Friendship, Heartache, And Reframing The Stakes Of Platonic Loss
Friend breakups hurt just as bad as regular ones. So why aren't we talking about them?
One morning last week, my sister sent me a video about how as women, our ex-best friend is our Roman Empire. In other words, no matter how much time has passed, those big friendships we’ve lost stick to our brains like glue. We can’t get over them. We think about them day in and day out. It hit me hard, realizing how absurdly accurate that is -- that I live my life with the woman who broke my heart humming a soft tune in the back of my mind. If you’re anything like me, you’re already thinking about her, the girl you thought you’d be standing next to on all your big days but who now is (cue the music) just somebody that you used to know.
For me, that girl’s name is Caroline. I met Caroline in Mr. Betty’s 6th grade science class. She was beautiful and tall and someone who I simultaneously envied and adored. She was smart and had interests other than men, and at night when she slept over, she’d never get mad at me for drifting into REM before the movie had even begun. In so many ways, growing up next to her taught me how to be a woman.
By the time we were 17 though, bursting at the seams of our small town and ready to graduate from our cushy High School in Westchester County, we were moving in completely different directions. At first, when our friendship started to fizzle out, I was overwhelmed with anger. When it was all said and done, and I was just a background actor in the story of her life, I was overcome with hurt and resentment that we had somehow left our sacred friendship space behind.
It was the initial shock of the break that really got me, this suffocating, overwhelming feeling that what was happening to me, to us, shouldn’t be. There was this sense that I had failed. That I hadn’t been loyal enough, good enough, confident enough to weather the storm of change with her. What’s worse was that I couldn’t put my finger on it, our ending I mean. We hadn’t been cruel to each other. Neither of us had slept with the other’s partner. Neither of us even had a partner, except each other of course. But I was devastated, knowing that moving forward our friendship wouldn’t be in the present as much as it would be in the past.
What came next was a wave of indescribable grief. An unexplained ocean of confusion, a whirlpool of emotion I had been taught to save only for my most grueling failed romantic partnerships. I was mortified, knowing I was mourning this way. It felt dramatic, overpronounced, inappropriate for someone who was “just a friend” as my peers never failed to remind me. Because of how surprised I was by my emotions, I held them in, assuming that Caroline’s heart was cold, that she wasn’t feeling this loss as extremely as I was. In an effort to cover up the extreme nature of my emotions, I suffered that heartbreak in silence.
Often, what’s so disorienting about ending a friendship as significant as mine and Caroline’s, is the lack of definition that it comes with. Most times, the remnants of the friendship are left dangling in front of you. You can smell that it happened, that there was a love there once, but you can’t really see it anymore. The proof of life is nowhere to be found. Instead, there is a pile of unanswered questions completely void of closure, and this relationship which we once rightfully held at the center of our souls is written off as a blip in time rather than the formative experience it was.
For so long we’ve been taught that our romantic partners are going to break our hearts and that our girlfriends are going to be there to pick us back up. From the time we open our eyes, we have people pointing at us in strollers saying “Now, that one’s going to be a real heartbreaker!” It’s like we come out of the womb bracing for the agony that romance will bring us. In our minds, at least as women, I think we’ve had this fantasy planted where we are laying on the floor of a bathroom, spilling our hearts out while our girlfriends crowd around us and wipe our tears, all the while a shitty pop song plays in the background. But what happens when it’s our friends who leave us broken? How then, do we lay on the cold tile, and even scarier, who will be there to pick us back up?
In a society that values romantic partnership over friendship bonds, we have little to no space to grieve our platonic losses in public. As a result, our collective perception is molded, forming an unspoken hierarchy of emotional significance, invalidating our experiences when we lose, or grow apart from people we’ve deemed closest to us. So we are left licking our friendship wounds in solitude. Tricking ourselves out of mourning. Only grieving in private, confused by the intensity of our emotions, never really putting the same care and effort into healing as we do when our romantic relationships fly off the rails.
A few years ago, amid a global pandemic and wildfires that had turned the Los Angeles sky orange, I found myself outside my best friend's house drinking a watermelon kombucha. We lay down on the grass and fatalistically laughed about how the world seemed to be crumbling, bit by bit around us. Still, though, we had each other. Having her next to me meant that even though the world was falling apart, my world could stay together.
In reflecting on the gravity of my female friendships, I often think of the Bell Hooks’ quote “Deep, abiding friendships are the place where many women know lasting love.” It’s true for me, that my girlfriends are sewn into foundation of the very life I’m living. In an otherwise unpredictable world, deep and vulnerable friendships offer me the stability I need to stay afloat. I’m tired of playing that down. Exhausted by pretending that losing one of them won’t tear my heart to pieces. In fact, I think it’s well past time that we raise the weight our friendships to the same playing field as those of our lovers. All those years of storing each other’s secrets have surely earned us a spot off the bench.
After years of hiding from each other, Caroline and I agreed to get drinks at a dimly lit a bar in Brooklyn last month. “I’m not your favorite friend anymore,” she said to me before we left. The grief in her voice cut into me, and I finally saw that I hadn’t actually gone through that enormous loss all alone as I thought I had. She was always there, on the other side of it, likely belittling her feelings as much as I had. But there was something else in her tone now too, a deep acceptance of our journey that we were both ready to honor. An acknowledgment that we had lost something special, something worth grieving over.
At the end of the night, we hugged and walked home separately. I sat down on the subway and texted my new best friend. Maybe she texted hers too. Either way, she was right, she wasn’t my favorite friend anymore and that was okay, finally, for both of us. Maybe we all have that first heartbreak. That big juicy get-stabbed-in-the-back-by-a-friend-who-knows-your-social-security-number-heart break. But maybe if I’d expected it, or been given the vocabulary to express the severity of the loss, I could have cried in public sooner.