As I move to the half century mark, I am witnessing the meltdown of more and more marriages. No matter what the reason, major bombshell or mere boredom, and no matter how reasonable each party promises to be throughout the process of a divorce–amicable, it ain’t. Up close, these breakups are as messy as a front row seat at a Gallagher show.
The breakup of a marital partnership is inevitably accompanied by the severing of shared friendships. It’s a sticky situation for all involved.
Shamelessly, we quickly peel off into teams, pledging our loyalty to one party or the other. In most cases it seems to me that the dominant person in a relationship acquires a full roster of friends dating back to the beginning of their coupledom and the other is left with a depleted bench.
At this juncture in middle age, one returns not only to the singles’ scene; but to the daunting task of making friends.
I imagine the many nights you sit alone in the dark and reflect. You wish you hadn’t burned so many bridges. You wish you had made more of an effort to keep in touch with your city friends after you married and moved out to the ‘burbs. You yearn for the good old days when your BFF turned out to be whomever you happened to sit next to during lunch period on the first day of grade school.
You think: Would the barista who works at the coffee shop that I visit every morning want to hang out?
Then it hits you: Now is an opportunity for you to pick the friends that suit you. You never liked your spouse’s B-school chums anyway. And your sister-in-law was a total bitch.
As I watch this process play out from the sidelines, I can’t help but evaluate my own friendships, both old and new.
(Happy marriage notwithstanding) I wonder, Are they on My Team?
These thoughts are on my mind as I near the finish of My Brilliant Friend, a novel by Elena Ferrante, the first in a series that chronicles the complicated friendship of two women who grow up in the 1950s in a rough neighborhood of Naples, Italy. The main characters, Elena and Lila, forge a bond based on mutual hardships, their shared struggle to become educated, successful, and self-sufficient. It is a friendship that is often put to the test by their competitive and prideful nature. Yet it endures through the decades because of their unspoken admiration for each other.
Going through my list of girlfriends today I, too, have unspoken admiration for many. However there is one that I consider crossing off the list: A woman who told me that she does not have time to read blogs. To that point, she declared, “I probably won’t read yours either.”
Up until then, I considered her a really good friend. But this pronouncement has given me pause. I think to myself, This isn’t just any blog. It’s MY blog.
It’s a petty thing, perhaps. But if she returned to her musical passion, I wouldn’t think of missing her performance. True friends support each other like that.
Maybe the fault is mine. Maybe I haven’t communicated how important this writing thing is to me and that the success of my blog relies heavily on friends like her to carve out five minutes of time to read my latest article and to pass along a good word. In the end, I decide it’s not the type of thing to wreck a friendship. I have known bigger betrayals.
Take, for instance, the girl in my second grade class who stole my grandmother’s bracelet out of my jewelry box when she came over for a play date.
Or, the girl from my block who joined me and a ragtag group of neighbors that ran barefoot through the streets of our small Midwestern town in the summertime. The two of us ran with the boys, playing kickball in the play lot, climbing trees, and riding bikes over the mounds of rocks at a gravel pit on the outskirts of town.
These were innocent preteen days much like in the coming-of-age film, The Sandlot. No influences of drugs or alcohol. No fighting or flirting or smoking or stealing. Just good outdoor fun and the occasional excitement when someone took a spill on a bike or we were chased out of the forest preserves by angry red winged blackbirds.
My most vivid memory of those days is the time we found a battered garbage can in the gravel pit, tipped out the rainwater, and took turns climbing inside it and logrolling down a mountain of pea gravel. I emerged from the can covered in rust, dizzy and bruised; but exhilarated beyond belief. It was the end of an unforgettable summer.
At the start of the school year, my summer girlfriend and I were surprised to find ourselves in the same confirmation class at our Lutheran church.
A young pastor led the class. He was hipper than most clergy and spoke to us like we were his contemporaries as he explained the Ten Commandments as they might apply to us in modern times.
When he got to the Sixth Commandment, the mere mention of S-E-X made the students collectively cover their mouth and snicker. He explained that the broader definition of adultery was the “misuse of our bodies” in “dirty” and “perverted” ways. He went on to say that some of us may have already experienced “petting” which, to my surprise, did not include cute little animals. Instead, according to our pastor, petting involved two people and was the gateway to premarital sex.
Ewwwwwwww. Gross! I was at least two years shy of kissing my Shaun Cassidy and Leif Garrett posters that hung on my bedroom wall. I was trying to form an image of what petting a person might look like when I heard my girlfriend speak up from the back of the room.
She called out my name and said that I knew all about petting, that I was doing it with all the boys down at the gravel pit. My classmates looked at me and laughed. I waited for her to shout, “Kidding!” Instead, she held her gaze on me, her lips in a tight smile, daring me to defend myself.
I lowered my head and tried to hide behind my hair. My face burned with humiliation. Our pastor walked through the aisle of desks to quiet the students and gave my shoulder a consoling squeeze as he passed by.
