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It’s not uncommon for a fight between 5-year-olds to end with someone shouting: “You’re not my friend anymore!” There’s an honesty there that I can respect, a directness that’s refreshing: Let there be no confusion — this is where we stand.

Adulthood, however, is a lot less clear.

I have a friend who I’ve known for almost 20 years. We’ve seen each other through a lot: cheating boyfriends, health problems, depression, legal issues, divorce. We once went five years without contact because I was lost and selfish and couldn’t bear to have anyone in my life who believed in me. In that time she got married and I wasn’t there, and for that she has forgiven me. Which is all to say, our friendship is the durable kind.

But over the past few years, there’s been a subtle shift that’s been hard for me to admit, still harder to explain. We still love each other. We still want only good things for each other. But separated by thousands of miles and very different lifestyles, there’s a distance between us that feels insurmountable. And I’m left wondering: What do you do when a friendship is fading?

There’s some jealousy and judgment at play here, as well. She works in finance, whereas I am a starving writer. She drives a 6-speed BMW, while I drive to work in a 2003 Honda Civic that makes a weird whistling sound on cold mornings. I know it’s beyond arrogant to deem myself the arbiter of what’s meaningful for someone else, but I do judge her a little for what she’s chosen to do with her life. I have no doubt that she has an opinion or two about the decisions I’ve made that have left me at times unable to support myself.

She has always had more focus and ambition. While I was off repeatedly losing my way and taking self-destructive detours, she was working hard and rewriting her résumé and getting promoted. For that, I’ve always admired and envied her.

Over our past few visits, even though we laughed a lot and had a great time together, there was also this nagging feeling that we were playing a game of pretend. That we were just trying to convince ourselves nothing had changed.

I couldn’t articulate what was wrong; I can still barely find the words. Only that we are both so far from who we used to be — that the years have changed us into other people, and these other people don’t know each other very well.

Over the past six months, I have felt let down by my friend on several occasions, yet I’ve said nothing. The particulars seem irrelevant now, especially when I think about all the times over the years that she must have felt I let her down. Most recently, I got angry that she had canceled on our plans to get lunch. I knew it had nothing to do with the unreturned text or canceled plans, or any of the particulars of our friendship. It wasn’t about all the hurt that’s been passed back and forth between us, the things that are bound to accumulate in any long-term relationship. I knew that I was angry because of all the ways that life changes and the distance those changes can create between people.

Then I had a temper tantrum. I’d been recovering from oral surgery and probably wasn’t thinking clearly. I began lamenting how it’s only fair that those years of friendship add up to something — that all that time spent caring about each other should guarantee something permanent and comforting. I felt that I needed to do something definitive about the pain I was feeling.

So I sent her a text message, demanding to know why she hadn’t returned my message (even though it’s not unusual for either one of us to have delayed responses). We swapped a few angry texts and then the next day, it was as if I had come out of a trance, and I realized that this was not the way to handle this. I told her I’d call her once I’d recovered from surgery and felt like myself again.

Last week I reached out to her and we scheduled a phone call, but then something came up and she couldn’t talk. That’s when it hit me: We’ve both already moved on from this friendship. I was hoping our phone call might provide me with a different answer, but I can’t avoid it anymore.

Moving on doesn’t mean I’ll ever stop loving her or wanting good things for her, nor does it mean that we’ll never speak again. It just means that we’ve both learned how to function without the support of this friendship.

What I couldn’t accept the day I sent that angry text is that sometimes, there’s no way to fix a relationship except let it turn into whatever it’s supposed to be. And that waiting — that vague, amorphous state of not knowing — can feel unbearable. What I was really angry about was that there was no one to blame for whatever was happening to our friendship. No one was at fault.

Having a target is always easier than facing a long horizon across a vast field as you wonder what’s going to happen next. Yet that’s exactly what it means to be an adult — it means moving forward without trying to minimize what’s being left behind.

It means looking out at that horizon and recognizing the loss of a friendship without denying everything that was once beautiful about it.

 

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