After 20 years of breaking up and making up with friends, here’s the one lesson I’ve learned about friendship: You have to actively choose it.
Sure, maybe your best friend came to you in a moment of pure serendipity after you complimented their eyeliner in an Olive Garden bathroom and then proceeded to gush about the 2005 “Pride & Prejudice” movie together for 15 minutes. But everything after that is a choice.
That’s because there are levels to friendship — four, to be exact. Scientists and lifestyle bloggers alike have done all the heavy lifting and constructed a friendship pyramid that I’ve broken down for simplicity:
- Acquaintances: The classmates and coworkers whom you ask about their day and share a laugh with. You know of each other, but you don’t really know each other. You enjoy their company, but there’s no driving force making you want to spend more time together.
- Casual friends: The people most likely to call you “bae” or “bestie.” You’ll hang out with them from time to time, typically to go thrifting or to people-watch at coffee shops. You leave exclaiming, “We should do this more often!” but never carve out the time.
- Close friends: The ones you spend a lot of your time with. They’ll drive you to the hospital in the dead of night, they’ll be there for you to cry on when your heart is broken, and they’ll drag you back to the world of the living when the time is right.
- Intimate friends: The platonic version of a soulmate. They have known you for years, seen every embarrassing version of you and still stuck by you regardless. They’re your mirrored heart in every regard.
That’s the beauty of friendship: It’s what you make of it. In my own life, nothing has taught me more about myself, love and walking through the world than the women who have been my lifelong friends.
My best friend Maddie and I began our own kind of serious relationship in 2017 when destiny brought us together in the form of an oversized bag of kettle corn. Even though it’s platonic, friendship is very serious to me, and if you look at what women get out of their friendships with each other, sometimes a romantic relationship doesn’t even compare.
Our friends give us honesty, communication, vulnerability, trust, intimacy and a welcome return to childhood as we laugh hysterically over the same inside jokes. We don’t have to speak to each other every day or even every month to know the other is just an “I need you,” text away.
As I step into my 20s — a decade others have promised will be full of heartache, uncomfortable character growth and finding a place to call home — the uncertain journey is all a little less daunting when I remember I’ll be embarking on it with friends.
Soon enough, you’re best friends
My best friends taught me that it’s possible for me to be loved just for myself — that I should be unapologetically loud, that I should crawl out of my shell. They taught me it’s okay to belt Taylor Swift and have a penchant for glittery nail polish. They taught me that when I needed someone to talk to, they would always be there to listen.
“Kettle Corn Maddie,” June and I had known each other for years, but we became inseparable during our senior year of high school. June also crash-landed into my life freshman year after she ran up to me and demanded I decipher her terrible handwriting. When the pandemic began, our friend group of around 10 people gradually dissolved until we were the only ones who remained. I was alright with that because they were who I planned to spend the rest of my life with. That’s the thing about best friends — you can’t help but think in terms of forever when it comes to them.
But senior year of high school is not the most opportune time to form deep, emotional attachments with people who will likely be scattered across the country by next fall. This isn’t to say you should flee from friendships because they come at an inconvenient time — you should almost always embrace people who want to love you and be in your life — but know with poor timing comes grueling heartache.
The three of us spent senior year and the summer before college bouncing between each other’s houses, going on long drives to chase rainstorms and trying to make the most of every minute before there were no more days left on the calendar to cross out.
Thankfully, Maddie and I would be attending ASU together and living in the same dorm. But in September, June would travel thousands of miles away to Northeastern University in Boston.
I couldn’t process that I wouldn’t be able to turn to her at a moment’s notice and that the people who would frequent her day-to-day life would be strangers to me. The three of us were a wreck.
The first few months of college were the worst. I relied on Maddie to make new friends and clung to her coattails as we socialized with classmates. But I found it hard to simply be myself around these strangers — with Maddie, it came so easy, and with June, it felt as natural as breathing.
By October, I had fallen to an all-time low. I felt lost, I was probably depressed, and I just wanted to cry on June’s bed. So I did. During fall break, I found myself in Boston in June’s arms.
That whirlwind trip was eye-opening. We wandered around the city like kids on a playground, marveling at trees adorned with red leaves and pumpkins laid on centuries-old doorsteps. And just like that, I felt like myself again. That’s another thing about best friends: They can help pull you out of any impending darkness — even just before it swallows you whole.
A perfect storm
Most of my arguments with friends have sprung from a difference in expectations or a communication breakdown. The good news is both can usually be fixed by an honest heart-to-heart, followed by some pizza. The bad news is I’m notoriously a people pleaser with confrontation anxiety.
But up until college, I never felt like I had to make myself and my needs small around my friends. But things change — like your best friend starting a serious relationship a month into freshman year.
