On the Death of Friendship

Nothing lasts forever

Parker Knight/Flickr
Parker Knight/Flickr


Phillip Lopate’s last “Full Disclosure” column appeared on May 26. For the next several weeks, we will republish our favorites from this year.

There are few things as mystifying and unnerving to me as the dying out of a friendship. I find myself brooding about the few friendships of mine that have cooled, and wondering what went wrong. Was there something I did to offend—some incident I can no longer remember? That would be the best possible case: usually they dwindled away without specific provocation.

We assume that love affairs are transitory, dependent as they are on the novelty of erotic excitement, which habituates in time; but since friendship cooks on a milder, steadier flame, it would seem that, barring some unexpected quarrel, one should be able to stay friends indefinitely. The mistake here is in underestimating the romantic side of friendship, which can exceed that element in love affairs: without the benefit of carnal release, there is no ceiling to idealization of the other or projections of spiritual attachment. The friend can seem like your psychic twin, the one you can tell everything to. This mirroring fantasy, essentially narcissistic, may shatter upon the discovery that the other person is indeed a separate individual, with certain pet peeves that include you, or monomanias that annoy you, or periods of monastic withdrawn self-absorption, or simply ambitions to travel in a higher social circle than the one you inhabit.

I have lost a few younger friends, who initially looked up to me, by their promotion in the world, which gave them a vaunted sense of self-importance. Now that they were suddenly surrounded by people younger than themselves who looked up to them for guidance and help in career advancement, they could no longer abide the original terms of the friendship, in which I seemed to hold the upper hand. Perhaps, in responding earlier to their grumbles about not being accorded the worldly respect they felt they deserved, I had counseled patience in what they took to be a condescending manner. Now that they were getting that respect, they may have found my persisting superiority claims intolerable. I don’t know, I can’t be sure, because they never avowed any resentment against me. During the cooling-off period, if I tried to confront the matter, they would deny that there was any problem in the friendship. Their resistance took the form of no longer initiating contacts, so that I would be the one who had to make the phone calls or send emails; and their vague promises of settling on a date rarely came to pass. If we eventually did get together, for a meal or coffee, they made it seem as though I had merely imagined that the friendship had died out.

I have also lost friends for the opposite reason: they’d come to regard themselves as failures, and erroneously assumed that I had ascended to a higher plateau of accomplishment or celebrity that made me no longer interested in them. I say “erroneously,” though there is a grain of truth in their fear that I would find their bitterness and self-pity tiresome. I like to think I am a loyal friend, regardless of the straitened fortunes that may afflict someone I’ve known for years, but there is a difference between present toleration and prior admiration, which may be too painful to endure on the receiving end.

It’s entirely possible that my ex-friends would reject these speculations about power realignments and one-upmanship as completely beside the point. They might say they simply got very busy. Hard as it is for me to fathom such a possibility, maybe they just got bored with me. Shocking as it is to consider that we—who had once been each other’s delight—had learned each other’s repertoires and sucked all the nourishment out of the friendship that was to be had, leaving only a dry husk, one must face up to that brutal possibility. Objectively speaking, I can appreciate that nothing lasts forever in this life, cherry blossoms fall off the trees, and hence the waning of a friendship should be no more a mystery than mortality itself. And yet, I continue to ponder the ones that got away, weighing my own rigidities against their fickleness.

They say that the older you get, the harder it is to make new friends. There is less space in your life, and perhaps less need. The one exception to the rule, in my case, is that I have been fortunate enough to keep making friends with women. With them I find there is less competition, less sibling rivalry, and in general, my women friends seem to be more gifted with a capacity for sympathy. Women make better friends, in my experience. They are warmer, kinder, better at listening, and even know how to flirt gracefully within the confines of a platonic relationship. For whatever reason, the friendships I’ve had with women have not suffered the same crash-and-burn scenarios that have occasionally marred mine with men. Although, come to think of it, I did lose a close friendship with a woman once when I got married. Though we were never lovers, I sensed her irritation that she had lost me as an available plus-one. The women friends I have made since seem more than happy with my marital status; when we get together, we can converse pleasurably, wittily, and candidly, without any of that nonsense that comes from having sexual designs on the other. If I continue to fantasize about them in bed, that is nobody’s business but my own.

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Phillip Lopate is director of Columbia University's nonfiction program, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, and author of Against Joie de Vivre, Portrait of My Body, and To Show and to Tell, among other books.


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