It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart
The older we get, the more we need our friends—and the harder it is to keep them.
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It is an insolent cliché, almost, to note that our culture lacks the proper script for ending friendships. We have no rituals to observe, no paperwork to do, no boilerplate dialogue to crib from.
Yet when Elisa Albert and Rebecca Wolff were in the final throes of their friendship, they managed, entirely by accident, to leave behind just such a script. The problem was that it read like an Edward Albee play—tart, unsparing, fluorescent with rage.
I met Elisa one evening in 2008, after an old friend’s book reading. She was such mesmerizing company that I rushed out to buy her debut novel, The Book of Dahlia, which had been published a few months earlier. I was instantly struck by how unafraid of darkness and emotional chaos she was. The same articulate fury suffused After Birth, her follow-up; her next book, Human Blues (her “monster,” as she likes to say), comes out in July.
Rebecca is someone I knew only by reputation until recently. She’s the founding editor of the literary magazine Fence, a haven for genre-resistant writing and writers that’s now almost 25 years old. She’s also the author of a novel and four poetry collections, including Manderley, selected by the National Poetry Series; she has a fifth coming out in the fall.
The two women became close more than a decade ago, spotting in each other the same traits that dazzled outsiders: talent, charisma, saber-tooth smarts. To Rebecca, Elisa was “impossibly vibrant” in a way that only a 30-year-old can be to someone who is 41. To Elisa, Rebecca was a glamorous and reassuring role model, a woman who through some miracle of alchemy had successfully combined motherhood, marriage, and a creative life.
It would be hard to overstate how much that mattered to Elisa. She was a new mother, all alone in a new city, Albany, where her husband was a tenured professor. (Albany! How does one find friends in Albany?) Yet here was Rebecca—the center of a lush social network, a pollinating bee—showing up on campus at Fence’s office every day.
The two entered an intense loop of contact. They took a class in New York City together. They sometimes joked about running away together. And, eventually, they decided to write a book together, a collection of their email and text correspondence about a topic with undeniably broad appeal: how to live in the world and be okay. They called this project The Wellness Letters.
I read the manuscript in one gulp. Their exchanges have real swing to them, a screwball quality with a punk twist. On page 1:
R: Anything you haven’t done?
E: Affair. Acid. Shrooms. Second child. Death. Ayahuasca.
R: “Bucket List.”
E: “Efforts at Wellness.”
R: I just started writing something called Trying to Stay Off My Meds …
E: U R A STRONG WOMAN.
But over time, resentments flicker into view. Deep fissures in their belief systems begin to show. They start writing past each other, not hearing each other at all. By the end, the two women have taken every difficult truth they’ve ever learned about the other and fashioned it into a club. The final paragraphs are a mess of blood and bone and gray guts.
In real time, Elisa and Rebecca enact on the page something that almost all of us have gone through: the painful dissolution of a friendship.
The specifics of their disagreements may be unique to them, but the broad outlines have the ring and shape of the familiar; The Wellness Letters are almost impossible to read without seeing the corpse of one of your own doomed friendships floating by.
Elisa complains about failures in reciprocity.
Rebecca implies that Elisa is being insensitive, too quick to judge others.
Elisa implies that Rebecca is being too self-involved, too needy.
Rebecca implies: Now you’re too quick to judge me.
Elisa ultimately suggests that Rebecca’s unhappiness is at least partly of her own unlovely making.
To which Rebecca more or less replies: Who on earth would choose to be this unhappy?
To which Elisa basically says: Well, should that be an excuse for being a myopic and inconsiderate friend?
E: The truth is that I am wary of you …
R: When you say that you are wary of me, it reminds me of something … oh yes, it’s when I told you that I was wary of you … wary of your clear pattern of forming mutually idolatrous relationships with women who you cast in a particular role in your life only to later castigate.
Their feelings were too hot to contain. What started as a deliberate, thoughtful meditation about wellness ended as an inadvertent chronicle of a friendship gone terribly awry.
The Wellness Letters, 18 months of electrifying correspondence, now sit mute on their laptops.
I first read The Wellness Letters in December 2019, with a different project in mind for them. The pandemic forced me to set it aside. But two years later, my mind kept returning to those letters, for reasons that at this point have also become a cliché: I was undergoing a Great Pandemic Friendship Reckoning, along with pretty much everyone else. All of those hours in isolation had amounted to one long spin of the centrifuge, separating the thickest friendships from the thinnest; the ambient threat of death and loss made me realize that if I wanted to renew or intensify my bonds with the people I loved most, the time was now, right now.
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But truth be told, I’d already been mulling this subject for quite some time. When you’re in middle age, which I am (mid-middle age, to be precise—I’m now 52), you start to realize how very much you need your friends. They’re the flora and fauna in a life that hasn’t had much diversity, because you’ve been so busy—so relentlessly, stupidly busy—with middle-age things: kids, house, spouse, or some modern-day version of Zorba’s full catastrophe. Then one day you look up and discover that the ambition monkey has fallen off your back; the children into whom you’ve pumped thousands of kilowatt-hours are no longer partial to your company; your partner may or may not still be by your side. And what, then, remains?