There is grief that comes when your best friend enters a new relationship. No matter how happy you are for them or how amazing their new partner is, there’s no denying you may feel like you have lost something.
My freshman year was a matter of survival — it was about adjusting to new people on a new campus in a new city and trying not to spend Friday nights locked in my dorm room. I couldn’t fathom adjusting to college while adjusting to a new favorite person at the same time. But June did it with her girlfriend and was practically living with her by the end of the semester.
Naturally, our friendship took a back seat — it was maybe even thrown in the trunk — as our calls and texts became few and far between and over 2,500 miles divided us. Summer travel plans were chucked out the window, and our promise to live together for a semester in Washington, D.C., became an impossible dream. Little things that used to mean so much were long forgotten.
There was a palpable shift, and I mourned the days when we used to talk about everything and nothing on four-hour FaceTime calls. But I made do.
Maddie and I did what college freshmen do: We formed a new friend group. But our own friendship struggled too.
“Freshman year, there was a lot going on on both ends,” Maddie said. “I think we couldn’t find a way to communicate with each other, but we both shoved that down. ... But you were a piece of home and a piece of [June] that I didn’t want to lose, so I guess that’s why I never talked about what was bothering me.”
By winter break, we were both ecstatic, yet anxious, to finally reunite with June. I thought the three of us would be the same as before. Of course our friendship could overcome any rough patch, I assured myself. It didn’t take more than an hour to figure out we weren’t the same people we’d been that summer.
June texted her girlfriend throughout most of our time hanging out over break, so I sat in an awkward silence that June occasionally broke with a funny story, a flippant apology or a complaint about how challenging long distance is.
I wasn’t unsympathetic — of course I understood it was difficult for June to be away from her favorite person. At first, I was content to just be in the same room again. But as Maddie and I noticed these changes seemed permanent, we became more and more frustrated.
It felt like she didn’t respect us or our friendship enough to give us more than five minutes of attention. We had only a couple weeks to reconnect, and they felt like a wasted opportunity.
The heart of the issue was that we simply had different priorities and expectations for each other. We needed our ride-or-die best friend from the summer and fall, and she wanted the long-distance, low-commitment friends we had morphed into during our time apart.
Priorities and expectations are allowed to change in friendships — that’s the key to making them last. But if you don’t discuss what you need and how you can accommodate your friends in return when these changes happen, you’ll likely end up hurting yourself and them.
I know that because June, Maddie and I never discussed these changes. For months, I suppressed my bubbling anger and jammed myself into the mold of the low-commitment friend I thought she wanted. Then I visited her in Boston again. We haven’t spoken to each other since.
Breaking up with your friends
There are no convenient how-tos or cliché platitudes you can fall back on when ending a friendship. No flip phone snapping shut or dramatic storming off.
“I think friendship breakups hurt more than any other type of breakup,” Maddie said. “You never expect to be stabbed in the back by your best friend, and I feel like there’s never any closure. They either just fizzle out, or you fly to Boston and have a huge fight.”
That’s what happened between June and me. During the summer before our sophomore year, I tried to spend every waking moment after work with her. But again, the awkward silence lingered.
The self-doubt set in: Did I have any right to feel annoyed and frustrated with her? After all, it’s natural this would happen between anyone in a committed relationship and their friend who has no problem being single — right?
Toward the end of the summer, I started to snap. I stopped concealing my frustration and tried to initiate a conversation instead. But the problem is, when suppressing your emotions becomes your go-to coping mechanism, they end up jumbled and confused.
We did have a conversation, work through some issues and make promises to be better. June still wanted me to visit her that October, and I promised to try. On the surface, we were better, but I knew in the back of my mind nothing was completely resolved.
Before my second trip to Boston, I devised a plan. I was going to present my best self. I was going to befriend June’s girlfriend and friends. It’d be just like my first Boston trip: We would reconnect over a whirlwind weekend.
Everything went according to plan — for the first 24 hours. I greeted June’s girlfriend with a hug, told her it was great to see her and meant it. We were staying at her girlfriend’s apartment, which I wasn’t aware of until I arrived.
June and I caught up over lobster rolls and an evening walk. In the morning, she introduced me to one of her close friends, and we all went thrifting. It felt like she was finally welcoming me into this corner of her life that she used to hide away from my eyes.
But after, she went home to her girlfriend, abandoning me and her friend to wander the city alone. He and I hit it off, so I didn’t think anything of it until we reunited with June for lunch and she and I barely spoke. We didn’t even have a full conversation until the two of us left for a Boston University tailgate, where I met more of her friends.
I didn’t like this new group of people, I was starting to feel sick, and I didn’t want to be there. My lukewarm feelings toward them soured even more on the train back to Northeastern when one of them turned to June — just June — and invited her to breakfast with them the next day.
