I recently ended a thirty-year-long friendship.
This is not something I’ve done before. Most of the friendships I’ve lost over the years have faded under the usual circumstances: Time, physical distance, and life transitions gradually nudged us apart. A few friends have passed away. But this—telling a longtime friend what I needed from her, and her acquiescence that she couldn’t give this to me—was a new experience.
We met in middle school, when we were both misfits and the greatest concerns in our lives were homework, tests, and boys. Together, we experienced prom, college, dating, weddings, jobs, and adulting. When my father passed away our freshman year in high school, she was one of my only classmates willing and able to make eye contact with me.
Bound by Memories
We were bound together by countless memories, inside jokes, and shared experiences. At some point, though, that was no longer enough. The friends we had been for most of our lives were not the friends we had become.
Being a friend seems like the most basic of human activities, yet it is by no means simple. The calling to friendship that we find in Scripture is remarkably lofty and expansive. Proverbs 17:17 says, “A friend loves at all times.” And Jesus teaches us to “love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends” (John 15:12-13).
At their best, friendships elevate us to be more Christlike. They encourage us to be our truest selves even as they challenge us to grow and mature. They offer love and accountability, encouragement and wisdom. Like marriage, the strongest friendships occasionally cause us discomfort and pain. Not because our friends intentionally hurt us, but because they reflect a clearer picture of ourselves and our choices back to us. They push us to do good and hard things that will strengthen our character and make us more grounded and wise. They help us to see God at work in the world and in ourselves.
The Richness of Constancy
The most meaningful friendships are never going to be perfect, but they are constant. And they bear rich fruit in the lives of both individuals.
In all honesty, most of the friendships I’ve had don’t meet this standard. There has, however, been a tacit understanding in those friendships: I will only give you a small part of me, and you will only give me a small part of you. The expectations are low and easily met. Such friendships are important in their own way, but they are not the friendships that will ultimately sustain us in such a broken world.
The friendships that sustain us are the friendships worth sustaining. But doing so takes work. It takes intentionality. It takes vulnerability and honesty. It takes commitment. As pandemics and politics pull every kind of human relationship apart at the seams, we see the necessity of leaning further into preserving, nurturing, and fighting for our friendships.
That’s what I tried to do with this friendship. There is almost no other person on the planet—not even my husband—who has walked with me through so many life stages. There is no one else I could ever have such a history with.
The Wisdom to See the Change
But, in recent years, my friend changed the rules of engagement without telling me. For reasons I may never know, she no longer wanted a deep, authentic friendship with me—or anyone, it seemed. She wanted only the love without the accountability, the encouragement without the wisdom. And each time I tried to step outside of those lines—asking questions, encouraging reflection, suggesting next steps—she gave me the cold shoulder, acting as if I had said nothing at all.
Over time, it became clear that she wanted only a shell of a friend: one who listened but didn’t speak; cared but didn’t care enough to act; was readily available but also easily dismissed.
When, through a fog of hurt and rejection, I could finally see this reality, I wept with sorrow and grief. The friendship I thought we had actually died years ago, but it had taken me a long time to realize it.
This kind of friendship might have been alright if we were still in middle school. Now, firmly entrenched in the middle stage of life with weighty family and professional responsibilities, I do not have the capacity to sustain unhealthy, stagnant relationships. I’ll admit that this confession makes my stomach clench. Nearly every film and book I’ve encountered has told me that longtime friends are the best ones. Everything within me wants to hold onto old friendships instead of letting them go.
Planting New Seeds
But there is no proven tenet that old friendships must be superior to new ones. Time can strengthen a friendship, and it can wear a friendship down to dust. Sometimes, letting go can plant the seeds for something new. As a wise individual reminded me, “You are creating space for a new friendship that will meet your needs.”
For a few days after I understood that our friendship was no longer tenable, I considered the idea of letting our relationship simply fade away. I could just stop texting her; I could just stop showing up to birthday celebrations and dinner parties. But then wouldn’t I be playing the same game—changing the rules of engagement without notice? Ignoring her when she did not abide by my unspoken expectations?
She likely doesn’t see it this way, but my final act of friendship was to tell her how I needed our relationship to change for us to continue to interact. I was honest and clear because I loved and respected her too much to hide the truth from her. And I left the door open: if she was willing to adapt, so would I.
She sent back a very brief apology and wished me well. With those words, the door to a thirty-year friendship whispered shut, and my heart broke even as I knew this was the best path forward for both of us.
Thank you so much for your courage and honesty to share this story. I have lost several friends the last few years, and a couple of those friendships had been longstanding ones. But as you name above, in truth some of those friendships died a long time ago, and had become just a shell of a friendship. Memories alone cannot sustain a friendship. And just as people change and grow, so can/should friendships.
A (true) friend of mine who has done much faith-based scholarly study around friendships has offered me a helpful definition: friendship is “walking together in virtue.” If the shared virtue is missing, then there is no friendship. This friend also helped me to name the need for relational health in a friendship. Some of the people I previously called friends are very spiritually sick, especially sick with racism and narcissism. I have been sick with those diseases too, and have found others to walk together in virtue with me to metabolize those diseases. Yet certain friends were unwilling, and/or unable, to name the disease in themselves.
As my true friend said, being a nurse is one thing, but being a friend is another. I can try to nurse someone, but that means I cannot share vulnerably on the same level with that person. Such a relationship cannot be called a friendship.
Anyway, thank you for your honesty here, and your willingness not to gloss over the messy, hard difficulties of the past few years. I am very grateful.
Melanie, your friend is incredibly wise! I love that helpful distinction between being a nurse and a friend. We can still love and care for people, but they may not be able to share in a true friendship with us.
Oh, I’m so sorry for this painful loss, Dorcus. I, too, have lost friendships, and find the grief to be so weighty. Thank you for sharing this. Others will know they aren’t alone.
Thanks for sharing about your losses as well, Linda. It is a profound grief.
Thank you for sharing your insight from this experience. This topic is one that is rarely discussed because it’s conjectured with implications we would rather not recognize. How is my identity affected if I break off a friendship? What does it imply, according to cultural standards, that I didn’t “hang in there?” I am in the midst of recognizing that intentionally setting up boundaries is necessary when a friendship can no longer involve a mutual understanding of laying down our lives for one another. It’s hard work but both must hold that vision for it to work.
I agree that we’ve collectively bought into this idea that it’s pretty much always “bad” to end a friendship. I think it’s always painful, but sometimes it is what is most healthy and honoring for both people.