Rewriting Friendship ContractsBy Emma Pearson
September 22, 2023
15 June 2020
Photo by Jude Beck on Unsplash
I had one of those rollicking walloping moments of insight a few days ago after what had been months of sporadic back and forth Whatsapping with a lovely friend, (let’s call her Catherine), who I met decades ago at university. We were really close in those years and stayed in touch a while afterwards. We have seen one another over the decades despite living countries away from one another.
I last saw her in Dublin in 2016, six months after Ed’s death, and just a couple of months before the first sign of anything being amiss with Mike. She’s one of those beautiful friends that, even though not in my life on a monthly or even annual basis, remains, in my mind and heart, a dear, sweet friend. Something about the time of life when the friendship was born, and life events that we accompanied one another through. Moments spent with her are scorched into my memory banks.
But we haven’t been in touch much – properly – since Mike and then since Julia died. I feel it as a sad and unnecessary loss. Not a betrayal or abandonment. Just a loss. An absence. Another gaping hole that shouldn’t be there.
I don’t have any “claims” to having more contact with her than I have had, because we didn’t have regular contact anyway, but I remember her fondly as someone so skilled with holding space, acknowledging pain, being present, and offering gentle perspective or insight without judgement, that I feel sad as I imagine how soothing any time with her would feel. Even at 20 years of age I saw that she had this gift, and once asked her, “Catherine – who is Catherine for you? Who is your Catherine?” I remember her response, which was to shrug her shoulders. She didn’t have a Catherine as I did. The skillset so very rare, especially at that age.
That combination of skills is a big ask still, I know. They are run-of-the-mill skills for coaches and therapists, but even they/we slip in and out of them depending on whether we are with “clients” or “friends and family”. I can count on one hand the people in my life who truly seem to live these skills as a way of life. Not just with clients but with family and friends too. It’s hard. For sure I know that I don’t live and embody those skills in the way the best can.
Fast forward to now, Catherine has been going through yet more difficult times. Some tough elements have been going on for years, and others are more recent. It’s wearing, I know. I had lost touch with the details but I knew enough to realise how some of the undercurrent of her life was simply heavy, unsettling, draining. These past months I nudged her a few times for a catch up, to no avail. She always responded, but passively. Non-committingly. (That might not be a word. Never mind). Finally, last week, I got a more detailed response explaining her reticence, her absence, her lack of biting at my invitation hooks for a catch up.
As I expected, there are lots of messy pieces ongoing in her life. Still. Some the same, some new. Lots of energy being drained as she shores up the foundations of her life. But one piece of her message stood out to me:
“I didn’t want to say much of this because I know I am lucky to have X (my troubled daughter), and the kids are lucky to have their dad, and it all seems so small compared to your life challenges. But I wanted you to know why I have been quiet”.
I responded, “One of the HARDEST things about me staying connected with people is that they feel their “mundane” life problems are nothing compared with mine. So they don’t want to be in touch, don’t want to share their issues. And as you know, and I know, and any decent therapist knows, grief is grief is grief. And sometimes I am fantastically upset about my car tyre being punctured, or the cat shitting on the beds, etc”.
I could have added that I much prefer hearing other people’s problems, listening to them, holding space for them, than facing my own head on. It is because mine are so brutal and hard, so shocking, so ongoing and ever-lasting. It is also because I have to face them day in day out. Alone. No Mike to share them with. To comfort me. To share in the pain with, even though none of it will ever lessen.
If everyone who still had their husbands or partners didn’t dare talk to me about relationship issues, I would lose many of my girlfriends. And if everyone who had a troubled daughter didn’t dare talk to me about their anxiety around their child’s mental health, future prospects, etc, I would possibly lose the remainder.
I know it’s hard to share these things, and of course I get triggered by things – for example:
Hearing friends talk repeatedly about pissy niggly things to do with their spouses when I want to bang their heads together and say, “sort this out, sort yourselves out, figure it out and stop complaining, or make a decision that it’s no longer what you want, but don’t wallow in crappy patterns for decades”.
Hearing friends talk about troubled daughters (it’s usually daughters but not always) who are anxious, cutting, not eating, attempting suicide, in and out of institutions. My heart goes into overdrive and any recent healing comes undone again. But it’s not jealousy. I don’t think it is. It’s fear. Fear that these friends too have a load that’s too heavy to carry, or one day might do so.
And yes, sometimes it is jealousy. It’s jealousy when the relationship niggles are minor and temporary; when I feel that mountains are being made of molehills. It’s irritation when friends can only ever see what is wrong, and not sometimes see what is right. I want to yell, “Open your eyes to what you have!”
And it’s mixed – bittersweet – when a formerly troubled child is now doing brilliantly. Or when friends’ children turn 16, as now most of them have. That is very hard. But even that is not jealousy. It’s just the ever-present juxtaposition of heart lifting and heart plummeting, of gratitude and grief, of joy and distress. Commonplace blends of emotions. The norm in my life.
And yes, it is downright anger when, for whatever reason, the friendship support is one-way, in that I consistently, even now, provide the listening ear and my friend doesn’t enquire, really enquire, as to how I am. Or stay around to listen to the answer, fully. And then hold that for a few minutes without judging or taking the narrative back to themselves.
This last part is what I am finally rebelling against. After three+ years. And especially the last 12 months. Some of my closest friendships have been out of balance for years. That’s my fault as much as anything and I fully own that. And for sure I got what I needed in those friendships, perhaps by being appreciated. But I need something back now. The emotional bank is empty. More than empty.
So I am revisiting the friendship banks. Balancing the books. Inviting those people who have surprisingly emerged out of nowhere these past years to be in my circle of “firm official friends”. And articulating more clearly what guidelines I need in place for decades-old friendships that have been worn thin and yet that I still want to salvage. And waving goodbye to yet others with gratitude for the fun times we had when things were rosier.
Who knew that friendship needed contracts? Turns out mine do. At least for a while. And I believe I have the skills to help rewrite them.