One of Charles Bukowski’s swarm of trivialities, the accumulation of which send a man to the madhouse and can kill quicker than cancer, is people who insist they’re your friends. Friendship (I’m referring to the kind of close, hopefully lifelong, friend we rely on) requires mutuality, above all else, a common desire to treat the other person’s feelings gently. Sometimes a relationship becomes heavier on one side than on the other and after a time things become insupportable. If both friends are not trying their best to keep things mutual, in balance, things will eventually go badly. The end of a friendship tends to be the death of many small cuts. The music it goes out on as it dies is always hauntingly similar, as I have noticed over the years.
Maybe because I was raised in a house of hissing rivals, the comfort of friendship has always been very important to me. Friends, they say, are the family we choose. A parent may be an unhappy, demanding, critical person who reflexively crushes any sign of excitement or spirit in the child, but friends, the kindred souls we find and choose to befriend, hopefully don’t act this way. A good friend, of course, will never knowingly crush your dream or piss on your enthusiasm, never withhold sympathy when you are in a tight spot.
When a friend sees you’re hurt, they will be quick to find out why, see what they can do to make you feel better. Until that sad day arrives when, for reasons that are always complicated and impossible to know for certain, that is no longer the case. Your friend, for whatever reason, may decide that nothing you say or do can change anything that is bothering you in the relationship. This unresolvable conflict will inevitably escalate until the friendship is a shambling zombie devoid of the soul that once animated it. Cue the end music, which is always familiar.
I’ve been through this sad cycle enough times over the years that I’ve come to consider myself something of an expert (I’ll come to that in a moment). I can recognize the familiar signs now, and know, after a certain point, that my efforts will probably be in vain, though I always try to save a moribund friendship, apparently I can’t help myself. Call me sentimental, I’ve tried, try still, to hold on to even very frayed friendships — a thing not always possible or desirable. The death of good will is something I have a very hard time grasping, it seems. It’s a sad thing to resign yourself to not being able to work things out with someone you once shared a great relationship with. But it is far sadder to remain in a relationship that is no longer mutual, has become intolerably troubling.
I used to condemn my father for the way he cast his closest friends over the side, to the sharks. If they hurt him, they were dead. As a kid this struck me as typically immature behavior on my father’s part — people we loved and laughed with many times were suddenly as absent as the dead. When I’d ask the old man about the latest casualty, he’d snarlingly describe how they’d shit on him. He was an insecure and hard man, quick to condemn and unable to forgive, and it always struck me as just part of his weakness to cast dear friends out of his life that way. I’ve come to realize that sometimes ending a friendship that has become toxic is the most merciful thing you can do for yourself.
The song at the end of every long, intimate relationship remains uncannily the same, the hints of the refrain in the lead up and its final statement as the last music you will hear from that particular person. At the end of most of my long friendships that eventually had to be put out of their misery: an indignant protestation of love. That’s the common theme in virtually every friendship I’ve watched die, in spite of my efforts to keep it alive. The friend swears they love me, but that I am a vicious, unloving fuck. I think about this problematic statement of love each time I pick up the hammer to solemnly drive the stake through a heart and move out of the moldy graveyard.
“You complain that I have mistreated you,” says your aggrieved old friend “and you go into this long description of something that, frankly, I can’t even begin to understand, let alone take responsibility for — and I also dispute it — but you can’t end our friendship, pal, because I LOVE YOU.” This desperate trump card comes out when all else fails, and it is a tell. “You can’t be hurt by me, as you irrationally claim you are, BECAUSE I LOVE YOU, man!”
The first of these several sad standoffs came about twenty years after high school. A close high school friend named Tom, a young man damaged beyond repair, apparently, by his father, an uneducated man who nonetheless had no respect for his son’s educational achievements or his professional career, somehow placed me in the position of being the approving father he never had.
We do this sometimes, place new, more sympathetic people in the roles of problematic family members who did us wrong. There is nothing inherently unhealthy about this desire to make a painful past thing right by reenacting it in more sympathetic circumstances, except that much of the time it doesn’t work out the way we might have unconsciously planned.