With any luck, your friends. According to Laura Carstensen, the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity, I’ve aged out of the friendship-collecting business, which tends to peak in the tumbleweed stage of life, when you’re still young enough to spend Saturday evenings with random strangers and Sunday mornings nursing hangovers at brunch. Instead, I should be in the friendship-enjoying business, luxuriating in the relationships that survived as I put down roots.
And I am luxuriating in them. But those friendships are awfully hard-won. With midlife comes a number of significant upheavals and changes, ones that prove too much for many friendships to withstand. By middle age, some of the dearest people in your life have gently faded away.
You lose friends to marriage, to parenthood, to politics—even when you share the same politics. (Political obsessions are a big, underdiscussed friendship-ender in my view, and they seem to only deepen with age.) You lose friends to success, to failure, to flukish strokes of good or ill luck. (Envy, dear God—it’s the mother of all unspeakables in a friendship, the lulu of all shames.) These life changes and upheavals don’t just consume your friends’ time and attention. They often reveal unseemly characterological truths about the people you love most, behaviors and traits you previously hadn’t imagined possible.
Those are brutal.
And I’ve still left out three of the most common and dramatic friendship disrupters: moving, divorce, and death. Though only the last is irremediable.
The unhappy truth of the matter is that it is normal for friendships to fade, even under the best of circumstances. The real aberration is keeping them. In 2009, the Dutch sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst published an attention-grabber of a study that basically showed we replace half of our social network over the course of seven years, a reality we both do and don’t intuit.
R: I’m worried once we wrap up our dialogue our friendship will be useless, therefore done.
E: Nope. We r deeply in dialogue for long run I think. Unless U want to not b. Does our friendship feel useless?? …
R: No I want to be friends forever
E: Then we will b
Were friendships always so fragile? I suspect not. But we now live in an era of radical individual freedoms. All of us may begin at the same starting line as young adults, but as soon as the gun goes off, we’re all running in different directions; there’s little synchrony to our lives. We have kids at different rates (or not at all); we pair off at different rates (or not at all); we move for love, for work, for opportunity and adventure and more affordable real estate and healthier lifestyles and better weather.
Yet it’s precisely because of the atomized, customized nature of our lives that we rely on our friends so very much. We are recruiting them into the roles of people who once simply coexisted with us—parents, aunts and uncles, cousins, fellow parishioners, fellow union members, fellow Rotarians.
It’s not wholly natural, this business of making our own tribes. And it hardly seems conducive to human thriving. The percentage of Americans who say they don’t have a single close friend has quadrupled since 1990, according to the Survey Center on American Life.
One could argue that modern life conspires against friendship, even as it requires the bonds of friendship all the more.
When I was younger, my friends had as much a hand in authoring my personality as any other force in my life. They advised me on what to read, how to dress, where to eat. But these days, many are showing me how to think, how to live.
It gets trickier as you age, living. More bad things happen. Your parents, if you’re lucky enough to still have them, have lives so different from your own that you’re looking horizontally, to your own cohort, for cues. And you’re dreading the days when an older generation will no longer be there for you—when you’ll have to rely on another ecosystem altogether for support.
Yet for the past decade or so, I’ve had a tacit, mutual understanding with many of the people I love most, particularly fellow working parents: Look, life’s crazy, the office has loaded me up like a pack animal, we’ll catch up when we catch up, love you in the meantime. This happens to suit a rotten tendency of mine, which is to work rather than play. I could give you all sorts of therapized reasons for why I do this, but honestly, at my age, it’s embarrassing. There comes a point when you have to wake up in the morning and decide that it doesn’t matter how you got to whatever sorry cul-de-sac you’re circling; you just have to find a way out.
I think of Nora Ephron, whose death caught virtually all of her friends by surprise. Had they known, they all said afterward—had they only known that she was ill—they’d have savored the dinners they were having, and they certainly wouldn’t have taken for granted that more of them would stretch forever into the future. Her sudden disappearance from the world revealed the fragility of our bonds, and how presumptuous we all are, how careless, how naive.
But shouldn’t this fragility always be top of mind? Surely the pandemic has taught us that?
I mean, how long can we all keep postponing dinner?
When I began writing this story, my friend Nina warned me: Do not make this an occasion to rake through your own history and beat yourself up over the state of your own friendships. Which is something that only a dear friend, armed with protective instincts and a Spidey sense about her friend’s self-lacerating tendencies, would say.
Fair enough. But it’s hard to write a story about friendship in midlife without thinking about the friends you’ve lost. “When friendship exists in the background, it’s unremarkable but generally uncomplicated,” wrote B. D. McClay, an essayist and critic, in Lapham’s Quarterly last spring. “But when friendship becomes the plot, then the only story to tell is about how the friendship ended.”
Friendship is the plot of this article. So naturally I’m going to write at least a little about those I’ve lost—and my regrets, the choices I’ve made, the time I have and have not invested.
