Right from the start I’m going to go out on a limb and make the statement that friendships are an essential part of the human existence. I haven’t included a list of sources to back up this claim, but I think it’s fairly safe to say that it’s true.
We have this innate need to feel we belong, and it’s through connection with others that we foster this sense of belonging. It’s for this very reason that I would like to suggest there’s much to be gained in maintaining old friendships; even when they’ve become challenging.
Take a quick look around the internet or social media, and you’ll find a plethora of quotes and articles urging you to cut ties with the toxic people in your life, suggesting it’s imperative for your own emotional health.
Taken at face value, this makes a lot of sense, and probably, in most cases, it’s great advice. But what about that friend you’ve had for what seems like forever, but the friendship has gotten a little rocky? Or maybe it feels like a riptide pulling you down.
You used to be inseparable, but now, you just don’t click anymore. You’ve cried your share of tears, and every encounter seems to leave you either hurt or seething. Dark clouds have moved in, and there’s hardly a moment when the seas are calm.
The relationship could be described as toxic.
Is there any value in maintaining it? Or should you chuck your friend from your life and never look back? I think there’s a case to be made for weathering out the storm.
Connection and belonging through a shared story
New friends can be a positive element in our lives. If they’re healthy, they can bring new perspective, and can really help you shake things up, especially if you’ve gotten a little bit stagnant. Plus, new friends are great because they don’t know your back story. They don’t remember all the horrifically embarrassing things you’ve done in your life on your journey to becoming the adult you are today. They haven’t witnessed any of your humiliation. Or at least most of it, because I’m pretty sure I’m not the only one who made some wrong turns and some epically catastrophic errors on my road to the present day.
But, I would like to suggest that this is the very same reason that long-term friendships are worth maintaining.
Sure, it would be great if there was no one who remembered our blunders, but the sharing of those blunders is what gives us deep connection. And it’s deep connection that’s required in order to truly belong. Our shared story, as messy as it might be, is what binds us together.
Historically, virtually every culture created a collective memory through the stories that were passed down. It’s a practice that has largely been lost in our modern society, where we tend to be gathered around a screen passively watching a story that most of the time doesn’t have any root in our history, rather than actively participating in the story telling process.
Perhaps this loss of a collective story is what has created the phenomenon of rampant loneliness in our society. We have all sorts of technology to connect us, and yet we’ve never been more disconnected.
But maybe we can foster a deep and meaningful sense of belonging and connection by maintaining old friendships. Because these old friendships have that shared story. Those friends know where we’ve come from.
Yes, sometimes those friendships get a little broken. Sometimes, it can be hard to remember why you were even friends, and if the friendship is truly toxic, then it isn’t healthy to maintain it, no matter how long your shared history is. But, as long as the friendship started in a positive place, and at the beginning, it was healthy and the entire friendship hasn’t been superficial or mired in manipulation, then maybe it’s worth fighting for.
The ebb and flow of friendship
A friend of mine once suggested to me that the reason people come into our lives, but often don’t stay, is because we either outgrow each other, or they were in our lives for a particular purpose that has been served. When we start having to fight to keep the friendship going, then it’s time to just let it go. It’s pointless to fight the natural course of things.
At the time, I was confiding in her about the hurt I was feeling at the actions of a long-term friend of mine. I felt like I was caught in a hurricane, being battered about by emotional forces I couldn’t get control of. One day I would be absolutely sure that the right thing to do was figure out how to fix the friendship, and then the next day I would be ready to chuck it all in and never speak to her again. Each phase was awash with intense emotions, either positive or negative.
I can certainly see what my friend meant. There are definitely friendships that follow the exact pattern that she described, and we should let them go. But I think at heart, I’m more of an advocate of an ebb and flow approach to friendship. A friend won’t necessarily play a leading role in your life at all stages, but their time will come back around.
Life has a pattern to it, so maybe while you’re busy raising your kids, establishing your career, going to school or with something else that demands all your attention, and your friend is managing their own set of life challenges, you might drift apart for a bit. But, life will change. Your kids will grow up, you’ll make partner or you’ll finish school and life will open up again – you’ll once again have space for that friendship. Life ebbs and flows and so do friendships.
And as life meanders along its path, we change. This change can cause problems in those friendships that used to be so easy. Suddenly, where there was once blue clouds, now you have thunderclouds and torrential rains. Life will change your friend too – sometimes for the better and sometimes not.
Take a moment to evaluate
If I stop and really evaluate my feelings towards my challenging long-term friendship, I can see that it’s worth being battered by a few waves and pelted by some rain because she knows my story. She’s where I belong, and we only have to wait for the stars to come out to navigate our way back to each other.
So before you take the current advice and cut every person from your life who brings moments of negativity, take some time to really evaluate the value of the friendship you are considering terminating. Humans are genetically hardwired for connection. We NEED to belong somewhere. Besides, is it really fair to cut someone out of our life just because they bring challenges? Isn’t love supposed to be unconditional?
I think about the negative impact my struggle with chronic illness has had on my personality. I’m not always sweet smelling roses and sunshine. I get grouchy, over sensitive and rigid, to name just a few of my foibles. What if my husband and my family cut me from their lives to maintain their emotional health? Where would I be?
Of course there are going to times when the right thing to do, for you, is end a friendship, but maybe it shouldn’t be the default action.
There is value in riding it out when a long-term friendship gets stormy. You have common history and a shared story. Both of which are invaluable in establishing a deep connection and a meaningful sense of belonging.
Guest post by Nicole
Nicole lives on the west coast of Canada with her husband and three children. Her personal blog ThisIsAllGoingOn.com is her outlet for her passion for writing and exploring her own life journey of dealing with chronic pain, anxiety and her love of the outdoors. Nicole can be found here: