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Once Best Friends: Can this friendship survive?

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QUESTION

Hi,

I've had the same best friend for more than 20 years. We were so close that we even have matching tattoos. We don't live near each other, but have maintained contact and been through school, marriage, kids, etc together. She's been a huge part of my life.

Things started getting tough a couple of years ago. I have a pretty typical personal life, but I've struggled with an anxiety disorder that was exacerbated by pregnancy hormones. Over the past few months I've coped with a number of stressful events, including illness, a very significant death in the family, parenting an infant, and dealing with a major family feud.

During this same time period, my friend began what I can only call a "midlife crisis", though she would hate for anyone to use that term. She prefers to see it as finding herself - but the self she's found is someone totally different than who she was when we first met, with totally different values (like open marriage and questionable behavior) and I don't really approve of most of it.

Because of my history and my current stress levels, it's very hard for me to be enmeshed in her personal drama right now, largely because she means so much to me and I'm scared she will regret the decisions she is making someday. For me, the last straw was when she failed to come to an important event I'd asked her to be part of. I sent her a letter expressing how hurt I was and how worried I am about her. The whole thing escalated from there and when I said I just needed a temporary break, she flipped out on me, accusing me of being judgmental and not accepting her
for who she is.

I really wasn't trying to "break up," only to take care of my own mental health for a brief period, as her drama was becoming my drama. I realize I can't change her life or live it for her, and I'm hurt that she couldn't be respectful of what my current needs are in turn.

Now I'm left wondering if the relationship is salvageable and/or worth salvaging. I'll be heartbroken if this is the end, but at the same time I don't know if I would become as close to her if I had just met the "new her" as opposed to the person she was from twenty years ago. I'm not sure if she will agree to just change the terms of our friendship, right now her attitude seems to be "either you are my best friend and accept me no matter what I do, or get out."

Your thoughts would be much appreciated.

Signed,
Marla

ANSWER

Dear Marla,

People change over time and, despite your long and close shared history, it sounds like your BFF isn't someone whom you would want to be too cozy with now. Even if you have the same tattoos, her values and lifestyle are so discrepant from your own that you feel uncomfortable.

Clearly, your friend's life has taken a turn in a different direction. And even before the blowup, your friendship had become somewhat one-sided. Your BFF wasn't able to recognize the importance of the event at which she was a no-show and you couldn't turn to her for support while you were grappling with your own problems and anxieties.

When you sent her the letter, she "flipped out" because she couldn't tolerate being judged by you. She may have experienced a host of feelings--such as guilt, shame, and insecurity--which can interfere with an intimate friendship. While you were trying to back off from the intensity of the relationship (which I think is a good idea), your friend may have feared you were breaking up and reacted defensively by giving you an ultimatum.

Reach out to her when you've both calmed down, perhaps with a phone call, and tell her that you cherish all the memories you've shared together, that you realize that she has to make her own choices, and that you hope you can remain friends even if you see things differently. I hope she can remain "a best friend" in your life because of your history together---but, perhaps, not your only best friend. I think you need to diversify and find other best friends closer to home whose values more closely mirror your own, and friendships that allow for more give and take.

I hope this is helpful.

Best,
Irene

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Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. Her new book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, was recently published by Overlook Press. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog and at PsychologyToday.com.