On the positive side of the ledger: I am a loyal friend. I am an empathetic friend. I seldom, if ever, judge. Tell me you murdered your mother and I’ll say, Gee, you must have been really mad at her. I am quick to remind my friends of their virtues, telling them that they are beautiful, they are brilliant, they are superstars. I spend money on them. I often express my love.
On the negative side: I’m oversensitive to slights and minor humiliations, which means I’m wrongly inclined to see them as intentional rather than pedestrian acts of thoughtlessness, and I get easily overwhelmed, engulfed. I can almost never mentally justify answering a spontaneous phone call from a friend, and I have to force myself to phone and email them when I’m hard at work on a project. I’m that prone to monomania, and that consumed by my own tension.
What both of these traits have in common is that I seem to live my life as if I’m under siege. I’m guessing my amygdala is the size of a cantaloupe.
Most of my withered friendships can be chalked up to this terrible tendency of mine not to reach out. I have pals in Washington, D.C., where I started my professional life, whom I haven’t seen in years, and friends from college I haven’t seen since practically graduation—people I once adored, shared my life with, couldn’t have imagined living for two seconds without.
And yet I do. I have.
This is, mind you, how most friendships die, according to the social psychologist Beverley Fehr: not in pyrotechnics, but a quiet, gray dissolve. It’s not that anything happens to either of you; it’s just that things stop happening between you. And so you drift.
It’s the friendships with more deliberate endings that torment. At best, those dead friendships merely hurt; at worst, they feel like personal failures, each one amounting to a little divorce. It doesn’t matter that most were undone by the hidden trip wires of midlife I talked about earlier: marriage, parenthood, life’s random slings and arrows. By midlife, you’ve invested enough in your relationships that every loss stings.
You feel bereft, for one thing. As if someone has wandered off with a piece of your history.
And you fear for your reputation. Friends are the custodians of your secrets, the eyewitnesses to your weaknesses. Every confession you’ve made—all those naked moments—can be weaponized.
There was the friend I lost to parenthood, utterly, though I was also a parent. Her child shortly consumed her world, and she had many child-rearing opinions. These changes alone I could have handled; what I couldn’t handle was her obvious disapproval of my own parenting style (hands-off) and my lack of sentimentality about motherhood itself (if you don’t have something nice to say about raising kids, pull up a chair and sit next to me).
There was no operatic breakup. She moved away; I made zero effort to stay in touch. But whenever I think of her, my stomach chirps with a kind of longing. She showed me how cognitive behavioral therapy worked before I even knew it was a thing, rightsizing my perspective each time I turned a wispy cirrus into a thunderhead. And her conversation was tops, weird and unpredictable.
I miss her. Or who she was. Who we were.
I lost a male friend once to parenthood too, though that situation was different. In this instance, I was not yet a mother. But he was a dad, and on account of this, he testily informed me one day, he now had higher moral obligations in this world than to our friendship or to my feelings, which he’d just seriously hurt (over something that in hindsight I’ll confess was pretty trivial). While I knew on some level that what he said was true, I couldn’t quite believe he was saying it out loud, this person with whom I’d spent so many idle, gleeful hours. I miss him a lot, and wonder to this day whether I should have just let the comment go.
Yet whenever I think of him, a fiery asterisk still appears next to his name.
Mahzad Hojjat, a social-psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts at Dartmouth, once told me that people may say that friendship betrayals aren’t as bad as romantic betrayals if they’re presented with hypothetical scenarios on a questionnaire. But that’s not how they experience friendship betrayals in real life. This doesn’t surprise me. I still have sense-memories of how sickened I was when this friend told me I’d been relegated to a lower league—my heart quickening, the blood thumping in my ears.
Then there was the friend who didn’t say anything hurtful to me per se; the problem was how little she said about herself at all. According to Hojjat, failures of reciprocity are a huge theme in broken friendships. That stands to reason—asymmetries of time and effort can continue for only so long before you feel like you’ve lost your dignity. (I myself have been criticized for neglect and laziness, and rightly. It’s shitty.) But there’s a subtler kind of asymmetry that I think is far more devastating, and that is a certain lopsidedness in self-disclosure. This friend and I would have long lunches, dinners, coffees, and I’d be frank, always, about my disappointments and travails. I consider this a form of currency between women: You trade confidences, small glass fragments of yourself.
But not with her. Her life was always fine, swell, just couldn’t be better, thanks. Talking with her was like playing strip poker with someone in a down parka.
I mentioned this problem to Hojjat. She ventured that perhaps women expect more of their female friends than men do of their male companions, given how intimate our friendships tend to be. In my small, unscientific personal sample of friends, that’s certainly true.
