When we talk about relationships ending, usually we mean romantic relationships. Yet, few people discuss how painful it is when a close friendship ends. I think it’s because of the way friendships typically end. While romantic relationships have a definite ending, friends ‘grow apart’. (And what does that even mean?) A romance is like watching a movie: you know it’s over because the credits roll. Then the screen goes black. The End.
A friendship, however, has more nuance, especially friendships between women. Female friendships are more like a TV series. They may go on hiatus, but when they return for the next season, everyone picks up where they left off as if they were never apart. Though a TV series does eventually end, the reruns may air for years. You may laugh when you watch old television episodes, but they remain stuck in a time capsule. I don’t think female friendships grow apart so much as they don’t grow at all. And that lack of growth can kill a friendship between two women.
As their circumstances change, people often change and their relationships may blossom, suffer, or die. I lost so many friends when my sister Adrienne died, but I didn’t lose Marilyn. Until the day I dumped her.
I met Marilyn in January 1995 at Magic Mountain. We had both been cast in a new outdoor show for the theme park. Marilyn and I were performers: we could act though I danced better than she could and she sang better than I could. I met Marilyn at a pivotal time in my life — just one month after I got custody of my younger sister Adrienne. Later, Marilyn told me that she didn’t like me until she knew about me becoming Adrienne’s guardian. I didn’t understand why that fact made a difference for her, but it should have been a big red flag.
However, Marilyn knew me as a parent so her friendship was precious to me. When Adrienne and I had no place to go the following Christmas, Marilyn’s family hosted us. Marilyn’s father tried to convince nine-year-old Adrienne that Santa Claus existed, but she no longer believed in him. Four years later, I was a bridesmaid in Marilyn’s wedding and Adrienne attended as well. I didn’t see Marilyn as often when she and her husband moved from Los Angeles to Orange County, but she was still around. We didn’t call each other much, but we would email. She showed up on important occasions. Marilyn and Adrienne shared a love of design, costumes, and Halloween. She helped Adrienne with a school project. Despite her fear of hospitals, Marilyn showed up when Adrienne was sick.
Several years after Adrienne died and one year after the birth of her own daughter, Marilyn and her husband moved to Reno. Though I saw her less than before, we still emailed. We never tired of tagging each other on Facebook. My future ex-husband and I visited her family in Reno. Every time she came to Los Angeles, Marilyn and her daughter usually spent one night at our place in Burbank.
No matter how long the hiatus, Marilyn and I could always pick up where we left off.
I remember the moment when Marilyn’s life changed: November 2010. I received a strange phone call. I didn’t recognize the choke-filled voice full of sobs and wheezing. All I heard was it’s Marilyn. The voice was high-pitched so I called another friend who had the same name. (Her life was full of drama.) I asked her what was wrong. When she said she didn’t call me, I realized ‘oh this is my friend Marilyn in Reno’. Sensing trouble, I immediately called Reno Marilyn. I must have accidentally called her home number because her husband picked up. He sounded calm, yet distant, as if he were in another country.
Is it possible that Marilyn is upset? I asked. He said yes. He said it was very likely she called me. Quite likely in fact. I should call her cell, he said. I didn’t bother asking him what was wrong because I knew whatever it was, he was at the core of it.
That moment was the beginning of the end of Marilyn’s marriage. I believe the origin of major changes in our lives can be traced back to the smallest of moments. The tiniest of decisions. That moment changed my friendship with Marilyn in ways I couldn’t have imagined.
Marilyn drove from Reno to Los Angeles where she spent four days with me sorting out her life. She had hacked into her husband’s email account and discovered he had been cheating on her with one of his coworkers. According to her, he had planned to run away with the woman though that never happened. Her husband said the affair was emotional and that nothing physical had occurred. The emails suggested otherwise.
I supported Marilyn as much as possible. Though I was shocked to learn she didn’t know anything about their finances, I withheld judgment. When I realized she had no money of her own, I took her to Wells Fargo to meet my personal banker. After explaining the situation, Marilyn got her own checking account. She transferred half of their cash into it before any financial assets were frozen. She thanked me repeatedly saying that’s why she came to me. “You’re so practical, Andrea. My other friends just keep saying what a dog he is but that’s not helping me.”
We talked a lot over those four days. We watched The First Wives Club together and cracked jokes. I was prepared to dance and sing Lesley Gore’s “You Don’t Own Me” with Goldie Hawn, Diane Keaton, Bette Midler, and of course, Marilyn. When I looked over, she had fallen asleep. Even then, I knew she would be a member of The First Wives Club. I suspected one day, I would be, too.
I knew cheating was a symptom of deeper issues in a marriage. So I finally asked her. When did things change? When did the intimacy change? Though she squirmed, she admitted their sex life changed when their daughter was born. She knew that part of their marriage wasn’t good but neither one of them talked about it. For five years, they skirted the issue. I understood. My future ex-husband and I had intimacy issues as well and we didn’t face them for years.
When Marilyn decided to forgive her husband (because she still loved him), I supported her. She began going to therapy. But when her husband never showed up for a single session, her therapist suggested she retain a divorce lawyer. She did. Marilyn never wanted a divorce, but her husband no longer wanted to be married to her.
Like removing a tattoo, their divorce was expensive, painful, and time-consuming. Marilyn had not worked in five years. When she and her husband moved to Reno for his job, their agreement was she would stay at home and focus on being a wife and mother. She was facing a very different life than the one she had planned for herself. She and her husband fought over everything. Every visitation. Every holiday. Every dollar. Everything. One time she called me while I was on vacation. She asked me a question about a specific sentence in her pending divorce agreement. I’m not a lawyer so I could only give her my interpretation of it. Desperate to get off the phone and return to my vacation, I urged her to consult her attorney. I never saw the final judgment, but from what she told me it seems like she got a fair deal. She and her husband share split legal and physical custody of their daughter. Marilyn receives alimony and child support, but the alimony ends after a specific amount of time.
Marilyn continued to visit Los Angeles. She and her daughter often stayed with me and my future ex-husband for a few nights. I loved her daughter who called me Aunt Andi. Marilyn seemed to enjoy the fun parts of motherhood. For example, Marilyn loved spoiling her daughter. Though Marilyn couldn’t afford it, she would buy her daughter all kinds of junk in an effort to compete with her ex-husband. (The parent who buys the most toys wins!) However, Marilyn didn’t seem to like the hard aspects of motherhood such as maintaining discipline, making meals, establishing routines, etc. Marilyn allowed me to do simple ‘motherly duties’ when they stayed with us. When her daughter would whine until she got her way, I held my tongue. It wasn’t my place to say anything.
Marilyn dated but as far as I know she was never serious with anyone. Instead, she focused on earning money. In her late thirties, she seemed overwhelmed by the prospect of reigniting her career or finding a new one. Knowing I am a career coach and a resume writer, she wanted me to do her resume. I was reluctant but I wanted to help her. I always want to help my friends. However, I have found that friends can be the most difficult clients. I looked over Marilyn’s resume and gave her some initial feedback, all of which she resisted. She became so defensive about a piece of paper that the conversation appeared to be over.
A year later, Marilyn said she was serious about getting her resume done and she would listen this time. Knowing how busy my schedule would be in the fall, I told her I had to get it done before the end of the summer. Though I planned to charge her, I offered her 10-percent off the lowest rate I had ever given anyone. She knew my resume services included career coaching so she agreed to the quote. I reminded her numerous times that August 31 was a hard deadline. I told her I had to be done with her resume by that date, which meant starting about two weeks before. I stated if we didn’t finish by August 31, I would not do it. For any price.
Despite numerous emails and texts reminding her of the upcoming deadline, Marilyn didn’t seem interested. She either didn’t respond or said she would get back to me and never did. Since I didn’t need Marilyn as a client, I gave up. She wasn’t paying me nearly enough to do her resume, which I knew would not be easy. And at the price I was giving her, I considered it a favor. On August 31, I received a text from her. She was ready to work on her resume. That day was the deadline to be done with her resume. In the past, I would have cut her some slack, but this time, I didn’t. I told her it was too late. She missed the deadline.
