how murkily our expectations of fairness, reciprocity, mercy, were instilled in us. Having anger directed at you every day as a child will distort your notion of what you deserve. Seeing anger constantly flaring between parents will distort your view of what a loving, mutual relationship is supposed to be. If one partner tells the other “it hurts me when you do X” and the other one, every time they get angry, does X– there you have the perfect illustration of a relationship the ignored partner needs to leave.
When you tell someone they’re hurting you, and they insist that they are not, that it’s actually your fault you feel hurt, not their’s, there is no clearer sign that the moment for addition by subtraction is at hand.
It is a sad and painful moment, particularly for that sentimental side we all have a bit of, but once you add by subtracting (all attempts to make peace having failed), you will wake up the following day feeling a bit lighter in your soul.