Which brings me to the subject of our Problem Friends. Most of us have them, though we may wish we could tweeze them from our lives. (I’ve had one for decades, and though on some level I’ll always love her, I resolved to be done with her during this pandemic—I’d grown weary of her volatility, her storms of anger.) Unfortunately, what the research says about these friends is depressing: It turns out that time in their company can be worse than time spent with people we actively dislike. That, at any rate, is what the psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad discovered in 2003, when she had the inspired idea to monitor her subjects’ blood pressure while in the presence of friends who generated conflicted feelings. It went up—even more than it did when her subjects were in the presence of people with whom they had “aversive” relationships. Didn’t matter if the conversation was pleasant or not.
You have to wonder whether our bodies have always known this on some level—and whether the pandemic, which for a long while turned every social interaction into a possible health risk, made all of our problem friends easier to give the slip. It’s not just that they’re potentially bad for you. They are bad for you. And—alas—always were.
A brief word here about the scholarship devoted to friendship: I know I’ve been citing it quite a bit, but the truth is, there’s surprisingly little of it, and even less that’s particularly good. A great deal is dime-store wisdom crowned in the laurels of peer review, dispatches from the Empire of the Obvious. (When I first wrote to Elisa about this topic, she replied with an implicit eye roll. “Lemme guess: Long term intimate relationships are good for u!”)
You have perhaps heard, for instance, of Holt-Lunstad’s 2010 meta-analysis showing that a robust social network is as beneficial to an individual’s health as giving up cigarettes. So yes: Relationships really are good for u.
But friendship, generally speaking, is the redheaded stepchild of the social sciences. Romantic relationships, marriage, family—that’s where the real grant money is. They’re a wormy mess of ties that bind, whether by blood, sex, or law, which makes them hotter topics in every sense—more seductive, more fraught.
But this lacuna in the literature is also a little odd, given that most Americans have more friends than they do spouses. And one wonders if, in the near future, this gap in quality scholarship may start to fill.
In a book published in the summer of 2020, Big Friendship, Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, the hosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend, argued that some friendships are so important that we should consider assigning them the same priority we do our romantic partnerships. They certainly view their own friendship this way; when the two of them went through a rough patch, they went so far as to see a therapist together.
I mentioned this to Laura Carstensen. Her first reaction was one of utter bewilderment: “But … it’s the whole idea that friendships are voluntary that makes them positive.”
Practically everyone who studies friendship says this in some form or another: What makes friendship so fragile is also exactly what makes it so special. You have to continually opt in. That you choose it is what gives it its value.
But as American life reconfigures itself, we may find ourselves rethinking whether our spouses and children are the only ones who deserve our binding commitments. When Sow and Friedman went into counseling together in their 30s, Sow was unmarried, which hardly made her unusual. According to a 2020 survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly a quarter of American adults ages 30 to 49 are single—and single here doesn’t just mean unmarried; it means not dating anyone seriously. Neither woman had (or has) children, either, a fact that could of course change, but if it doesn’t, Sow and Friedman would scarcely be alone. Nearly 20 percent of American adults ages 55 to 64 have no children, and 44 percent of current nonparents ages 18 to 49 say they think it’s unlikely they ever will.
“I have been with family sociologists who think it’s crazy to think that friends could replace family when you realize you’re in real trouble,” Carstensen told me. “ Yeah, they say, they’ll bring you soup when you have the flu, but they’re unlikely to care for you when you have dementia. But we could reach a point where close friends do quit their jobs to care for you when you have dementia.”
Friendship is the rare kind of relationship that remains forever available to us as we age. It’s a bulwark against stasis, a potential source of creativity and renewal in lives that otherwise narrow with time.
“I’ve recently built a whole community of people half my age,” says Esther Perel, 63, the psychotherapist and host of the immensely popular podcast Where Should We Begin?, in which she conducts a one-off couples-therapy session with anonymous clients each episode. “It’s the most important shift in my life, friendship-wise. They’re at my dinner table. I have three friends having babies.” These intergenerational friendships, she told me, are one of the unexpected joys of middle age, giving her access to a new vocabulary, a new culture, a new set of mores—at just the moment when the culture seems to have passed her generation by.
When we spoke, Perel was also preparing for her very first couples-therapy session with two friends, suggesting that Sow and Friedman were onto something. “The pandemic has taught us the importance of mass mutual reliance,” Perel said. “Interdependence has to conquer the lonely, individualistic nature of Americans.” As a native of Belgium, Perel has always found this aspect of American life a little baffling, particularly when she was a new mother. “In my culture, you ask a friend to babysit,” she told me. “Here, first you try to hire someone; then you go and ‘impose.’ And I thought: This is warped. This has got to shift.”
Might it now? Finally?
Elisa and Rebecca nurtured each other as if they were family—and often in ways their own families did not. When they met, Elisa was a new mother, and her parents were 3,000 miles away. Rebecca became her proxy parent, coaching her through breastfeeding and keeping her company; she even smelled like Elisa’s mom. “I can’t describe the smell, but it’s YOU, and it’s HER; it’s no cosmetic,” Elisa later wrote in The Wellness Letters, adding,
and your birthdays are adjacent and you are very much like her in some deep, meaningful ways, it seems to me. There is no one I can talk to the way I can talk to her, and to you. Her intelligence is vast and curious and childlike and insatiable and transcendent, like yours.