Of course she’d decline, I thought, because I was staying with her and the invitation clearly wasn’t extended to me. But she said yes. Hurt and embarrassment washed over me, but again, I said nothing.
Later that night, I confessed my feelings to Maddie and asked if they were justified. She called me, equally upset for the both of us because she had noticed her friendship with June changing again too. I let myself cry, and Maddie dyed her hair pink.
“When you called me, I genuinely felt heartbroken for both of us,” Maddie said. “It was all happening too much too fast. ... I didn’t know how to make a situation better, and how to make myself feel better, and how to make you feel better and how to make any of us feel better. ... I think that was the turning point.”
While June left me for breakfast, I snuck out of the apartment to reflect on a walk. When she returned, I told her we needed to talk.
Before I go on, it’s important to note that I’m terrible at arguing but June was on the varsity debate team.
I began by attempting to calmly explain that it felt like she was intentionally ignoring me throughout the weekend and that it hurt when she abandoned me for other friends she saw more often after I’d flown across the country for her. She struck back, replying that everything we had done that weekend was for me and if I didn’t like something, I should have spoken up. Not wrong.
But then things spiraled out of control. It’s all a blur to me, but I clearly remember two things: June said, “You demand this intimacy of me!” shortly followed by a curt “I’m done.” She struck home. She knew how to say the right thing to get me to shut down.
After that, we were able to talk it out. We explained everything we’d been feeling for a year, but we already knew it was over. We were different people who wanted different things from each other. I wasn’t a good friend to her in the ways she needed, and she wasn’t a good friend to me in the ways I needed. We stopped choosing each other.
We were cordial enough to each other for the remaining day I was in Boston, like how strangers are when they make small talk, but not like friends who have crawled into the depths of each other’s souls. And after that, our friendship fizzled out quietly with an “I love you, thank you for coming,” and “I love you too,” text exchange.
But for months, my mind never moved on. I was frozen in a time loop, replaying everything I failed to do to fix us.
Now that we don’t talk
Would I rewind to freshman year and still choose to befriend June after knowing we’d end up hurting each other? Resoundingly, wholeheartedly yes. When you choose to love someone, you also choose to accept any heartbreak that might follow.
I still love June and all the other friends I’ve broken up with. They taught me almost everything I know about myself as a friend and person.
But if I catch them in public, I’ll probably cross the street to avoid them.
I came back from that trip heartbroken and lost. I invested so much time and energy into keeping one friendship alive, only for it to crumble in my hands. I felt like a failure. But instead of wallowing, I decided to double down on my existing friendships and let everyone in my life know exactly what they could expect from me: They were my priority, and I was set on making new friends.
But I’ve never been skilled at masking my emotions, so I can only imagine how terrible I looked when I walked into my first class after the trip. So terrible that my classmate, who I usually only talked to about homework, came up to me and asked what was wrong. Then she hugged me, and just like that, my world became a little less dark.
Flash forward a couple of weeks. I’m sitting at her dining room table when her roommate comes home, and we all get to talking.
Two months later, the three of us have moved from the dining room table to the kitchen floor, where we’re all sprawled out, choking on silent laughter.
That’s another thing I’ve learned about friendship — it starts out as small acts of kindness and somehow grows into the people you didn’t know you needed but can’t live without.
Research shows that as women get older, it becomes harder for us to make new friends, and many of us will lose contact with our existing friends. This feels a little bit like a death sentence for my future self — until I think about it more.
Growing up, I remember my family used to visit my mom’s best friend, Kim, and her kids. At some point, we stopped, and I’ve never asked exactly why. But she once mentioned it was because they just lost touch over the years. Life gets busy as you get older, it turns out.
Recently, they reconnected, and I was quietly overjoyed for them. I think we need friends at every age, someone outside our family to give our lives meaning.
So if there are all these women reporting they find it difficult to make friends later in life, doesn’t that mean they all want to make new friends? Or they want to reach out to their former friends but are too afraid?
If so, that means we’re all just wanting to hang out, watch “Pride & Prejudice” and rant about the terrible people in our lives, but we’re too in our heads about it.
If this is the case, it’s bullshit. I get life becomes busier as we age — one day, we’ll move to different cities, play adults, climb the career ladder, convince someone to marry us and start a family, but maybe not in this economy. That’s exactly why we need to hold on tight to each other right now.
Those major events are life-defining moments, even if the stress may make you wish you never had to experience them at the time. But they can be a little less stressful and a little more worth living through if the girl who’s seen you bawling your eyes out on the bathroom floor is there to celebrate them alongside you.
Edited by Camila Pedrosa, Savannah Dagupion and Madeline Nguyen
This story is part of The Immunity Issue, which was released on Nov. 29, 2023. See the entire publication here.