This is prompted by something that happened to me recently, but it’s not so much about that as it is about how I feel about relationships in general.
Many years ago I had a very dear friend, C. We met at a church retreat; she was in an acting group which did a show for us one night. We got to talking, and really clicked. We started emailing daily, and having long conversations on the phone. We shared music. We even flew to each other’s cities to visit each other. We weren’t dating; we just felt totally comfortable when we were talking together.
Early on in our relationship I asked C not to fall in love with me, because I was really trying to develop healthy friendships and I had had trouble before with friendships getting complicated by romantic feelings. Not surprisingly she found this a profoundly egotistical request. Nonetheless, somewhere along the line she did exactly what I had asked her not to do. One day she wrote me saying that her feelings for me were too strong, and that it was too painful to keep talking to me when I didn’t reciprocate, and so she needed some time away from our relationship.
Some months later, after some friends of hers had been in an accident, she had a change of heart and realized that life is too short not to stay in contact with the people we love. But the damage was done; the relationship was never the same again. Today it has been over five years since I last heard from her.
This pattern has repeated itself often in my life, in one form or another. I never again had anyone so explicitly tell me I love you and that is why I cannot see you any more; but other friendships have suffered due to the introduction of stronger-than-friendly feelings. I’ve also watched this dynamic play itself out in friend’s lives.
When C told me she needed time away from our friendship I let her go. And in general, that has been my response – to let go. In fact, I let go way too easily. Friends fade from my life, and instead of keeping in touch I just allow it to happen without lifting a finger, and then one day I realize that it’s been years since I spoke with them, and very few of the people around me have been there longer than five years.
In the past few years I’ve been coming to the realization of just how bad a habit this is, how unfair it is to them and to me, and I’ve been coming to treasure my friendships a lot more. I’ve been making more of an effort to maintain the friendships I still have, and to cultivate new ones.
And here’s what I’ve come to realize: all relationships exist in a state of flux. We get this idea in our heads that every relationship has a natural “steady-state”, but that’s a myth. In fact, every relationship in our lives is constantly in motion. Friends grow closer together or further apart. Friendships deepen, or become more surface-level. Interests converge and diverge. People fall in love, and out of love, and back in love again. Crushes bloom and fade. Disagreements burst out in white heat and then cool. Jealous tensions form. People hang out in different crowds and find new facets of themselves. And, of course, people get older and with that comes change as well.
What’s more, sometimes relationships are ambiguous. Often feelings don’t fall between the neat lines we draw between different kinds of love. Sometimes I feel intense dislike for people I love, and sometimes I develop intellectual crushes on new friends, and there are times I would happily kiss a strictly platonic friend full on the lips. Some of Benjamin Franklin’s longest and dearest friendships were with women with whom he flirted brazenly, but never actually consummated a romantic relationship, and with whom he traded heartfelt correspondence even as they got married, had children, and grew old. We have a natural urge to establish just exactly Where We Stand at all times, but feelings are not always so easy to pin down.
And these relationships – changing, ambiguous, frustrating – are precious, each one irreplaceable. Life is too short to let them go easily; that’s what I’m coming to understand. We can’t just call the game due to inclement emotions.
So I’m determined, now, to hang on to the friendships I have, whatever form they come in. I’m going to keep making time for the people who are in my life. I’m going to look around at some of the relationships I’ve let fall by the wayside and see if, just maybe, they can be revived. I’m going to try to remember to seek reconciliation when I have a conflict, rather than stand on wounded pride. I’m going to show love and attention as the spirit is moved to all the people I care about, without worrying too hard about “giving the wrong impression”. And if I ever find myself falling for someone who is supposed to be “just a friend”, I’m not going to beat myself up about it, but instead just try to enjoy the feeling for what it is.
I’d rather die having made an affectionate fool of myself than having been dignifiedly lonely.