When they met, Rebecca was still married. While Rebecca’s marriage was falling apart, it was Elisa who threw open her doors and gave Rebecca the run of her downstairs floor, providing a refuge where she could think, agonize, crash. “We were sort of in that thing where you’re like, ‘You’re my savior,’ ” Rebecca told me. “Like, you cling to each other, because you’ve found each other.”
So what, ultimately, undid these two spit sisters?
On one level, it appeared to be a significant difference in philosophy. Namely: how they each thought about depression.
Rebecca struggles with major depression. Elisa has had experiences with the black dog too, going through long spells of trying to bring it to heel. But she hates this word, depression, thinks it decanted of all meaning, and in her view, we have a choice about how to respond to it.
R: When I’m really depressed I feel, and therefore am, at a painful remove from “life” … Even as I was aware that I was doing it all the time, this thing called “being a human being” … it was not what I imagined living to feel like. And I have spent years essentially faking it, just reassuring myself that at least from the outside I look like I’m alive …
E: Jesus Christ, dude, first thought: you must chill. You must CHILL. This is not particularly empathetic, I’m sorry. I just want to get you down on the floor for a while. I want to get you breathing. I want to get you out of your head and into your hips, into your feet. I want to loosen you up. That is all.
To Elisa, women have been sold a false story about the origins of their misery. Everyone talks about brain chemistry. What about trauma? Screwy families? The birth-control pills she took from the time she was 15, the junk food she gorged on as a kid?
E: THE BODY, dude. All I care about is THE BODY. The mind is a fucking joke … Remind me to tell you about the time they prescribed me Zoloft in college after my brother died. Pills for grief! I am endlessly amused by this now.
But pills for grief—that is, in fact, exactly what Rebecca would argue she needed.
Around and around the two went. The way Elisa saw it, Rebecca was using her depression as an excuse for bad choices, bad behavior. What Rebecca read in Elisa’s emails was a reproach, a failure to grasp her pain. “If there’s no such thing as depression,” she wrote in The Wellness Letters, “what is this duck sitting on my head?”
It’s a painfully familiar dynamic in a friendship: One friend says, Get a grip already. And the other one says, I’m trying. Can’t you see I’m trying? Neither party relishes her role.
Eventually, Rebecca started taking medication. And once she did, she pulled away, vanishing for weeks. Elisa had no idea where she’d gone.
E: Well, our dialogue has turned into a monologue, but I am undaunted. Are you unmoved to write to me because your meds have worked so well that you’re now perfectly functional, to the extent that you need not go searching for ways to narrate/make sense of your internal landscape?
Weirdly, this explanation was not far off. When Rebecca eventually did reply, the exchange did not end well. Elisa accused her of never apologizing, including for this moment. She accused Rebecca of political grandstanding in their most recent correspondence, rather than talking about wellness. But Elisa also confessed that perhaps Rebecca happened to be catching her on a bad day—Elisa’s mother had just phoned, and that call had driven her into a rage.
This last point gave Rebecca an opening to share something she’d clearly been wanting to say for a long time: Elisa was forever comparing her to her mother. But Elisa was also forever complaining about her mother, saying that she hated her mother. Her mother was, variously, “sadistic,” “untrustworthy,” and “a monster.” So finally Rebecca said:
In all the ways you’ve spoken about your mother, I don’t recall you ever describing to me the actual things she’s done, what makes you feel so destroyed by her.
To which Elisa replied that this was exactly the manipulative, hurtful type of gaslighting in which her mother would indulge.
It was at this moment that I, the reader, finally realized: This wasn’t just a fight over differences in philosophy.
If our friends become our substitute families, they pay for the failures of our families of origin. Elisa’s was such a mess—a brother long dead, parents long divorced—that her unconscious efforts to re-create it were always going to be fraught. And on some level, both women knew this. Elisa said it outright. When she first wrote in The Wellness Letters that Rebecca smelled like her mother, Elisa mused:
What’s my point? Something about mothers and children, and the unmothered, and human frailty, and imprinting. Something about friendship, which can and should provide support and understanding and company and a different sort of imprinting.
A different sort of imprinting. That’s what many of us, consciously or not, look for in friendships, isn’t it? And in our marriages too, at least if you believe Freud? Improved versions of those who raised us?
“I have no answers about how to ensure only good relationships,” Elisa concluded in one email to Rebecca. “But I guess practice? Trial and error? Revision?”
That really is the question. How do you ensure them?
Back in the 1980s, the Oxford psychologists Michael Argyle and Monika Henderson wrote a seminal paper titled “The Rules of Friendship.” Its six takeaways are obvious, but what the hell, they’re worth restating: In the most stable friendships, people tend to stand up for each other in each other’s absence; trust and confide in each other; support each other emotionally; offer help if it’s required; try to make each other happy; and keep each other up-to-date on positive life developments.
