Do not keep on with a mockery of friendship after the substance is gone — but part, while you can part friends. Bury the carcass of friendship: it is not worth embalming. — William Hazlitt
I refilled my glass and sat back, taking in everything that had just been shared. “So let me get this straight,” I said. I summarized the litany of transgressions committed by my friend’s roommate — an assortment of manipulative and inconsiderate acts dating back several years. When I was finished, I said, “Those are the facts, right?” She nodded. “In that case, I have to ask — why are you still living in the same house with this person?”
My friend blinked a few times, seemingly surprised by the question. I knew before she opened her mouth that her next words would be intended to defend the perpetrator. As she explained her rationale, I mentally ticked off the three excuses I often hear after asking someone why they hang on to a friendship that has degenerated from the symbiotic to the parasitic: longevity, loyalty, and liability.
Longevity is a tough one. It’s natural to want a return on one’s investment. For a lot of people, leaving a disadvantageous relationship into which they’ve been paying for years is like selling at a loss. But why continue to give to something that has ceased giving back? Why not cut your losses now and use the wisdom you’ve gained when deciding where to make future deposits?
I once had a very good friend named Sue. For five years, I got as much out of the relationship as I put into it. Sue and I were each other’s therapist, party pal, and more. But in the sixth year of friendship, something changed. Sue and I both had boyfriends and we were spending less time together, which was normal; certainly not cause to part ways. After all, we were busy with the exciting newness of our respective romantic relationships, which we each believed the other deserved. Still, as the months passed,
I began to notice that every time Sue called, it wasn’t for a “Hi, how are you?” but a “Hey, I need something.”
At first, I thought nothing of it. After all, Sue was my friend, and I was happy to help her in any way I could. But the less I heard from her, the more apparent it became that she only contacted me when she wanted something. A full year went by during which she emailed or called me on just three occasions, to request my help with one thing or another. During that same year, I had reached out to her a handful of times, simply to say hello or see how she was doing.
Sure, we had history — the memories, the laughter, the tears. But friendship, like a seesaw, requires effort from both parties. I do not subscribe to the “once a friend, always a friend” philosophy. It doesn’t fly with my definition of friendship as an ongoing endeavor. Sue was once my friend, and a very good one. She understood the verbness of the word “friendship.” But she had become no more than a needy acquaintance, resting on her laurels like Corey Haim. So when Sue sent an email asking if I wanted to meet her for lunch, at which she would undoubtedly ask me for some new favor, I responded honestly: No, I do not. No matter that Sue and I had been friends for so many years — our friendship was brain dead, only kept alive by life support. The humane thing to do was pull the plug.
My Irish kin have drilled the virtue of loyalty into me, so when presented with this excuse, my gut tends to disagree with my brain. A pact has been made, and somewhere along the line, two people decided they had each other’s back. Emotionally, it seems the right thing to do is be a dependable person in all situations — to never be the one to break the deal. But unlike most of my cousins in New York, who treat their friends like family (irreplaceable), my brain insists that my allegiance to non-blood relations be conditional. To remain at your post long after your cohort has abandoned his is not noble. It’s foolish.
Anyone who has watched a friend dive headfirst into the deep end of drug abuse knows that to continue hanging on after all attempts to rescue him have failed is to drown in misery. No matter how many interventions you facilitate, no one but the tortured soul you once called friend has the power to drag himself out of that wretched tank. In order to be a friend, one must be able to hold one’s own shit together.
Many people feel obliged to take responsibility for their friends, hence the liability excuse. This one works on two levels. First, most people feel indebted to a friend who has been magnanimous in the past. Say a guy once dropped everything to help you move, or a girl sat patiently while you cried on her shoulder over love lost. How can you turn your back on people who have been so supportive? It seems that many people stay in relationships (friendship or otherwise) because they feel it is the price they must pay for accepting bygone acts of kindness. Or, as my friend with the defective roommate explained, they measure the irritation of one’s present infractions against his altruisms of the past. A real, enduring friendship, however, entails constant renewal — an endless regeneration of connections and kindnesses.
The second part of the liability excuse stems from the fear that the friend you walk away from is going to go to pieces and that it will be all your fault. I used to hang out with a complete nutcase — fun to have around for the entertainment value but also a drain in every sense of the word. When the day inevitably arrived that my exhaustion exceeded my entertainment, I backed away. The girl to whom I had been a friend, but who had never been mine, balked at my increasing absences. At one point, she made the claim that without me around to keep her grounded, she wasn’t sure she could cope. I’m not sure what that meant, exactly, but I was well aware of her self-destructive habits. I wrestled with my decision to withdraw. What if something happened to her, something I could have prevented if only I’d been there? I’m not sure how that would have affected me — I didn’t stick around long enough to find out.