Silence and Friendship

Everyone has a set of guidelines, conscious or not, about friendship—what friendship is, what kinds of behavior are acceptable, what kinds of traits a good friend has. Those guidelines usually allow for imperfections as well—after all, none of us is 100% compatible, and we all make mistakes.

Along those lines, I once told a tarot card reader that there are a few things I consider essential to friendship: honesty, give and take (instead of a one-way street, where one person is always giving and the other always taking), and a certain level of good-heartedness (which isn’t to be confused with having a good nature; someone can be unsocial and difficult and still be good-hearted).

The tarot card reader had different standards. None of what I felt was essential to a good relationship was on her list. This surprised me, especially when she particularly mentioned the honesty part as being “a lot to ask.” What kind of people did she hang out with that made honesty a lot to ask? More importantly, how could she have a relationship with dishonest people? Or rather, how could she have a good relationship with dishonest people? And for that matter, if she felt honesty was a lot to ask, what did that say about her own level of honesty?

Trust and honesty go hand in hand; without honesty, you can’t have trust; without trust, you can’t have a friendship.

(As an aside, although I had thought she and I might become friends, after that conversation, I realized we couldn’t be.)

I’m not saying I expect my friends to be proponents of radical honesty. But, at least for my closest friends, I want to feel comfortable talking about any subject, especially if it is something personal about myself or someone else. And I want to feel that what is being said to me is a honest reflection of what my friends think and feel. I have never liked the feeling that there are just some topics I can’t talk about with someone close to me. And I want to feel that I can trust my friends to keep things I say confidential. Having to watch what I say and avoid certain topics of conversation means (to me, anyway) that we don’t have a completely free and open discourse.

But sometimes people just can’t hear something about themselves. And by “can’t,” I mean literally are unable to. (Other times, they don’t want to hear it and make it clear that it isn’t a topic you can talk about with them. That’s different from what I am about to discuss.) I was thinking about this today because there is someone who was once very dear to me for a number of years whom I dropped (after some soul-searching) for this very reason. She was wonderful in many ways, but she had a habit of making snarky little demeaning digs at me, which were infrequent at first but got worse (both in frequency and meanness of the comments) as our friendship went on. Finally, it got bad enough that I tried to talk with her about it a few times, but I got nowhere.

It wasn’t that she denied making the comments, or that she explained that the comments were justified and therefore allowable within the bounds of honesty, both of which I expected. Instead, she went completely blank when I tried to talk with her about her comments, as though her consciousness went elsewhere, or as though I had suddenly started talking in a language she didn’t understand. It was weird. She was at such a profound level of denial that I still have a hard time fathoming it. How can you not know what you are saying and doing? And how could we talk about her hurtful comments if she wasn’t even letting herself know she was making them?

So I had three options:

  • continue to associate with her, accepting that she was doing something hurtful to me that we couldn’t talk about;
  • tell her the friendship was off, without being able to tell her why;
  • or (and this was my choice) stop reaching out to her, stop calling her, stop sending her email, and stop visiting her, and see what happened.

It saddened me to say good-bye to her in my heart. I had learned a lot from her, and loved her, and still love her. And I won’t demean her by saying she didn’t love me, because I think she did, but when I dropped her, she did not, as I would have, call me to find what was up, or to see if I was okay. She sent an email three months later to a list of email contacts, including me, telling everyone she was moving, and that was it. I thought at first that she had dropped the friendship too, but some years later, when I sent her an email to see how she was doing, she replied and said in passing that she never understood what had happened to our friendship. By that statement, she might have been asking me indirectly what happened, but I didn’t see any increase in her awareness in her email (she made some of the same kinds of digs she had before), so I could no more explain then than I had been able to when I ended the friendship.

Which leads to the last thing I want to say today on this topic. I remember reading once, many years ago, that the more mature person in a relationship has the greater responsibility of doing the right thing. This is obvious with a parent and a child; your child may scream unpleasant things at you in anger, but you, as the adult, are responsible for responding like an adult, not like a child. It is less obvious, but just as apt, to say that if someone you are in a relationship with (family, friend, lover, co-worker…) does something immature or unconscious, and you are aware of it, you are responsible for responding with maturity and awareness rather than in kind. If there is a large age difference between you and your friends (where you are the older one), and especially when they are overall a settled, mature bunch, it can be hard sometimes to remember that they are young and have not had the years of learning from experience that you have. I sometimes have to remind myself, when people I know do something immature, that they are young, that we all make mistakes, and that mistakes are part of the process of living, learning, and growing up. I try to make the same allowance for myself when I make a mistake too.

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