I had no idea, until very late in the game, that Tom was expecting the validation from me that he never got from his affable but ignorant, crushingly opinionated father. I had no hint that this could remotely be the case, until it was way too late, when he revealed this was why he was so furious at me. Tom began a series of escalating passive aggressive moves, until I could finally not miss how enraged he was. I then learned how I had failed him. Never ONCE did I validate him for his educational or professional achievements! Not one fucking time! Then, too late, I made the connection, and only after the mad idea had been stated out loud.
When I realized the friendship was over, I told Tom the reasons why. I immediately got a letter from Tom (this was decades ago, when we still wrote words on paper), telling me that nothing I could do could end our friendship. He understood that I was trying to pretend we were no longer friends but that, no matter what I did, we would always be friends. I used a photocopying machine to enlarge and print out his memorable line, decorated it with a nice, floral frame, and hung it on the wall in my kitchen: “sorry, pal, but it’s not in your power.”
How right he was.
Last fall I spread the ashes of the most unhappy, demanding, manipulative person I have ever known. We’d been friends for years, close friends. Over those years I saw Mark make and lose countless friends. His most compatible girlfriend (the only one I knew who was funny, likable and fairly sane) was not good enough for him — something about the unworthiness of a club that would have somebody like him as a member. When he changed his mind, years after dumping her, she considered carefully and then declined his offer of eternal love. Another great betrayal in his life, a betrayal I played a supporting role in.
Everyone Mark ever knew ultimately betrayed him. I finally wrote him off years ago, after a long, doomed struggle to fix things. One day his brother, Gary, got a call from the medical examiner, they’d found his little brother’s corpse, in a chair in his house. Gary flew down to supervise the cremation and tie up the dead man’s business affairs. He felt terribly guilty, having not spoken to his estranged brother in three years. I hadn’t spoken to Mark in maybe 15 years. Gary acknowledged that Mark had had no other friends, and that if I was willing, he’d appreciate the company as he went to spread the ashes (he also needed a guide to show him where the lake was). He and I trudged to the guy’s favorite lake, on a gorgeous day, and spread the poor fuck’s ashes in that sparkling, clear water. Then we had a nice lunch on the lake, exchanging illuminating stories about the unhappy departed as we ate our sandwiches.
We humans all carry pain, and anger, and grief, and other things that are hard to bear alone, like loneliness. Many of us did not have the nurturing childhood we would wish for people we care about. We can sometimes come to understand the limitations of our parents, the great difficulty of becoming your own nurturing parent, the necessity to move past anger about things we did not receive when we needed them as vulnerable children. Things, by the way, that sadly our parents were incapable of doing for us any better than they did.
Coming to grips with these painful things is very difficult. I understand that not everybody is cut out for this kind of work. Forgiving the unforgivable seems like an impossible task, to those who despair of the effort. No matter how much progress you may think you’ve made, or may have actually made, there will always be pain there, and the chance that strong emotions will flare up, however profound the understandings you may have reached. This is our fate as sentient beings.
Here’s a common mechanism I’ve seen a few times, for how the combustion of a friendship can come about, and it usually seems to be, at least in my life, centered around who has the right to be angry or hurt. Express anger or hurt, about anything, to somebody who has learned only to swallow and repress anger, deny hurt, and you will often provoke anger in return. This anger tends to be wild and rage out of control, since it is so threatening to the person that they spend their whole life choking it down. The rage of somebody who almost never expresses anger is truly terrible to behold.
The way this cycle of anger works is not hard to understand, in hindsight. They have plenty to be angry about, much more than you do, actually, and you don’t hear them whining about it. Yet you go on and on, self-righteously ranting about an intolerable injustice you have suffered, casting about for a remedy that doesn’t even exist, outside of the realm of creative imagination. Even if it is a clear injustice you’ve suffered, even if you have a right to be angry about it– you have no right to tell them why you’re so angry, even if they ask. They don’t get to tell anyone about their anger or their pain. Never.
So they will question whether what you’re angry about is really that bad. They may point out that Job, in the Bible, suffered far worse than what you claim to be going through. They will suggest that not everyone would be so mad, just because they were arguably the victim of something that could make a person angry. Just because something happened that made you angry, that might make someone else, even most people, reasonably angry, does not give you the right to be this angry. And just because I impatiently question your right to be angry doesn’t give you the right to be angry at me for reasonably questioning your unreasonable right to be mad!
