Best Friends For Never: When Childhood Friendships End

In 2012, I broke up with my best friend of 20 years. I wish I could say it was a peaceable split, but that it was not. It was a turbulent finale, the fallout of several years’ worth of evolving lifestyles, shifting perspectives and mounting tensions.

And you can bet that 20 years’ worth of friendship equals an astounding amount of wreckage when all is said and done.

From our first kindergarten meeting to the stormy struggles of adolescence, our most formative years were spent as each other’s ally.

To be one of the elementary school elite, with the luxury of qualifying my “best friend” and wearing half the necklace to prove it, was magic. It was an emboldened sense of bravery, of endorsing the others’ scheme to write “poop” on her desk in 2B pencil or to hack a DOS-version of Leisure Suit Larry. Imagine your quintessential 90s girl — her Mall Madness, and animal shaped soaps and crumpled glossies of J.T.T. — and then imagine her magnified in all her giddy, Valleyspeak glory.

When we started seventh grade at different schools, I was adrift — she’d accompanied our childhood classmates to the same middle school, while my home address sentenced me to a building full of strangers. I transformed from a bubbly sixth-grader to a nervous loner, so desperate for friends that I let the classroom delinquent pluck my eyebrows into near non-existence.

I couldn’t keep afloat without my best friend’s support, and I resented my fall from “best friend elite” to solitary drifter.

But it was never enough to violate our alliance, and we survived on a frequency of shared extracurriculars and weekend sleepovers, until it all paid off at the start of tenth grade when my family moved back within the boundary of the high school I longed to be part of.

It was surreal to fuse as a unit again, to be validated in our experiences, opinions and behaviours. High school was a tumultuous unfolding, with boys and emotions and the customary intertwining of both reinforcing our dependence on one another for survival. We were tighter than sisters, leaning on each other for relief and reassurance, weaving memories of hysterical antics and heart-aching realness.

As the years passed by, things got a bit shaky. Subtle hints of discord that signalled something more serious — something we couldn’t discern in the midst of our mutuality.

For one, we were acutely competitive, though never openly. We were the measure by which the other gauged her own performance — be it fashion, homework or boys, each of us enterprising to not be the lesser. And we were, unsurprisingly, fiercely envious, counting the other’s successes as failures on our part.

We were codependent, preserving a friendship that bred as much doubt as it did solidarity. It was a quality friendship, one abundant with heartfelt recollections. But it was a covertly troubled one as well, our independence stunted by insecurity and devotion.

We’d originally planned to leave for school together after graduation, but as each of us ultimately made the real-life decision about what to do next, our aspirations took us in two surprisingly different directions, landing us in two totally different towns.

Starting college was, thankfully, a vast improvement on my seventh grade lonesomeness, and before long I had forged a few close friendships and met the man who would later become my husband.

I still retained the title of best friend, however, and she the same, and although our individual goings-on prevented us from nurturing the same level of closeness we’d experienced all the years prior, we continued to serve key roles in each others’ lives.

After finishing my degree and bidding an official farewell to student life, I segued into the grown-up workforce and started my first office job in a workplace of women I immediately clicked with.

The four of us soon developed a close-knit friendship that only grew stronger when each of us moved on from our shared workplace. Our having come together counts as one of my life’s greatest blessings, showing me that people can be as unique as they are cohesive.

I kept my friendship with “the girls” separate from the one with my childhood best friend, the two so dramatically different I couldn’t see a way to link them. Also, I was able to sense an evolution in myself made possible by the support and encouragement of my close girlfriends, uncovering an authentic self I hadn’t know previously while also recognizing the magic and potency of our shared connection.

Despite keeping my closeness with the girls apart from my childhood bestie, the two were finally bound to meet as I planned my husband’s and my 2011 wedding, a time marking the start of when mine and my best friend’s increasingly-delicate friendship began to erode.

She was my matron-of-honour, just as I’d been the maid-of-honour at her wedding three years prior, the roles having been promised to each other well before adolescence. The fact we were no longer as close as we once were, however, made the whole situation challenging to navigate, particularly given her expectation of what her role as matron-of-honour entailed, and my determination to have my close girlfriends by my side throughout the planning process.

My biggest error was perhaps failing to acknowledge the manner in which our relationship had — for me, at least — shifted. So determined was I to maintain the appearance of normalcy — not only to protect her from hurt, but to allow me to focus on the planning of my wedding — that I found myself becoming strategic in the handling of our relationship.

It was easier for me to conceal from her the things I knew would cause her grief than it was to confront the matter face on. I couldn’t confess to her, for example, that it was one of the girls, and not my designated matron-of-honour, who’d accompanied me the day I’d chosen my wedding dress, a violation she would have perceived as calculated spite.

To complicate matters, the planning of my wedding aligned with her first pregnancy, so that not only was I failing to meet her expectations as matron-of-honour, I was being insensitive towards her own life’s milestone.