It’s that last one where I’m always falling down. Keeping up contact, ideally embodied contact, though even semi-embodied contact—by voice, over the phone—would probably suffice. Only when reading Elisa and Rebecca in atom-splitting meltdown did I realize just how crucial this habit is. The two women had become theoretical to each other, the sum only of their ideas; their friendship had migrated almost exclusively to the page. “The writing took the place of our real-life relationship,” Elisa told me. “I felt like the writing was the friendship.”
In this way, Elisa and Rebecca were creating the conditions of a pandemic before there even was one. Had anyone read The Wellness Letters in 2019, they could have served as a cautionary tale: Our COVID year of lost embodied contact was not good for friendship. According to a September survey by Pew, 38 percent of Americans now say they feel less close to friends they know well.
The problem is that when it comes to friendship, we are ritual-deficient, nearly devoid of rites that force us together. Emily Langan, a Wheaton College professor of communication, argues that we need them. Friendship anniversaries. Regular road trips. Sunday-night phone calls, annual gatherings at the same rental house, whatever it takes. “We’re not in the habit of elevating the practices of friendship,” she says. “But they should be similar to what we do for other relationships.”
When I consider the people I know with the greatest talent for friendship, I realize that they do just this. They make contact a priority. They jump in their cars. They appear at regular intervals in my inbox. One told me she clicks open her address book every now and then just to check which friends she hasn’t seen in a while—and then immediately makes a date to get together.
Laura Carstensen told me during our chat that good friends are for many people a key source of “unconditional positive regard,” a phrase I keep turning over and over in my mind. (Not hers, I should note—the term was popularized in the 1950s, to describe the ideal therapist-patient relationship. Carstensen had the good sense to repurpose it.) Her observation perfectly echoed something that Benjamin Taylor, the author of the lovely memoir Here We Are, said to me when I asked about his close friendship with Philip Roth. What, I wanted to know, made their relationship work? He thought for so long that I assumed the line had gone dead.
“Philip made me feel that my best self was my real self,” he finally said. “I think that’s what happens when friendships succeed. The person is giving back to you the feelings you wish you could give to yourself. And seeing the person you wish to be in the world.”
I’m not the sampler-making sort. But if I were, I’d sew these words onto one.
Perhaps the best book about friendship I’ve read is The Undoing Project, by Michael Lewis. That might be a strange thing to say, because the book is not, on its face, about friendship at all, but about the birth of behavioral economics. Yet at its heart is the story of an exceptionally complicated relationship between two giants of the field. Amos Tversky was a buffalo of charisma and confidence; Daniel Kahneman was a sparrow of anxiety and neuroticism. The early years of their collaboration, spent at Hebrew University in the late 1960s, were giddy and all-consuming, almost like love. But as their fame grew, a rivalry developed between them, with Tversky ultimately emerging as the better-known of the two men. He was the one who got invited to fancy conferences—without Kahneman. He was the one who got the MacArthur genius grant—not Kahneman. When Kahneman told Tversky that Harvard had asked him to join its faculty, Tversky blurted out, “It’s me they want.” (He was at Stanford at the time; Kahneman, the University of British Columbia.)
“I am very much in his shadow in a way that is not representative of our interaction,” Kahneman told the psychiatrist Miles Shore, who interviewed him and Tversky for a project on creative pairs. “It induces a certain strain. There is envy! It’s just disturbing. I hate the feeling of envy.”
Whenever I mentioned to people that I was working on a story about friendship in midlife, questions about envy invariably followed. It’s an irresistible subject, this thing that Socrates called “the ulcer of the soul.” Paul Bloom, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, told me that many years ago, he taught a seminar at Yale about the seven deadly sins. “Envy,” he said dryly, “was the one sin students never boasted about.”
He’s right. With the exception of envy, all of the deadly sins can be pleasurable in some way. Rage can be righteous; lust can be thrilling; greed gets you all the good toys. But nothing feels good about envy, nor is there any clear way to slake it. You can work out anger with boxing gloves, sate your gluttony by feasting on a cake, boast your way through cocktail hour, or sleep your way through lunch. But envy—what are you to do with that?
Die of it, as the expression goes. No one ever says they’re dying of pride or sloth.
Yet social science has surprisingly little to say about envy in friendship. For that, you need to consult artists, writers, musicians. Gore Vidal complained, “Every time a friend succeeds, something inside me dies”; Morrissey sang “We Hate It When Our Friends Become Successful.” Envy is a ubiquitous theme in literature, spidering its way into characters as wide-ranging as Lenù and Lila, in Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, and pretty much every malevolent neurotic ever conjured by Martin Amis (the apotheosis being Richard Tull, the failed novelist and minor critic of The Information, who smacks his son when his rival lands on the best-seller list).
In the spring 2021 issue of The Yale Review, Jean Garnett, an editor at Little, Brown, wrote a terrific essay about envy and identical twinship that feels just as applicable to friendship. My favorite line, bar none: “I can be a very generous sister—maternal, even—as long as I am winning.”