You could see this as neglecting the first law of friendship when you see a friend upset — listen to her, hear her out, sit with her until she’s calmer. Friendship 101: first do no harm.
Recently my oldest friend, who I’ve known since Junior High School, called to challenge me about an email I wrote him that he’d found uncharacteristically snide, and inaccurate. What right did I have to write him a snide, inaccurate email, he wanted to know. We argued about the extent of the snideness of my email, which he eventually conceded had been small — and the email had turned out not to be snide and inaccurate, but merely snide– but still strikingly snide, coming from me, a person who generally refrains from snideness, at least as directed toward him.
He told me he’d called because he was worried about how disproportionately angry I seemed to be, simply because I’d had my health insurance suddenly terminated without notice. He argued that I was excessively, unhealthily, irrationally angry. After an hour trying to convince me of this, and growing frustrated, I imagine at the irrational persistence of my anger, he screamed at me, challenged me to tell him he was an asshole and to go fuck himself. I took a gentler tack and by the end of the long call we had worked things out. He told me he loved me, apologized for making me angry. We seemed to be on the right path. But, of course, if I’d paid attention to the background music, I’d have known this reconciliation would turn out to be an fond illusion.
Then his next offer to help came, in any way I specifically requested, in figuring out how to right this injustice I complained of. Of course, if I was not 100% specific in my request for help, he kept pointing out, he couldn’t really specifically help me. Our emails went back and forth in this way, two lawyers making distinctions, splitting hairs, seeking clarification, reframing what we were actually really discussing, and so forth. He constantly restated his desire to help in any way he could.
When I told him, after many annoying questions, that the greatest help I needed was not being forced to debate every point of how he could help and how he couldn’t, He said I was being unreasonable. When I pointed out that professions of incomprehension of my anger and his endless, cool, clarifying devil’s advocate questions had inadvertently hurt me, he said that because the harm he’d inflicted had been inadvertent, as I myself had conceded, it was wrong of me to hold him responsible, or even point it out to him. And so forth.
Things escalated, as they do in these sorts of impasses. He apologized in an email for accidentally hurting me and then proposed we talk on the phone again. I called. Within fifteen minutes he was so enraged he cut me off to yell “you think I’m an idiot, I’m a fucking moron! I’m an asshole!” Then, as if resting his case, he hung up on me. He clarified by sending me a text informing me that he no would no longer tolerate being “reamed” by me.
So be it, all clear enough now. A few days of writing and thinking it through, I pretty much understood what had happened, that there was nothing further I could say or do to fix this broken thing. The matter of our friendship was out of my hands.
Then, as often seems to be the case in a long friendship in this digital era, a long email. Not mentioning his angry childishness, but defending himself a bit, telling me how important my friendship is to him, and asking me to consider this decades-long friendship and asking me to get back to him when I felt able to.
He also pointed out, I’m not sure why, that his apology in that long, angry phone call about my snideness, had been a desperate attempt to calm me, since I was so out of control, and that he’d “abjectly capitulated” not because I’d made a strong case for why he should, but merely because I’d been so upset and he saw no other way to continue the conversation. He’d greatly appreciate my reply he wrote, as he considered me his closest friend, and would continue to hold me in that high esteem until after he heard from me that I wasn’t his friend.
I thought of my buddy Tom.
I waited a couple of weeks, and, goddamn my better nature, wrote him the most thoughtful analysis of our impasse I was capable of. I spent a few days carefully combing out any formulation I thought might offend him. In the end I was fairly proud of the piece, one of the best things I’ve ever written, I think.
It described Complementay Schismogenesis, a dynamic that our impasse was a vivid illustration of. Two very different types locked in a conflict, the respective efforts of each of them to resolve the conflict makes the schism deeper and wider. It went into the infernal lawyerly habit of reframing: taking the discussion in a completely different direction so as to change the subject away from the issue at hand. It talked about the first requirement of friendship: to listen and try to understand before responding. I reminded him of my particular vulnerability: the hurtfulness of getting silence as response to my question or concern. It was as deep a discussion of our particular friendship as I could have written.
