Feb 14

“Heartbreak”: Love and Friendship Endings

A new book, Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey by Florence Williams, and a recent article, “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart” by Jennifer Senior, are highlighted below.

I. Heartbreak: A Personal and Scientific Journey by Florence Williams

As one book reviewer states, Heartbreak is about “the physicality of loss”—in the author’s case, caused by divorce after a 25-year marriage. “I was shedding weight I didn’t want to lose, barely sleeping, and my pancreas suddenly stopped producing enough insulin,” states Williams. “I was tipping into diabetes. My body felt like it was plugged into a faulty electrical socket” (Los Angeles Times).

What else motivated Williams to delve deeply into the research about this level of heartbreak? What did she find out? From The Atlantic: “I wanted to know why we feel so operatically sad when a romantic attachment dissolves. What I discovered is that love changes us so deeply—at a physiological level—that when it’s lost, we hurt more than if we had never loved at all.”

More info from a Publishers Weekly review excerpt: “She cites studies showing divorce to be a greater health risk than smoking; hears about experiments on monogamous prairie voles, in which those separated from their partners produce more stress hormones; and learns about ‘broken-heart syndrome,’ the symptoms of which are similar to a heart attack.”

Read her NPR interview recap at this link.

II. “It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart” by Jennifer Senior

This article’s subtitle resonates: The older we get, the more we need our friends—and the harder it is to keep them.

Senior admits to undergoing a phenomenon she calls “a Great Pandemic Friendship Reckoning,” which she believes most people have experienced as well. But she’d been interested in this topic pre-COVID too.

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…

Which, she adds, is not even to mention three other biggies: moving, divorce, and death.

The bottom line, of course, is that whether friendships drift apart or come crashing down, hurt and heartbreak are involved. So how can this be prevented?

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.’

Jul 29

“Big Friendship”: Therapy Helps Rough Patches

A new book getting lots of media attention is Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman. In addition to its quality, another probable explanation is their already popular podcast, Call Your Girlfriend.

Sow and Friedman’s “big friendship,” which happens to be long-term, long-distance, and interracial, has hit some rough patches along the way. What is their definition of a big friendship? Friedman, responding to interviewer Lily Herman, Shondaland:

A Big Friendship is a long-term, intimate, committed friendship between two adults. We’re not talking about BFFs on the playground; we’re talking about a long-running relationship that is mutually supportive and is not exclusive. We wanted a term that also didn’t have the superlative word ‘best’ in it because for us, yes, we have this Big Friendship with each other, but we also have Big Friendships individually with other people. We wanted a term that would allow for the reality that we’ve experienced, which is that one of the great things about a friendship like this is that it is not exclusive. And that’s what makes it different from the rather fixed relationships of family or a romantic partner or spouse.

Regarding their decision to seek therapy, Sow states:

We write that it feels extravagant and weird in the book, and I still feel that way about it. I have been in my own individual therapy for over a decade, and I have no problems talking about that. But the experience of going with someone who is not a romantic partner or my family member to therapy is something that we, frankly, just don’t have a lot of models for. I was really made aware that so much of the stigma around therapy is still really prevalent….

It felt weird to them to consider couples therapy—and it wasn’t at all easy to conduct a search or find the right match. As stated to Julie Beck, The Atlantic, “If you do a Google search for therapists for my friendship, it’s not well populated.” Adds Friedman, “There’s no Psychology Today directory for that.”

Although they feel fortunate to have experienced therapy together, they acknowledge that not everyone is able to use this modality. Sow: “We were really privileged to be able to afford it—therapy is expensive and not available to most people in this country, and that is a huge shame. It was a literal financial investment in the well-being of our relationship.”

The authors also interviewed two therapists for the book. Each “felt it was strange that more friends didn’t come to therapy together, given that most of their clients wanted to talk about friendship in some way” (The Guardian).

I can attest to that—while also understanding that most friends don’t even think it’s a thing, this way of attending therapy, friend and friend. But it is, and maybe Big Friendship will help turn a tide. Because for Sow and Friedman, had they not done their joint therapy there could’ve been a dramatically different outcome: Big Friendship Breakup, in other words. (See previous posts on friendship breakups and ex-friends.)

Read an excerpt of the widely acclaimed Big Friendship at this New York Times link.

Jan 18

Friendship Breakups Affect Both Women and Men

Friendship breakups suck.

Because when friendship works, it’s great. Take Amy Poehler‘s viewpoint: “Only hang around people that are positive and make you feel good. Anybody who doesn’t make you feel good kick them to the curb and the earlier you start in your life the better. The minute anybody makes you feel weird and non included or not supported, you know, either beat it or tell them to beat it.”

So when it doesn’t work…well, Amy has spoken. As have such friendship-themed writers as Carlin Flora, Irene S. Levine, and Susanna Sonnenberg–all mentioned in my posts earlier this week—who point their interest not only toward the viable friendships but also the friendship breakups.

Women: Friends No More

In her review of Irene S. Levine’s 2009 Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, psychologist Diana Zuckerman notes: “We don’t expect to marry our elementary school sweethearts, and it is equally rare for our best friends from childhood to be there for us forever.”

Similarly, later-formed friendships don’t always last either. Levine says that the most common cause of friendship breakups has to do with drifting apart. Some of the other reasons are less benign, however.

There are times, for example, that a friend is simply no longer deemed worthy; in fact, your friend may be “toxic”—one of our popular terms du jour. What then?

Feminist psychologists have suggested that a toxic friendship is often one in which a women’s own personal growth and individuation is sacrificed at the expense of the demands of the other person. Sometimes choosing oneself rather than the friendship is important for future personal growth and individuation. But women have a difficult time separating from each other because emotional connection is so highly valued and broken friendships are seen as failures.

In its review, Publishers Weekly summarizes the book:

Levine cites studies indicating that women’s friendships are more intense than men’s, nurtured through shared intimacy and reciprocity. But friendships are not static, she explains—over time, they can wax and wane and end. Levine’s seven stages of grief are loosely reminiscent of the Kübler-Ross grief model, but include new elements: ‘Self Blame,’ ‘Embarrassment and Shame’ and ‘Relief.’ Full of hints for being a consistently thoughtful friend, for resuscitating your closest friendship or knowing when to end it, this book is part etiquette guide, part grief manual. Whether your friendship sputtered because of physical distance or your best friend slept with your boyfriend, Levine deftly assures us that although the pain can be strong, the sorrow will pass.

Men: Friends No More

Last August Men’s Health reported the results of a survey they conducted that found three commonly given reasons for guy friendship breakups:

You don’t have anything in common anymore (34 percent), he’s a bad influence (28 percent), or he did something unforgivable (39 percent). ‘Everybody makes mistakes,’ says Al Bernstein, Ph.D., author of Emotional Vampires. ‘But when those mistakes start happening repeatedly, you have to make some hard decisions.’

Bernstein offers some further advice for the male-friendship-troubled:

  • If you’re the one who’s unhappy, see if you can talk it out with your friend.
  • If that doesn’t work, another option is to detach—then wait to see if he winds up getting the hint. If he does, you’re done.
  • If he doesn’t get it, however, it’s time to directly address the need for the breakup.

One more thing, Bernstein adds: expect some hurt feelings. And that’s on both ends.