A Foray into Adult Friendships
Adult friendships are tough. Friendship breakups are even tougher. These topics have been on my mind a lot as of late and they’re complicated ones. I’ve come to realize that every person has a different interpretation of what makes a “good” or “great” friend and while there are some general themes, what makes people compatible in friendship is having similar friendship expectations.
I have always been a quality over quantity person. I prefer to create deep bonds with a few friends rather than have a large number of surface level friendships. Natalie (name has been changed) and I met in the ninth grade. We became close friends over the course of our high school years and this continued into college and adulthood. We played sports together, ran in the same friendship circles, I felt at home in her home, she was my sounding board and saw me through the hardest times of my high school and college years. Natalie was my “ride or die”, my “best” friend, and someone I thought would be in my life for the foreseeable future.
Natalie and I were part of a friend group that started as a group of five and by my mid-college years, this group was reduced to a trio – what I perceived as a very strong trio. The three of us were bridesmaids in my wedding, two years later we were bridesmaids in the second of our trio’s weddings, and in my mind, it was only natural we’d all be bridesmaids in Natalie’s wedding when she got engaged in 2021. I was wrong. In April 2021, at 27 years old and after nearly 15 years of friendship, Natalie reduced our trio to a duo. After a single phone call, we were no longer friends. I went from picturing myself as a bridesmaid spoiling my best friend on her wedding day to no longer being invited to her wedding. To say my entire world was rocked would be an understatement. I couldn’t understand what I’d done wrong or how we had such drastically different perceptions of what our friendship was at that time.
Friendship breakups are awful. The feeling of losing someone who’s been a part of your life for so long and has been there with you through it all is almost indescribable. It is its own unique kind of grief. It’s been 18 months since Natalie ended our friendship and it’s still painful to think about. It gets less so as more time goes on, but I still find myself sad when things remind me of her or memories pop up that involve her – and they probably always will.
This experience forced me to take inventory of all friendships in my life and caused me to doubt them all. I felt like a ginormous idiot and like I had somehow missed the signs of the deterioration of our friendship. I spent a lot of time working through these feelings and it was what led me to understand that I viewed friendship differently than the average person.
Expectations can be a source of joy and fulfillment when they’re being met and conversely, disappointment and resentment when they’re not.
Adult friendships exacerbate this because as we grow older our expectations tend not to change, but the ability to meet those expectations is impacted by other demands in our lives. Ones that may not have existed at the time the friendship was formed or demands that have since changed.
Being forced to reflect on my friendship with Natalie caused me to realize that throughout our entire friendship, Natalie and I had very different expectations for our friendship. We viewed friendships differently. We viewed what it meant to be a good friend differently. When I reflected on the handful of times that Natalie and I had ever fought in our friendship, at its core, it was as a result of a mismatch in expectations. When I reflected on the times that I had been upset with Natalie or had been left feeling like she wasn’t being a good friend, it was because she wasn’t behaving in the way I was taught to believe friends were supposed to behave; the way I expected friends to behave.
I grew up believing that great friendships were based upon loyalty, thoughtfulness, and trust. I was raised to be very thoughtful, to make my friends a priority in my life, and to do the little things for my friends. This looked like remembering their birthdays and celebrating them; remembering big or small life events and sending texts to wish them luck or congratulations; sending flowers when a major life event happened (happy or sad); making plans to hang out; and showing up for them when no one else did. This looked different over the years but as I got older, I came to realize many of the things I did for my friends, including Natalie, weren’t being reciprocated – at least not to the extent that I desired.
Because of the way that I behaved in friendships, I often heard that I was a great friend, which felt good to hear in the moment, but often left me unfulfilled. What I really wanted was a friend that treated me as well as I felt I treated them. That’s not to say I don’t have great friends in my life now or over the years. In fact, I have some wonderful friendships that I cherish deeply.
You can have great friends, appreciate those friends, and still be left feeling unfulfilled.
I realized I had inadvertently created an expectation in my mind that my friends would treat me the exact same way I treated them – after all you’re supposed to treat others the way you want to be treated – but over and over I’d be left disappointed and hurt when they wouldn’t. For most of my life this was chalked up to not having found my “best” friend yet or that the particular friend that had disappointed me just wasn’t a good friend.
What I’ve learned is that a lot of these expectations came from what my love language is and it wasn’t so much about my friendship values but rather how I had been taught to give and receive love. Of the five love languages, mine are acts of service and receiving gifts. It was no wonder that I didn’t feel fulfilled in my friendships.
My expectations based on my love languages were that my friends would reflect the quality of our friendship back to me through acts of service and gift giving i.e. through reciprocating the little things that I did for my friends.
This realization was huge for me, but it did little to help how I felt. Until very recently, I still found myself on a quest for this unicorn of a friend, one that had the same love languages as me. It wasn’t until someone asked me “what if you’ve already found that friendship in your husband?” that it dawned on me.
It’s true, I will gush about my husband to anyone that asks (and even those that don’t!). I’d usually tell them that my husband is my best friend; he and I communicate extremely well; and that he’s my “person”. I had always believed those two categories of relationships were different. You had your friends and then you had your partner, and they weren’t the same person. After all, your girl friends would always be there for you, but guys came and went – ironically, that ended up being the opposite for me.
My husband has been with me for almost as long has Natalie had been and all of this time I hadn’t realized I had my unicorn of a best friend all along.