I urged him to take his time considering everything I’d written, that there was a lot to think about, a lot to consider, that our friendship was clinging to life at this point. I reminded him that there was no need for a quick reply, that a rushed or emotional reply would not be helpful, with our badly damaged friendship on the line, as it clearly was.
Naturally, two days later, I got his thoughtful, unfailingly high-minded email. A friend gratefully replying to his oldest friend’s attempt to get their friendship back on solid ground. He thanked me for my thoughtful reply and the clear effort I’d made not to hurt his feelings. He told me he appreciated how I tried to express my feelings. I couldn’t help noting, as I read, that he’d not responded to a single point I’d raised, or even mentioned one, beyond what is embedded these two perfectly reasonable, well-written paragraphs (note the reframing, by the way):
I know you’ve tried earnestly to educate me as to the nature of the various flaws you perceive in me, and I appreciate that. I know you’re trying to help me be a better person as well as a better friend. I’d like to be able to tell you that, thanks to you giving me a good shaking, I now see the light, and painful though personal growth may be, I see the situation and see myself as you do. I’d like ti telk (sic) you I’m confident that I’m on my way to being the better person and friend you’d like me to be. I’d like to be able to say that I can therefore offer you assurance that you need not be concerned that I will again act in a manner that hurts your feelings in a similar way. This would indeed be a happy outcome to all of this. I value our friendship, and know that neither of us is pleased with the prospect of such a long and rich friendship coming to an end.
At the same time, I have too much respect for you, and too little ability to knowingly try to con a friend, to feed you a line just to smooth over a rough patch. I can certainly assure you that you’ve given me much valuable food for thought, and that I take very seriously everything you’ve said to me. I can assure you that in whatever interactions we might have in the future, I will strive be more aware of how my actions might affect you, and strive to avoid causing you pain. Yet, I understand that we all will determine for ourselves the sorts of behaviors we will tolerate, and the sorts of people we want as friends. So if the person I am at this point in my life isn’t someone you feel you can trust, or my various assets and liabilities just don’t add up to someone you want as a friend, it will sadden me greatly but I’ll understand. You deserve to surround yourself with people who make you feel good. If you conclude that doesn’t include me, my best to you, and thanks for everything–is (sic) been a great ride in countless ways. I’ll hope that at some point you change your mind, and I’ll be here if you do.
This time there was no need for further delay, my last words on this great ride of our long friendship went back to him at once:
I understand that this patronizing gloss of a response allows you to believe you’ve acquitted yourself with fairness and integrity, subject to whatever admitted emotional/moral limitations may be in play. I have too much respect for you to pretend otherwise. From my point of view, silence would have been infinitely preferable to this last gust of your familiar, unerringly rational superiority, so impeccably polite and correct you can hardly smell the seething, or the fear.
Style tip: the undeniable pathos of it aside, the tell-tale, suck-my-ass bitchiness of lines like these kind of gives the emotional game away:
And, I’m aware that this pain is on top of a lot of other stresses with which you’ve had to contend over the past months–health issues, sudden loss–twice–of health insurance, the pandemic, dismay over the sorry state of our government and our predatory economic system, conflicts in other personal relationships, and so on. I can only imagine how difficult it has been for you.
I suggest next time you feel called upon to respond to a detailed, vulnerable, emotionally nuanced attempt to save a valued friendship you have already evacuated on, from an old friend you claim to love (and who refrained from lambasting you for acting in the childishly dickish way you unapologetically did the last time we spoke) you follow this template, which works exactly as well as what you’ve written and has the advantage of brevity:
You have my sympathy, I suppose, for the indigestible lack of nurturing in your early life that left you this rigidly implacable. You win — your indomitable, bullying father did a more thorough job on your psyche than poor old Irv ever could on mine. Please tell R_____ I wish her the best of luck, and my best to your sons.
We’ll have to allow those last words you said to me, before hanging up in rage back in April, to be the final zero-sum words on this matter — true and complete they turn out to have been.
Then, the stake driven, I put down the hammer and noticed, to my relief, the silence, that fucking music had stopped. Now all that was left was to digest how my accursed better nature had once again allowed me to believe it was in my power. taking somebody at his word, to carefully think things through, state them as clearly as I am able and have a positive effect on an unresolvable impasse.