Breakups Suck, Especially When They’re With Your Friends.
Written by Jordan Cooley
I’m ashamed to say that I am worse at breaking up with friends than I am with my partners. In fact, many of my friendships have failed miserably because of my inability to admit that I just didn’t want to be friends anymore. For the longest time, the idea that friendships are just supposed to work lived at the base of my chest. And that might be because of how differently we talk about platonic and romantic relationships.
I remember vividly my mother and my grandmothers and TV shows telling me how much work romantic relationships need, how to define the ‘red flags,’ and how to leave an abusive or toxic situation.
What I don’t remember is learning how to navigate tough or awkward conversations with my friends, specifically my close girlfriends. Rather, I remember learning how to read their body language, when they would pull away or become distant.
I remember as a kid watching Arthur and Blue’s Clues. In conflict, the adults on those shows would help the kids navigate how their own actions might have affected their friends.
I remember learning the way to fix these friend withdrawals was to figure out what wrong had been done, and only then, go up and apologize first.
I remember feeling jealousy and anger towards other girls – in elementary and intermediate school, I was obsessed with which boys liked which girls, how I was never one of them; I remember how a girl held me down and drew flowers on my face, each of my pimples surrounded by small petals; I remember burying myself in studies, how I could at least be smarter than the other girls in my class.
I’m not naïve to ignore that other girls probably felt this towards me — this constant worry of competition, of playing the violin better, of getting a better grade on an essay, of which guy might suddenly be interested in me.
What was I to do when the reason other girls didn’t want to be my friend was because of this jealousy? When the reason they pulled away was because of the threat that I was prettier or that I was smarter? What were they supposed to do when I pulled away for the same reasons?
By high school, I had come to a false conclusion that if someone didn’t want to be my friend, it was because of who I was. This had me constantly trying to find the faults in myself, to figure out what I needed to apologize for before the friends left.
So, when I met E and she wanted to be my ‘best’ friend, I thought Finally, someone to go through all this with me. She was (and still is) an unbelievably smart and beautiful woman — someone I was proud to be seen with; someone I felt would help me better myself.
Our friendship centered on talking about what grades we were making, to which colleges we were applying, how far we were willing to go with whoever we were dating at the time, how much weight we had lost or how we were dealing with eating during the holidays. I didn’t realize it then, but rather than finding a friendship that was based on respect and love and honesty, we both were still operating on how to compete with one another. That core belief that we were supposed to be jealous of each other, that we had to perform better than the other, was still there. It was just out in the open.
We carried this into college, where our lives got infinitely more complicated. She started to pursue both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees. I started to run a poetry non-profit while working full-time. We both were navigating what dating in college looked like. We both struggled keeping up with our family and friends.
And I didn’t realize at first why I stopped returning her texts, why I canceled plans last minute, why I decided last minute that I couldn’t handle being her Maid of Honor.
I do remember feeling embarrassed, face hot, when I told E that I was switching my major from business to English. She said, Oh you’ve always been the artsy type. I could never do that — I want to buy a house one day.
I remember feeling shame when my high school boyfriend T and I broke up, trying to tell E about the abuse. It didn’t feel like she heard me, kept going back to, You know, not all high school relationships are doomed just because you and T didn’t work out — just look at C and I or C has never made me have sex with him, he understands when I get tired, or I can see where T is coming from. I have said similar things to C about how he needs to keep me updated on where he is.
I remember the frustration when I explained my eating disorder to her at our favorite coffee shop. I tried to have a hard conversation on how we talked about food and our bodies and how that affected me — that a workout class isn’t a justification for lunch; that we shouldn’t beam with pride forgetting to eat dinner because of our studies.
Rather than having an open conversation, she nodded and looked down at her tea. I could tell something struck her but I wasn’t sure how to ask. The conversation then pivoted to her wedding: the costs, the pre-honeymoons, the actual honeymoon, the cake, the music, the venue. All of it gushing out of her.
I think this is why I withdrew — I had tried to have the awkward conversation, to ask what I needed from our friendship and I went unheard. I felt like the conversation turned into another Look at what I’m accomplishing comparison game. It made me feel small, not because I wasn’t engaged or that I wanted the big wedding with the expensive dress and the open bar. But because our friendship was centered on what we were doing rather than who we were and how we loved one another.
Neither of us really knew how to navigate this hard place we were in, how to be honest with the fact that our friendship was imploding and we should just break up. We kept doing what we knew how : we’d pull away, in hopes that the other would notice and recognize the wrong that had been done. That they would apologize first. That this would magically fix the hurt feelings.
But surprise : ghosting your friends doesn’t lead to a solution. Instead, we left so much unsaid. Yeah, I or E would eventually apologize, but neither of us fully understood what was going on.
I didn’t know that she felt personally attacked by how I talked about my eating disorder. She thought I blamed her for it, thought I was asking her to give up what she viewed as a ‘healthy lifestyle’ because I ‘couldn’t manage my emotions.’
She didn’t understand how dismissive she came across when I tried to open up. There was a part of me that believed she didn’t really care about my well-being or my health. Just about what we were accomplishing, how we presented ourselves to the world.
Even though E and I weren’t able to fix that friendship, I took so much from that failure. I learned that I need to lean in as much into my friends that I do my partners : I will no longer let my friendships be centered on comparison or on what we do; I will no longer let awkward or hard conversations keep me from diving in; I am not a ghost; I will be vulnerable; I will be loving; I will ask for what I need; I will say when I’ve been hurt; and I will listen to the hurt I cause.
And if the person across the table can’t meet me there, I know how to walk away graciously, full of my own worth and love.
Header photo by Jan Tinneberg
Jordan Cooley is a writer and self taught artist in Austin, TX. She graduated from Texas A&M with a degree in English and has worn many hats, including Slam Master and President of a poetry non-profit called Mic Check, financial analyst for JP Morgan, researcher and executive assistant for AmeriCatalyst and now bartender at Better Half Bar. Each day, she is feverishly working towards becoming a better ally, a more nuanced writer, and a woman who accepts the goofy slips and slides of life. Follow on Insta @jarcy_ and on Twitter @jrcooley_ to see what kind of falls she makes on the daily.