With those 15 words, she exposes an uncomfortable truth. Many of our relationships are predicated on subtle differences in power. Rebalance the scales, and it’s anyone’s guess if our fragile egos survive. Underneath envy, Garnett notes, is the secret wish to shift those weights back in our favor, which really means the shameful wish to destroy what others have. Or as Vidal also (more or less) said: “It is not enough to succeed; a friend must also fail.”
At this point, pretty much everyone I know has been kicked in the head in some way. We’ve all got our satchel of disappointments to lug around.
But I did feel envy fairly acutely when I was younger—especially when it came to my girlfriends’ appearances and self-confidence. One friend in particular filled me with dread every time I introduced her to a boyfriend. She’s a knockout, turns heads everywhere; she both totally knows this and doesn’t have a clue. I have vivid memories of wandering a museum with her one afternoon and watching men silently trail her, finding all dopey manner of excuses to chat her up.
My tendency in such situations is to turn my role into shtick—I’m the wisecracking Daria, the mordant brunette, the one whose qualities will age well.
I hated pretending I was above it all.
What made this situation survivable was that this friend was—and still is—forever telling me how great I look, even though it’s perfectly apparent in any given situation that she’s Prada and I’m the knockoff on the street vendor’s blanket. Whatever. She means it when she tells me I look great. I love her for saying it, and saying it repeatedly.
In recent years, I have had one friend I could have badly envied. He was my office spouse for almost two decades—the other half of a two-headed vaudeville act now a quarter century old. We bounced every story idea off each other, edited each other, took our book leaves at the same time. Then I got a new job and he went off to work on his second book, which he phoned to tell me one day had been selected by … Oprah.
“You’re kidding!” I said. “That’s fucking amazing.”
Which, of course, it was. This wasn’t a lie.
But in the cramped quarters of my ego, crudely bound together with bubble gum and Popsicle sticks, was it all that fucking amazing?
No. It wasn’t. I wanted, briefly, to die.
Here’s the thing: I don’t allow myself too many silly, Walter Mitty–like fantasies of glory. I’m a pessimist by nature, and anyway, fame has never been my endgame in life.
But I did kinda sorta secretly hope to one day be interviewed from Oprah Winfrey’s yoga nook.
That our friendship hummed along in spite of this bolt of fortune and success in his life had absolutely nothing to do with me and everything to do with him, for the simple reason that he continued to be his vulnerable self. (It turns out that lucky, successful people still have problems, just different ones.) It helped that he never lost sight of my own strengths, either, even if I felt inadequate for a while by comparison. One day, while he was busy crushing it, I glumly confessed that I was miserable in my new job. Then go be awesome somewhere else, he said, as if awesomeness were some essential property of mine, how you’d define me if I were a metal or a stone. I think I started to cry.
It helped, too, that my friend genuinely deserved to be on Oprah. (His name is Bob Kolker, by the way; his book is Hidden Valley Road, and everyone should read it, because it is truly a marvel.)
It’s the almost-ness of envy that kills, as Garnett points out in her essay—the fact that it could have or should have been us. She quotes Aristotle’s Rhetoric : “We envy those who are near us in time, place, age, or reputation … those whose possession of or success in a thing is a reproach to us: these are our neighbors and equals; for it is clear that it is our own fault we have missed the good thing in question.”
And I have no clue what I would have done if Bob hadn’t handled his success with humility and tact. If he’d become monstrously boastful—or, okay, even just a little bit complacent—I honestly think I wouldn’t have been able to cope. Adam Smith noted how essential this restraint is in The Theory of Moral Sentiments. If a suddenly successful person has any judgment, he wrote, that man will be highly attuned to his friends’ envy, “and instead of appearing to be elated with his good fortune, he endeavours, as much as he can, to smother his joy, and keep down that elevation of mind with which his new circumstances naturally inspire him.”
This is, ultimately, what Amos Tversky failed to do with Daniel Kahneman, according to The Undoing Project. Worse, in fact: Tversky refused to address the imbalance in their relationship, which never should have existed in the first place. Kahneman tried, at first, to be philosophical about it. “The spoils of academic success, such as they are—eventually one person gets all of it, or gets a lot of it,” he told Shore, the psychiatrist studying creative pairs. “That’s an unkindness built in. Tversky cannot control this, though I wonder whether he does as much to control it as he should.”
But Kahneman wasn’t wondering, obviously. This was an accusation masquerading as a suspicion. In hindsight, the decisive moment in their friendship—what marked the beginning of the end—came when the two were invited to deliver a couple of lectures at the University of Michigan. At that point, they were working at separate institutions and collaborating far less frequently; the theory they presented that day was one almost entirely of Kahneman’s devising. But the two men still jointly presented it, as was their custom.
After their presentation, Tversky’s old mentor approached them both and asked, with genuine awe, where all those ideas came from. It was the perfect opportunity for Tversky to credit Kahneman—to right the scales, to correct the balance, to pull his friend out from his shadow and briefly into the sun.
Yet Tversky didn’t. “Danny and I don’t talk about these things” was all he said, according to Lewis.
