My Twitter account tells me I have 1892 “followers” and my Facebook page suggests that I add someone new to my account as a “friend” nearly every day. Despite our modern online age, however, people do not become “friends” (nor loyal “followers”) at the push of a button. We start friendships tentatively, with small admissions of fallibility that won’t entirely rip away the costume of the person we’re pretending to be.
“I’m actually shy” I tell an incredulous acquaintance. “The bravado masks it,” I admit, waiting for a reciprocal revelation signaling a common desire to take the relationship in a more intimate direction – one in which I signal my willingness to be trusting and demonstrate my ability to be trusted.
“Me too,” my potential friend might acknowledge. “I’m actually driven by fear. I know I seem confident, but all this apparent success makes me feel like a fraud. Worse, I’m always feeling guilty that I’m not a better, more attentive mother to my children because I’m so busy pursuing my own success. That’s selfish, don’t you think?”
My acquaintance is not only reciprocating our growing intimacy, she is deepening it. I was merely talking about my professional life. She’s now drilled down into her relationship with her children. We are taking baby steps to friendship, testing one another’s ability to move beyond our “public” selves and open up the door to our private lives and secret fears. We are putting something of ourselves on the line – something vulnerable and valuable – in the hope that we will have just one person – or one more — who knows and cares about us “warts and all.”
When you consider how vitally important friends are to our emotional well-being, it’s surprising we don’t have more friendship “owners manuals,” or, for that matter, “friendship counseling.” The book stores are filled with advice manuals for marriages and parenting, but few are the titles advising us on the care and feeding of our friends – people who actually outlast marriages and endure long past the time our children leave home. What happens when friendships go bad and what, if anything, should we be doing to tend our friendship garden?
* * *
I made a new friend in school just a few years ago. Our intimacy was forged in our mutual mid-life career crises at the Straus Institute in Malibu. We’d both decided to earn our Legal Masters degrees in dispute resolution with the intention of becoming mediators. Rod and I became friends for the same set of obvious and mysterious reasons that people fall in love. We were engaged in an activity that threatened to throw our more or less well-ordered lives into turmoil but which engaged both of us deeply; we were surrounded by law students decades younger than we were; we were being taught courses by people who often had much less “real world” experience than we did; and, we were understandably anxious about our decision to throw a couple of perfectly decent occupations out the window.
My friendship with Rod had a honeymoon period just like any romance would. There was that small stretch of time when we searched for and identified everything we had in common, reveling in our compatibility and ignoring the quite obvious differences and potential conflicts that might arise between us. Rod was conservative in dress and manner, for instance, while I was far less restrained. Though not many years older, Rod’s age put him on the “other side” of the profound cultural shifts of the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. I was in high school during the “Summer of Love” and in college when the women’s movement took the country by storm. Rod was already married during those years, raising children while I was raising Cain.
Like the first lover’s quarrel, friendships also have their early disputes. I wasn’t, however, expecting so devastating a breach as the one heading in my direction.