Friendship, Favors, and Toxic Influence

The summer before my junior year of college, I was in therapy. Again. I was seeing this counselor for a number of reasons, and the help I received was incredible, but the thing I remember most is the only time she ever interrupted me. I’d been telling her about a person I knew from my freshman dorm, and I said, “I have this friend–well, he’s not really a friend–” She stopped me to ask: “If you two aren’t friends anymore, why do you still call him one? I was surprised because I’d never thought of my relationship to that person having ended, even though I never saw him anymore and we hadn’t spoken in two years at that point. I mean, I sometimes refer to complete strangers on Tumblr as my “friend,” so it’s safe to say my definition of the word is a bit warped.

I’m coming up on the one year “anniversary” of my leaving Virginia and moving to South Dakota. In this past year, I’ve thought a lot about what friendship actually means to me. Do I like this person, or do I just like things about them? Do I not really like them, but like that they care about me? Do I like how liking them makes me feel about my own emotional capacities (because sometimes I worry I’m slightly sociopathic)? The truth is, I am still working on it. But I’ve made a lot of progress, and I’m proud of that. I’ve become better at recognizing when a friendship sours, when an attachment withers. And I’ve become better about leaving.

I only have one friend from middle/high school. I think I actively stay in touch with, at most, four people from college. And now I’m making new friends in grad school, but I can tell that only a couple will last. How many of these people have I already had my last conversation with?

A turning point was reached today. I saw on Facebook that a person I was very close with in college was upset that she didn’t win a photo contest held by our alumni association. I wasn’t surprised by my complete lack of sympathy, because the first time I’d heard from her in over a year was when she messaged me to tell me (not ask me) to get people to vote for her photo. She only reached out because she wanted me to do something for her. And now, reading her post where she rails against the contest result (her cat photo had the most likes, but the alumni association specifically stated it was a contest for dog photos), I realized that if I still lived in Virginia, still had an active presence and entanglement in this person’s life, I would be upset, too. But I don’t. So I’m not. Honestly, I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. Maybe I just didn’t get why her participation was so important to begin with. Maybe I just don’t have the energy today.
Or maybe, just maybe, we aren’t friends anymore.

My brain immediately jumped to: “Well, I love M and I love her cat, so I should be irked, I guess.” I felt ashamed that I didn’t care about this person being upset, ashamed that I called my mom to vent about it and ended up laughing and saying, “It’s literally the stupidest thing.” Once the guilt of my initial reaction wore off, I realized something. I don’t love her. I may love the way I remember her, but she’s a totally different person now. I do not know her, and we are not friends. I suddenly felt relieved.

There are so many instances in popular culture that depict friendship as something that must last forever. Some of these depictions are ones that are dangerously codependent and frightfully unhealthy. Someone that is important to you today will not be important to you forever, and coming to terms with that is the most valuable emotional step a person can make. We hold on to toxic people who only reach out when it benefits them, who don’t really care about us, who actually may not even like us anymore but feel obligated to hold on to us too, because we are constantly told that for a friendship to be great and legitimate, it has to last. Be unbreakable. Be permanent and unchanging, even when the individuals change. This static perception of friendship is dangerous. Our attachments need room to be nuanced, to be fluid, and yes, even to be broken off.


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