Throughout my entire wedding planning process, I grappled with the guilt arising from our unsteady dynamic. And the nearer the wedding got, the more severe the situation became.

One morning only days before the wedding, between welcoming guests and fretting over finishing touches, we sat with mugs of coffee on the balcony of her childhood home, welcoming a breather amid the flurry of festivities.

That same morning is when she finally and flagrantly criticized me for being a rotten “best friend”, of offending her role as matron-of-honour by having left her out of the wedding planning process.

I don’t precisely recall what transpired from there, apart from my desperation to soothe her flare-up with reassurances that our friendship was meaningful and that I was doing my best to prove as much.

Inwardly, I was devastated, and I was furious. My husband’s and my wedding was about celebrating our commitment to each other, about bringing together the important people in each of our lives and having them take part in our union. The fact I had to pull my energy away from this special time to manage unnecessary drama was unacceptable.

But, it was also of my own doing, for in being too afraid to address the widening rift between us, I perpetuated our thriving and unspoken animosity until we’d crossed a line we couldn’t return from.

For the sake of my wedding, and the upcoming birth of her daughter, our friendship remained seemingly ordinary, yet exceedingly volatile. The next ten months passed by quickly, with my husband and I soaking up newlywed life, and her getting her bearings on motherhood.

The little bit of time we spent together was pleasant enough, though it was easy to recognize the turmoil brewing beneath the surface. Our friendship had deteriorated into superficial sentiment, having lost all other common ground in recent years.

It was intensifying into such a source of grief for me — and, I imagine, her — that in August 2012, after having returned from a summer road trip with my husband during which I’d contemplated the friendship, I finally wrote her a letter describing how I felt. And though it was no doubt a cautious first step, I drafted my words with such truth and sincerity that I’ve never regretted my decision to express them this way.

I folded my letter into a copy of a favourite book and, at the end of a stilted yet amiable evening of sitting in the backyard with her nine month-old daughter, savouring the peacefulness of late summer dusk, I handed over the book with a nervous and rambling preface about things having been weird, and needing to address it.

And shortly after, I drove home through ink-black dark, both exhilarated and horrified over what I had done.

I hadn’t really given much thought to a possible outcome. I was so focused on voicing my piece that whatever ensued from there was inconsequential and why, when I received a response by e-mail as soon as the very next morning, I was stunned by what I read.

The words she’d wrote were as scathing and as devastating as the criticism she’d directed at me during my wedding more than a year prior. I realized immediately that despite my efforts to open up in a way that was naked and vulnerable, she would never overcome her perception of me as a deficient — and now traitorous — “best friend”.

I attempted one more brief explanation, qualifying the fact that there was no more for me to explain, and that I wished her well.

And immediately after, I deleted the entirety of our e-mail exchange, erasing it from my Outlook altogether, then shredding every draft and note I had made in the process of transcribing my initial letter. I did not want the focus of our friendship to be the ugliness of its demise; did not want to revisit the brutality of words nor wallow in the discomfort of their meaning.

Which is not to say I didn’t grieve the dramatic ruin of more than two decades of friendship. The process has been an intense one, in fact, with her inflamed profile suddenly appearing in my dreams just as I think I’ve released the guilt.

Even now, when I reflect on the fact I’ll never see her daughter grow, nor join her family in another festive gathering, my heart is heavy with mourning.

Our friendship was an all-or-nothing alliance, and while a part of me wishes our divorce had been genial and that we could settle into a new space of “childhood besties who still keep in touch”, I know our friendship wouldn’t survive it. It didn’t survive it.

I’ve seen her only once since our falling out, when she passed me on the escalator at a local department store. I was so surprised by the encounter, and sincerely glad to see her, that I attempted a brief greeting in passing. The degree of hostility I registered in her eyes, however, still makes me feel uneasy, and I understood from that fleeting exchange that there is never any possibility of our reconciling. The fallout was just too catastrophic to try to repair the damage done.

And actually, I’m pretty darn okay with this fact.

Because in the letting go of something that no longer serves me, I’ve opened up space to allow the good stuff to flourish.

As my partnership with my husband continues to strengthen, and my friendship with the girls deepens, I’ve begun to understand more and more clearly how much of an influence our relationships have on our wellness, and how critically important it is to surround ourselves with people who are invested in our best interests.

The relationships we choose are part of our journey, regardless of how they evolve and whether they end. There is nothing to be gained by dwelling on regrets, and always a reason for the way things unfold.

Only in acceptance and forgiveness, and in embracing both, do we earn the opportunity to learn and move forward in the journey.

And as I look back over our friendship, even when I find myself giving in to momentary lapses of anger and hurt, I am able to remember the many fond memories we shared, and to trust that she, too, is happy and well.

“We’re all mad here.” Just another 30-something elder millennial writing from the heart about whatever. Oversharing is my specialty.

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