By Esther Mann, LCSW
This week’s letter is being answered by Jennifer Mann, LMSW.
I am writing to you about one of my oldest and dearest friends. Nina and I met in high school and have remained close friends into our late fifties. We have shared in the births of our children and grandchildren, graduations, wild successes, and incredible failures. She had always been there for me and I for her.
Over the past ten years, our friendship has changed. The turning point is alive and well in my mind. One afternoon we were out for lunch with other girlfriends and Nina casually and jokingly revealed a “skeleton” of mine, something I had shared with only her. She knew how intensely painful this was for me, as I had explicitly told her to never share it with anyone. I didn’t want to overreact at the table and draw attention to myself or the matter at hand, so I casually said something to the effect of, “Nina, no one at the table is interested in my meshugas. Next topic.”
Nina continued to jab at me. Needless to say, I wanted to run away and hide, but I got through the lunch. I called Nina later that night and calmly expressed to her my shock and the hurt I felt when she was sharing something I guard so tightly. She could not acknowledge my emotions and said, “Come on, Sue. You’re making it into a bigger deal than it is.” When I stood firm and told her that she had hurt me deeply, the most she could say was that she was sorry if my feelings were hurt. That made me wild! “If my feelings were hurt?” I was telling her my feelings were indeed very hurt. Why would she say that to me? We got into a huge fight that day. Eventually we spoke again and decided to put it in the past and move on.
Though Nina never embarrassed me like that again, I became more aware that she rarely honors my feelings or opinions, in some way or other brushing them to the side or making underhanded remarks. She is quick to dismiss my problems. I also became keenly aware that she is always asking questions about my life, but rarely tells me anything personal about her life. Over the past few years I have dumbed down the relationship and no longer share my personal struggles with her.
I have a handful of wonderful friends with whom I share emotional reciprocity. They fulfill me in a way my friendship with Nina could never. She asked me about my new behavior, so she knows something’s up. I told her I’ve been busier at work and helping out more with my grandchildren, neither of which is true. Here is my predicament: I can’t imagine celebrating a simcha without Nina there. At the same time, the relationship is taking a toll on me and I can’t imagine continuing this way either. I am stuck between my rage and fond memories. What to do?
Dear Blue Sue,
What a quandary you find yourself in. Friendships formed in childhood that last through the decades are a rarity and to be treasured. On the other hand, you are enraged because of Nina’s inability to “be real” with you and honor your pain and hurt feelings. You gave up on the possibility of emotional reciprocity ten years ago. This certainly will not be an easy decision. There are many people in the same situation as yours, be it with family members or friends. People who are not ready to give up the relationship because of all the wonderful things it offers but at the same time feeling unseen, frustrated by their loved one’s inability to see outside their own scope, dismissed, or unable to share their personal truth.
This situation often leaves people feeling frustrated, hopeless, anxious, depressed, unsatisfied, or ready to throw in the towel. Their feelings and yours are understandable and completely warranted. When we share a secret with a friend, we expect it to be locked away in the vault, buried in the deepest, darkest most impenetrable dungeon of our friend’s mind and heart. When the secret is revealed and then furthermore our feelings go unacknowledged, a part of the friendship dies. How could it not?
As I see it, the following are the four cornerstones of deep, meaningful, enjoyable relationships that stand the test of time:
First is validation. It can be as innocuous as an “mmm hmmm” when speaking to a friend or as grand as a beautiful card from a friend expressing her gratitude for your unique entity—the good, bad, and the ugly—gracing her life. When you shared your feelings with Nina after that fateful lunch, she was unable to validate your feelings. She was unable to say, “I see I hurt your feelings. I get it. I hear you.” When she did not give you the validation you needed (and deserved), you stepped away from her.
When we don’t validate someone’s honest, well-intentioned feeling, we send a clear, though probably unintentional message: “I don’t care about you.” Look how you remember her response of “If I hurt your feelings.” I see that a lot. For various reasons, Nina and countless others find validation and apologizing emotionally threatening and they can only tiptoe around it. She may scratch her head and wonder why the relationship has changed, not understanding how her inability to validate has sabotaged such an important, special relationship of hers. I wonder if she scratches her head and wonders about her other relationships.
Second is apology. Apologizing is an art and can be a beautiful gift. Apologizing is necessary to lasting relationships. It is something that for many people is just so difficult to do. Perhaps no one apologized to them growing up. Perhaps giving an apology signals being wrong. Maybe when they were younger, admitting they were wrong or being wrong warranted verbal or physical abuse or neglect, making it unsafe to apologize.
Last are trust and intimacy. Without validation and apologizing, it is impossible to trust another person with our secrets, taking intimacy out of the equation. You have not trusted or been emotionally intimate with Nina in ten years. You clearly have a deep yearning to connect with others, not superficially but deeply. I can sense how difficult it must have been for you to share of yourself with Nina while she never reciprocated. You are an open book and she is closed. How wonderful that you have friendships built upon the four cornerstones.
Even though this is an advice column, I hesitate to give you direct advice, because you are best suited to make the decision to continue on with Nina or call it a day. I cannot tell you what to do. I can say that holding on to something that eats away at you is unhealthy, both emotionally and physically.
If you decide to keep the relationship because of the wonderful reasons you gave, then your expectations need to be adjusted. You have to choose to put the past to rest, accept her for who she is, forgive her in your own mind, and move on. You can tell yourself that friends come into our lives and not everyone will be a soul-mate kind of friend. You can enjoy her for who she is, and enjoy strolling down memory lane and seeing her at your grandson’s bar mitzvah. If you decide to keep her in your life, you will have to come to terms with the fact that you may never have your needs met. Could you be at peace with that?
If you resolve to be done with the relationship, be sure you feel good and at peace with that decision so that you can fully enjoy your future simchas without regret. Unfinished business festers and eats away at the mind, body, and soul, but a shared history can bring immense satisfaction. Whether she is in or out of your life, my advice is to forgive her, so you can move on. Good luck with your decision.
Jennifer Mann is presently working as a psychotherapist at Ohel. In addition, she cohosts “Talk to Me with Jen and Becky” on www.syrealradio.com, Wednesdays, 9:00 p.m. She also works as a relationship coach and can be reached at 718-908-0512.