How do you tell when a friend is gone? When do you know they just don’t care about you anymore? How and when do you stop trying and decide it’s time to let go?
There are so many signs, but how many will it take?
Is it when they stop replying to your attempts at online interaction? You keep doing your best to start some topical chatter, maybe based on something they posted on Facebook; or maybe you drop your best conversation starter into the text box, only to be greeted with… nothing. You leave attempts at witty comments on their statuses, but never get acknowledged. You send videos and music that you’re sure they’d love, but all you get in return is radio silence. The quiet seems ear-shatteringly loud, yet you keep on trying, scrabbling for contact. You can’t let it go just yet; you’ve worked so hard to keep it! Why won’t they come through? They’re probably just busy, you say. Keep trying. They’ll be back soon.
Is it when the deeply personal and fascinating face-to-face conversations you used to have turn into five minute general life updates, occurring only when they just happen to be stuck in your vicinity with no obvious escape route? You end up wondering where all the vigour of previous discussions disappeared to, and long desperately for its return. Are they staying to talk because they want to, or because they have no alternative? You analyse the look on their face: was that an expression of interest, or an impressive attempt to hide sheer contempt? Were they only talking to you because they wanted to be polite, or to avoid a scene? Did they only acknowledge you for the sake of their career? They say you should never burn a bridge, but you thought you were their friend, not a piece of professional infrastructure. Don’t you mean anything to them?
How long does it take to recognise your own tactics in their silence? You start to remember those people from high school, old co-workers or dodgy former housemates you hid from your social media feeds long ago and wonder if they ever noticed your quiet departure from their lives. They were more persistent than you, and you were softer in your rejection; you accepted their “friend” requests and let them believe you were listening to their inane and poorly spelled musings on the world, pretending to soak up their wedding and baby photos. But this is different: you are becoming more and more certain that there is nobody on the other end, where there used to be someone you could turn to reliably for comfort. They weren’t just someone whose name you vaguely remember from a conference, gig or graduation ceremony. You care about them. You showed them your true self. How could they be repaying you with nothing when you have given them so much, and kept so many of their secrets?
Then it comes, the realisation that perhaps you are just being a pest, an irritation, a creep. You start to become afraid that you’re impeding on their personal space, harassing them, overstepping a mark that you didn’t even realise was there. You want desperately to make contact, but find yourself certain that you’ll just smother them with your attention. You count days and weeks between attempts at contact and toss and turn over the thought of a friendly message, phone call or letter. The urge to get in touch is overwhelming, wanting to know what they’re up to and how they’re going and what they think of the latest episode of Game of Thrones or Doctor Who, but you’re certain that you’ll just annoy them. Give them time, give them space, you think. Surely you can wait a little longer? (You can’t. You’ll crack soon enough, only to be greeted by more silence, which in turn makes you anxious that you’re pestering them, rinse and repeat.)
You’ll be suspicious that they’re trying to shake you off their back, but you’ll never know for sure. Don’t expect them to tell you that they’ve had enough, no matter how many times you run over the scenario in your head. It won’t happen. Nobody is ever brave enough to tell the friends they are leaving behind what they need to hear. Half they time they don’t realise what they’ve done until it’s too late, and you’re nothing more than an afterthought on a rainy afternoon. (You know it’s true – you’re just as guilty as they are.)
I let a friend go months ago, but that was different. I wanted to escape from the way I was letting our relationship hurt me, creating a self-fulfilling prophecy of spectacular catastrophe, simply by believing it was the only logical outcome. There could have been other possibilities, but the continuing expectation of inevitable disaster and my woe at that circumstance meant that they were all ruled out. I did end up running, and cutting hard and fast, until there I was: lost, without one of the best friendships I’d made in months. I chose to fling it away rather than let it fade, but the latter was always going to be what actually happened.
I tried to patch it up, and it worked for a while. We hung out and we drank and we talked, and then it stopped. One by one, I ticked off the symptoms, and the denial ran deep. I fretted, I got frustrated and I felt awful, knowing all my efforts were getting me nowhere. The cycle had started. The silence is deafening.
Whether he knows it or not, my friend has called off the game. We’re not pals any more; we’re just acquaintances, barely connected by distant shadows of care and shared history. We know each other, that’s all. It’s nice, but it’s also unreliable. You need to be able to rely on friends, and thus we no longer are.
And so I come back to my first question: how do you tell when you’ve lost a friend?
The answer is simple: you will know when you become tired, when the effort outweighs the reward and you are left wondering why you’re trying any more. The card to end the friendship is in their hand, but once it’s played, you will know, no matter how many months or years of denial it takes before you acknowledge it, no longer able to ignore the ache in your head and your heart and everything in between. Maybe they’ll come back to you, but for now you have to accept the loss for what it is. It will hurt like hell, but you will both be free, and that freedom is the best parting gift you can give, both to yourself and to the one you have left behind.