My hesitancy in talking about my friend breakup stems from the fact that it happened with individuals who remain somewhere in my extended social network, and I don’t want to throw shade on them. But a recent conversation alerted me to the fact that friend breakups hurt, and people need help with them. So, potential knife-in-the-back analogy notwithstanding, let me take a stab at this.
I’ll use pseudonyms.
I would have told you that Vanessa wasn’t just my best friend, but the best friend I’d ever had. We were both prolific writers, deep thinkers, and astute observers of human nature. I loved our endless philosophizing and the theological co-writing we did. Our thinking tracked so closely that she’d say something and I’d feel as if it had come out of my own brain, only better. But then on a deeply personal level, I could be honest with Vanessa about my heartaches and struggles as a human being, knowing her seemingly endless supply of empathy would flow over me to soothe the pain. That combination of smart and heart in a relationship was a rare jewel and I treasured it.
I’d been best friends with Vanessa for a few years when Carlie began to work for me. Carlie also exuded sensitivity, compassion, and emotional availability. On a given work day, we’d discuss the challenges of ministry life for an hour or more, praying and strategizing together. I’d been traveling, speaking, and writing for a number of years and it felt good not to be alone.
Between Vanessa and Carlie, I felt more friend-equipped than ever before. But looking back, it was too good to be true. Vanessa and Carlie were soattentive to my needs and emotions that it almost felt like too much free therapy. I also noticed that they seemed threatened by one another. I’d introduced them, but their own friendship hadn’t really formed yet. Vanessa subtly raised suspicions about Carlie and Carlie broke down in tears when I accidentally called Vanessa my best friend.
But then they did form a friendship. I looked forward to moving from dyad to triad, broadening the circle of love and support. But it didn’t happen that way. It almost seemed as if they moved from dyads with me to a dyad with each other that excluded me. Bowen’s family systems theory names this phenomenon “triangulation.” Before I knew it, Carlie quit working for me, and both simultaneously began to unleash to the other their gripes and disappointments with Jen. Among other things, they labeled me a “narcissist,” the total unfairness and inaccuracy of which has instilled in me a permanent push back against the overuse of the term.
But okay, I have narcissistic traits. I let my two friends fawn over me too much. I over-processed my emotions and accepted too much free “therapy.” I learned the hard way that even when a person listens and cares, and even when they invite you to open up (Vanessa used to ask me, “Do you need some couch time?”) you can still wear an empath out. So yeah, mea culpa. Live and learn. But diagnosable, single-out-worthy narcissism? Nah. No more than the covert narcissism of an empath. That charge was more fueled by their unhealthy triangulation than reality.
Now for the good news. I got back up and moved on. I’ll tell you how it happened if you promise to try this yourself.
This friend breakup triggered a ferocious three-month bout of depression, suicidal thoughts, and insomnia. I’d lost not one, but two of my closest friends in one fell swoop. The loss of Vanessa’s friendship hurt the most, having been the closest and most long-term. Plus, I felt that Vanessa saw into my soul, as if she knew me almost better than God Himself knew me. If this soul-seer called me a narcissist, maybe I was, I feared. Maybe every time I approached intimacy, my own fatal flaw would lead to the same result, and I’d be repulsed again and again. These thoughts tumbled over one another like a dust devil in the desert of despair.
Realizing I’d become depressed, I made a small change in my routine—I did my exercise run in the morning light. I remember the moment the boosted serotonin finally nourished my forebrain back into constructive thought. I looked up to heaven and said, “I made mistakes. So did they. I’m no more fatally flawed than anyone. I’ll learn from this and move on. I will find girlfriend love again. Maybe even with Vanessa and Carlie.”
God blessed that resolve and I’m happy to say my friendship circle is again full. There is life after a friend breakup. In honor of #nationalgirlfriendsday, let’s keep the age-old, nation-, ethnicity- and culture-transcending girlfriend tradition alive. Shout out to my galpals—I love you. Let’s keep it real.