And with that, the reader realizes: Kahneman’s second-class status—in both his own imagination and the public’s—was probably essential to the way Tversky conceived of their partnership. At the very least, it was something Tversky seemed to feel zero need to correct.
Kahneman continued to collaborate with Tversky. But he also took pains to distance himself from this man, with whom he’d once shared a typewriter in a small office in Jerusalem. The ill feelings wouldn’t ease up until Tversky told Kahneman he was dying of cancer in 1996.
So now I’m back to thinking about Nora Ephron’s friends, mourning all those dinners they never had. It’s the dying that does it, always. I started here; I end here (we all end here). It is amazing how the death of someone you love exposes this lie you tell yourself, that there’ll always be time. You can go months or even years without speaking to a dear old friend and feel fine about it, blundering along, living your life. But discover that this same friend is dead, and it’s devastating, even though your day-to-day life hasn’t changed one iota. You’re rudely reminded that this is a capricious, disordered cosmos we live in, one that suddenly has a friend-size hole in it, the air now puckered where this person used to be.
Last spring, an old friend of my friend David died by suicide. David had had no clue his friend was suffering. When David had last seen this man, in September 2020, he’d seemed more or less fine. January 6 had wound him up more than David’s other friends—he’d fulminate volcanically about the insurrection over the phone, practically burying David under mounds of words—but David certainly never interpreted this irritating development as a sign of despair.
But David did notice one curious thing. Before the 2020 election, he had bet this friend $10,000 that Donald Trump would win. David isn’t rich, but he figured the move was the ultimate hedge—if he won, at least he got 10 grand, and if he lost, hey, great, no more Trump. On November 7, when it became official—no more Trump!—David kept waiting for a phone call. It never came. He tried provoking his friend, sending him a check for only $15.99, pointing out that they’d never agreed on a payment schedule.
His friend wrote back a sharp rebuke, saying the bet was serious.
David sent him a check for $10,000.
His friend wordlessly cashed it.
David was stunned. No gloating phone call? Not even a gleeful email, a crowing text? This was a guy who loved winning a good bet.
Nothing. A few months later, he was found dead in a hotel.
The suicide became a kind of reckoning for David, as it would for anyone. Because he’s a well-adjusted, positive sort of fellow, he put his grief to what seemed like constructive use: He wrote an old friend from high school, once his closest friend, the only one who knew exactly how weird their adolescence was. David was blunt with this friend, telling him in his email that a good friend of his had just died by suicide, and there was nothing he could do about it, but he could reach out to those who were still alive, those he’d lost track of, people like him. Would he like to catch up sometime? And reminisce?
David never heard back. Distraught, he contacted someone the two men had in common. It turns out his friend’s life hadn’t worked out the way he’d wanted it to. He didn’t have a partner or kids; his job wasn’t one he was proud of; he lived in a backwater town. Even though David had made it clear he just wanted to talk about the old days, this man, for whatever reason, couldn’t bring himself to pick up the phone.
At which point David was contending with two friendship deaths—one literal, the other metaphorical. “You know what I realized?” he said to me. “At this age, if your romantic life is settled”—and David’s is—“it’s your friends who break your heart. Because they’re who’s left.”
What do you do with friendships that were, and aren’t any longer?
By a certain age, you find the optimal perspective on them, ideally, just as you do with so many of life’s other disappointments. If the heartbreak of midlife is realizing what you’ve lost—that sad inventory of dusty shelves—then the revelation is discovering that you can, with effort, get on with it and start enjoying what you have.
The psychoanalyst Erik Erikson made a point of emphasizing this idea in his stages of psychosocial development. The last one, “integrity versus despair,” is all about “the acceptance of one’s one and only life cycle and of the people who have become significant to it as something that had to be.”
An awfully tidy formulation, admittedly, and easier said than done. But worth striving for nonetheless.
Elisa recently wrote to me that what she misses about Rebecca is “the third thing that came from the two of us. the alchemy of our minds and hearts and (dare i say?) souls in conversation. what she brought out in me and what i brought out in her, and how those things don’t exist without our relationship.”
And maybe this is what many creative partnerships look like—volatile, thrilling, supercharged. Some can’t withstand the intensity, and self-destruct. It’s what happened to Kahneman and Tversky. It’s famously what happens to many bands before they dissolve. It’s what happened to Elisa and Rebecca.
Elisa hopes to now make art of that third thing. To write about it. Rebecca remains close in her mind, if far away in real life.
Of course, as Elisa points out (with a hat-tip to Audre Lorde), all deep friendships generate something outside of themselves, some special and totally other third thing. Whether that thing can be sustained over time becomes the question.
The more hours you’ve put into this chaotic business of living, the more you crave a quieter, more nurturing third thing, I think. This needn’t mean dull. The friends I have now, who’ve come all this distance, who are part of my aging plan, include all kinds of joyous goofballs and originals. There’s loads of open country between enervation and intoxication. It’s just a matter of identifying where to pitch the tent. Finding that just-right patch of ground, you might even say, is half the trick to growing old.
This article appears in the March 2022 print edition with the headline “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart.” When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.