I knew it was her from half a block away. When my old friend moved through the crowd, I saw that she had her phone pressed to her ear, and I felt a familiar tug of loss. She and I used to talk to each other all the time — from our apartments and our tiny desks at our starter jobs, on noisy streets at moments just like this. More than a decade had passed since those days, and I had no idea who’d taken my place on the other end of the telephone line. “Hello!” we cried out, and exchanged big-hearted waves. Neither of us stopped walking.
We had met in high school and remained close during college, sending letters to each other’s dorms and, over breaks, reuniting over dim sum. When we returned home after graduation, we made a two-headed unit, speaking in a language of arcane in-jokes and serving as each other’s de facto plus-ones. We went on vacation together.
It was on one of our phone calls that our friendship came to its end — though it took me a few weeks to understand that she was gone. We were chatting on our way to work when she told me she had to take another call and she’d ring me right back. And then she vanished. I left voicemail messages and texts. I lamented to our mutual friends. I felt bewildered.
Perhaps she offered no explanation because she had none. That she was no longer in the mood should have been reason enough.
Out of respect for friendship’s sanctity, when the magic dims, the best thing to do is let go.
Friendships are fragile, and most aren’t built to last forever. Circumstances change, bonds diminish. That she and I made it through the better part of a decade was a feat. In 1999 and 2000, the Dutch sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst and his colleagues interviewed 1,007 people between the ages of 18 and 65 about the people they regularly talked to and spent time with. When they followed up seven years later with many of the participants, only about half of the friendships were still going.
The rules governing romantic love are clearer. Except for the adventurous few, we carry out relationships in distinct succession, like beads on a string. We find a new partner and get closer until one or both parties terminate the relationship to get on with finding “the one.”
The 16th-century French philosopher Michel de Montaigne believed friendship should operate similarly, one companion at a time. For the “perfect friendship,” he wrote, “each one gives himself so wholly to his friend that he has nothing left to distribute elsewhere.”
Friendship these days is complex. We start aligning with people in early childhood, and our collections only grow. As we move through life we make friends for every occasion — college friends, work friends, mom friends, climbing-gym friends, divorce friends. We are told to nurture old relationships even — maybe especially — when new ones are formed, to “be there,” no matter how busy, or uninterested, we find ourselves.
But our social lives are never stagnant, and even bonds founded on that rare, deeply felt psychic connection between two people, such as the one that sustained me in early adulthood, are bound to fray. New romantic partners enter the picture, as do children, geographic relocations, unforeseeable victories and catastrophes. Priorities tilt in new directions.
And new friends come along. We are wired to pursue friendship: In the company of our favourite companions, studies have found, our brains release dopamine and oxytocin. The early stages of friendship are their own romance; when my husband finds me bent over my phone, absorbed in a finger-flurrying text exchange, the person on the other end is invariably a fascinating woman I’m still getting to know.
There are betrayals that can kill a friendship. But more often, there’s no accounting for a friendship’s demise. The atmosphere changes; a sense of duty creeps in. Conversations that were once freewheeling shift into that less than enjoyable territory of “catching up.” Soon you realise social media is the only thing keeping a no-longer-friendship on life support.
Thanks to the miracle of Instagram, I am aware that my old friend has a gorgeous family and remains a passionate cook and taker of selfies. What doesn’t come through on my feed is the vulnerable look that would spring to her eyes when we would link arms and walk through the city late at night, or the sound of her laughter when we spent Sunday afternoons eating malodorous cheeses and watching “Seinfeld” reruns. Those are things I’ll never get back.
My old friend eventually reached out to me, several months after she’d disappeared. She said she didn’t know why she needed space, but she did, and she was sorry. I told her that it had been painful but I understood. We saw each other a few times after that, but it was different; we’d come apart.
Out of respect for friendship’s sanctity, when the magic dims, the best thing to do is let go. When I last saw my old friend, on that crowded street, I did not want a two-minute update or exchange of empty promises about “getting together soon.” Our glorious history, and the young people we used to be, deserved more than that. Breezing past each other had been more of an instinct than a decision, but it was the only way to honour our friendship, may it rest in peace.
Lauren Mechling is a journalist and a columnist.