I felt shame. Shame for what, I don’t know. The accusation was completely false. The only time I had ever touched a boy was when I high-fived my teammate after a grand slam home run during a game of Wiffle ball.
How many times in my life have I found myself unable to speak up for myself? To challenge a friendship? I never confronted the girl who stole my grandmother’s jewelry. And I never corrected this friend’s assertions in confirmation class about the “misuse of my body.” Instead, I acted impervious to their wrongdoings–Unfazed and Above It All. And as a result, the wounds still fester.
I know I am not alone in dealing with the complexities of friendship. As I write this article, I see that my cousin has aired her frustrations about a friend-related issue on her Facebook timeline.
Her post details an appalling situation involving a so-called “friend” who has repeatedly made insensitive comments to my cousin about her weight. This woman has asked her on multiple occasions if she is pregnant, which she is not. The first time, my cousin gave the woman a pass. After all, my cousin admits that, like so many of us, she has been fighting the battle of the belly bulge for many years. However, the woman continues to bring up the pregnancy thing and also offers unwanted tips on healthy eating (perfectly timed to when my cousin is lifting a fork to her mouth). My cousin is convinced that this woman is purposely trying to body shame her. Or that maybe it’s an underhanded way to make baseless insinuations about my cousin’s fertility. Whatever the motive, the woman’s comments are unkind, if not outright cruel, and have created an awkwardness between them.
Someone replies to the post with the comment, “Get rid of that ‘friend’.” Indeed. But, I think some of you will agree, it’s not so easy to let go.
The thing about a team is that some players are standouts and others, quite frankly, are second string role players. It’s important to acknowledge each other’s strengths and weaknesses and to know when someone can be called on in key situations. It would be great if we could use a super cool sabermetrics system like Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill use in Moneyball, one specifically formulated for friendships that would allow us to build a solid lineup that could take us deep into any season.
I see a pool of potential friends out there and it doesn’t look so promising. Included are the moms who drop off their children at the front of school each morning. The ones who honk at you if you’re not quick enough to pull ahead. The ones who cut you off while they chat away on their cell phones. The ones who pull into a handicap spot “just for a sec.” And the ones who forego basic common courtesies and think that drop off procedures apply to everyone else but themselves.
I know, I have issues…But, I swear, it’s not just me.
A mother of one of my daughter’s classmates (I’ll call her B.) confided in me that she has found it hard to make new friends since moving to our community. The first time B. reached out to a potential friend was when she sat next to a woman at a park. B. and the woman chatted for awhile, observed that their children played well together, and were both pleasantly surprised to find out that their boys would be attending the same school in the fall. B. admitted to me that she was buoyed by this exchange–She seemed to have made her first friend in a new town.
When it was time to leave, B. said something like, “Hey, it was great meeting you. Let’s do it again soon.” The woman gave B. a withering smile and said, “Don’t take this personally; but I’m not taking applications for new friends right now.”
Don’t get me wrong. I am seriously flawed in the friendship department myself. For one, I am completely self-absorbed. I spend more time with the characters in my head than with real life people. I don’t send out holiday cards. I ignore your texts when I’m watching my show and cancel our lunch plans at the very last minute. Also, I am too passionate about my own opinions to rightly consider yours. Especially when it comes to Politics…And Religion…And Child Rearing…And Books…And Basketball…
I have probably even yelled insults at you in the school drop off line.
Like so many others, I reveal the worst parts of myself while hurrying through my daily routine. I forget to return phone calls and I am stingy with my time. I am defensive on occasion and I don’t always say what’s bugging me. Still, I consider myself a team player. I will sit on the bench until my number is called and be there for you during a divorce or a health crisis or another one of life’s many other challenges.
As a parent, I am reminded that being a good friend is a lesson that we must instill in our kids. In an article that appeared in The Huffington Post last April by Leslie Blanchard entitled, “My Worst Nightmare–What If I Accidentally Raise the Bully?” speaks to this.
Blanchard writes, “It’s simply not enough to instruct your child to Be Nice! Kids think if they aren’t being outright unkind, they are being nice. We know better.” Further, she explains that forming friendships requires one “to invest some time and energy.” Whether or not we agree with Blanchard that it is wise to force our children into friendships and micromanage their social life, I think we can still offer our guidance and set a good example with our own interactions. Additionally, we would do well to remind our kids that being kind has no limits and that we should go beyond being merely considerate in our daily interactions and try to make a real connection with one another.
While visiting the University of Michigan where my son attends school, this “team first” mentality has permeated my thoughts. The words of Bo Schembechler’s famous 1983 football speech is emblazoned on tee shirts and murals all around campus. Indeed his wisdom carries from the field to everyday life, urging us to consider our crucial role in supporting each other:
“If we think that way – all of us – everything you do, take into consideration what effect does it have on my team?…We’re going to believe in each other, we’re not going to criticize each other, we’re not going to talk about each other. We’re going to encourage each other!”
Good words to live by for making and maintaining friendships both as children and adults.
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