Around that time, I had been going to yoga on a more regular basis. Even though I’m a certified yoga teacher, I’m not always consistent with my practice. When yogis would talk about having a breakthrough during a yoga class, I never understood what they meant. But that August, I had a breakthrough. During a slow flow/restorative class, I burst into tears when this epiphany popped into my head: I could no longer be friends with Marilyn. I replayed every conversation we had had over the past year. I replayed every text, every voicemail, every email. I realized it was all about her. Four years later, she was still angry about her divorce. That’s why she had dragged her feet about working on her resume. Redoing her resume was an acknowledgment that her former life was over.
My perception had been all wrong. This woman I had viewed as strong was weak. (During Adrienne’s first hospital stay, Marilyn didn’t visit for over a week because she was too scared.) Marilyn seemed incapable of pulling out of her self-created pity pond. She didn’t seem to appreciate that she had an amazing healthy daughter. I would have given anything to have a divorce be the worst thing that has ever happened to me. (I know how twisted that sounds.) Marilyn had become so obsessed and fixated on what her ex-husband had done to her that she couldn’t appreciate this beautiful person they had together: their daughter.
I knew I needed to break up with Marilyn. I did not want to do to her what some friends had done to me. I didn’t want to stop taking her calls. I didn’t want to tell her it was temporary when it wasn’t. It wasn’t an easy decision to break up with Marilyn. At that time, she was the only person left in my life who knew me as a parent during the seven years I raised Adrienne. For that reason, Marilyn will always be special to me. But I could not help her. She needed to help herself. I texted her that we needed to talk on the phone. Immediately. Since I never text ‘Immediately’ she knew something was wrong. She called me within minutes.
Breaking up is hard to do
I believe in being direct. I got right to the point. “I’m sorry Marilyn,” I said. “We can’t be friends anymore.”
At first, she gasped. Then, she yelled. Finally, she cried. She asked for another chance. In my mind, asking for another chance was a tacit admission and awareness of how uneven our friendship had become. I told her how much I loved her and always would.
“That should be enough. If you love me, give me another chance. I’ll be better. I’ll do better.”
I knew she meant what she said. I also knew she wasn’t going to change. At least, not anytime soon. I couldn’t spend another minute watching her destroy her life. I have codependent tendencies; I like to help people to the point where I enable them. If I continued to tolerate Marilyn’s behavior, I would be slipping back into bad habits.
I broke up with Marilyn. We were friends for 19 1/2 years until I said goodbye. We were not best friends. We were good friends. We spent time together. She was an aunt to my sister Adrienne much like I was an aunt to her daughter. I still miss Marilyn. I still think about her. I hope she’s happy.
In a strange way, Marilyn’s divorce brought us closer. (An observation she stated on more than one occasion.) Marilyn confided in me, and as my marriage deteriorated, I confided in her. I didn’t tell her everything, but I shared my concerns about my marriage almost exclusively with her. She always appreciated my self-deprecating humor and understood me in a way most people don’t. Looking back, I find it sad that our failing marriages brought us closer together. Our friendship grew deeper as our marriages crumbled. But at some point, the growth stopped, or we grew in separate directions. I feel like we were two flowers in a pot: one seeking the sunlight, the other craving the shade.
The thing is … Marilyn never recovered from her divorce. I never saw the friend I used to know ever again. She was so caught up in her own victimhood that she couldn’t see straight. She couldn’t appreciate what she had (her beautiful healthy daughter); she only focused on what she didn’t have (money, husband, stability). Though I didn’t divorce until after I ended my friendship with Marilyn, I knew I could handle whatever was going to happen. I wasn’t going to let a divorce break me.
Later, when I reflected on our ‘break-up conversation’, I marveled at how we sounded like two lovers ending a romantic relationship. I will always love you. If you love me, give me another chance. Was it the language that made the breakup final? Marilyn and I were no longer a TV series on hiatus. We were not even in reruns. Like a movie, we were over.
Why couldn’t Marilyn and I be closer during happier times? I don’t know. After breaking up with Marilyn, I began wondering about the friends who abandoned me after Adrienne died.
- Had I been like Marilyn?
- Had I been swimming in a sea of self-pity?
- Did they leave because I was no longer me?
- Did their hearts break watching me give up on my life?
I don’t know. Because they left without saying a word. As difficult as it was, I am glad I broke up with Marilyn the way I did. I didn’t drift away. I didn’t disappear. I ended our friendship and she knows why.
Also published on Medium.