Me & Jo: When a Friendship Breaks Apart

(Photo: Nancy Gonzalez/TueNight)

We met when we were in our late 20s, acting in a play together. On breaks from rehearsal, Jo used to scoop me up in a fireman’s carry and walk me around the room, yelling, “WHY, GOD! WHY DID YOU TAKE HER!?” while I went limp and pretended to be dead.

The first time I hung out at Jo’s apartment was around Christmas, where we bonded over our insane love for the holiday while basking in the glow of her tree. Our friendship deepened and I felt free enough to bring up a small incident that had bothered me, something reasonable Jo had said, but at the wrong place and the wrong time. There was something about Jo’s being that made me feel that it was safe to be honest with her about it, and she listened receptively to what I had to say. A new level of trust bloomed in me in that moment: trust in her and trust in myself. It was a giant gift, and I heard from a mutual friend that Jo appreciated that I was the kind of person who would be straight with her, which made me love her even more.

Jo soon became one of my closest friends. We shared a house, she was there for the birth of both of my children, we were by each other’s sides during illness, she was in my wedding, I was in hers. The friendship settled into something closer to sisterhood. It felt permanent and unquestionable.

What do I say about where Jo and I are now? Do I say we’re not friends? Do I say we’re not talking?

When you break up with a romantic partner, as difficult as it is, you at least have some formal convention on your side. Unless the breaker-upper is a complete cad, there’s generally a conversation that’s had in which the ways are officially parted. We’re not always so lucky when a friendship frays. In fact, I’ve rarely heard of it, an overt friendship breakup conversation. You hear about fights, disagreements and drifts, but after childhood, rarely do you hear the words “I don’t want to be your friend anymore.” It’s sort of a pity. Those words may be harsh, but they’re also freeing.

The fact is, sometimes that’s exactly the case: you just don’t want to be friends with a person anymore. “Make new friends, but keep the old/One is silver and the other gold” goes the song, and there’s the feeling that only a hardhearted, callous person would abandon a friendship, unless there was a clear betrayal that gave everyone a concrete reason as to why.

But most of the time, there’s no major betrayal. Most of the time, smaller things slowly accrue in the kind of quantity and formation that make it more painful to hold the enterprise together than to let it come apart.

What happened with Jo? I want to be delicate here, because she and I haven’t had a full post-mortem, and she’s the person who should really get first crack at the reasons why I let go. And the divvying of blame isn’t my object, with its danger of self-righteousness. We both carry some, and this isn’t the place to adjudicate amounts. We took turns breaking each other’s hearts, in little ways and big, and though we always came back, we came back weaker each time.

When we parted, I did the leaving, and it came suddenly. We had a conversation one day where something shocking came out of Jo’s mouth that unintentionally revealed a deeper, painful truth, at which point the friendship crumbled for me. Perhaps a stronger friendship would have held, or been reparable, but ours had eroded too much to weather it. I couldn’t see going forward from that moment, and so I bowed out, which in turn, shocked her.

It happens like that sometimes. You don’t know how unsound your vessel is until you suddenly find yourself in cold water, sunk.

Sorrow’s tough, as is regret. I put off writing this piece until the last minute, since I knew that feelings would come up that are more comfortable stored away. But the sorrow doesn’t come from what went wrong. The sorrow comes from what was once beautiful, and is now missing.

Here, look at some snapshots of how we used to be:

  • It’s 11pm and we’re each standing in our bedroom doorways in the house we share. We always find ourselves lingering here late at night before we go to sleep, being funny at each other. 11 o’clock has become funny o’clock. Jo leaps into my room and tackles me onto my bed, where we talk about how we’d totally make out if we were built that way.
  • We’re sitting in our living room, each of us deep into a hardback copy of Dave Eggers’ memoir, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The silence is punctuated by sniffling and nose-blowing, and eventually some giggling as one of us says, “heartbreaking” and the other says, “staggering” and we finish the joke, nodding and agreeing, “It’s genius. Genius!”
  • Jo and I are onstage together performing in the play where we met, singing a mournful lullaby. She sings low, I sing high, and we harmonize beautifully. We sing the song offstage all the time for pure pleasure.
  • I’m in the hospital/Jo is in the hospital. Things are looking bad/things are looking bad. Jo wouldn’t be anyplace else/I wouldn’t be anyplace else. Jo strokes my hair and tells me everything will be all right/I stroke Jo’s hair and tell her everything will be all right.
  • We’re sitting on Jo’s bed in the morning with our coffee. She’s a spotlessly clean person, and her bed has a fluffy white comforter, daring accidents. With every gesture, and there are many when Jo tells a story, she spills her coffee here, there, everywhere. She doesn’t care. She likes tidiness but she’s not about perfection, which is one of her most delightful qualities.

That’s her. That was the two of us together at our long peak.

We were so good at our best that I think we both imagined an endless line of credit with each other, so when we eventually ran into limits, we got dismayed and lost faith. The quiet, shared narrative of an unbreakable friendship turned out not to serve us. If we knew we could break, I think we would have been more careful.

But we did break. Jo moved away last October, out of our city and to another state, so the distance between us is expressed geographically now, too, which is fitting. She’s not part of my landscape and I’m not part of hers, and the absence is strange but also feels, at least temporarily, correct. I don’t know if that’s how it feels for Jo; I don’t know whether she misses me or curses me or is indifferent — or all three — and the not knowing is unsettling when I let it be.

However I have no idea if Jo and I will ever return to each other, either, so for now there’s nothing to do but the thing all humans have to do when faced with loss: I adapt.

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7 Responses

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  2. MizMisk

    What a beautiful description of a particular grief we all share but never acknowledge. Thanks very much for this illuminating and compassionate post.

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  4. 3boymom

    Wow- you so beautifully put into words the demise of a friendship- I just ended one that has lasted 16 years. We saw each other through the death of her husband and the divorce of mine, her cancer and my foray into small business ownership. We were Lucy and Ethel and thought we would be together forever. But like you said , it just eroded little by little when we took different paths until the day she called me a dumb ass. And it was over, just like that. Thank you for acknowledging that it happens, and it is okay to walk away. And to let go.

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  6. Layla

    Back in 2009 I blogged about this because I was struggling with a bestie breakup. 6 years later the pain still lingers of that although now at most it’s just a dull ache.

    It’s been another weird few weeks … more twists and turns on of the journey i call my life. Relationships are funny and certainly not in a comical way – Some, no most of my friendships have grown with me and breath air in my spirit. HOWEVER its those friendships that don’t, those friends that you leave behind at the starting line because they can’t pick up their feet up and keep up that become a huge disappointment. And what lingers is the thought of what I did wrong. Even though in the most rational sense I know that its not about me and how very important it is to grow but friendships also need to grow with me. I recently wrote the following to a fractured friendship trying to make her understand…

    …I so much value my close friendships because of how rare they are to find but i find myself struggling some days on how to juggle those idiosyncratic friendships. I am a work in progress on that front and will be for all time…i own my own issues and all i can do is promise to try to be a better friend but also need those that call me their friend to understand the nuances of calling me their friend. I also know that calling me a friend as we grow and age might become more difficult for you and not just you but my other friendships because of where we each are in our own lives…

    Those words didn’t land well but I also know that working on becoming me can be a threat to some people BUT that’s not my baggage it’s theirs. I will not be stifled and tripped up at each starting line.

  7. Atena

    Beautiful. You had me sobbing.


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