When Pursuing True Love Means Breaking Up With Your Best Friend

Photographed by Alexandra Gavillet.
Amit tugged on the hem of her skirt and squinted through the windshield as if some easier answer might be scrawled on the sidewalk. It was early spring; the air hung thick with pollen and what we both knew she was about to say.

"I can’t do this with you," she said, and turned to face me. Her voice was tender, but each word spidered cracks all through me. "Every time," she said, "I’ve really believed along with you that this was good, that it was worth trying again." She glanced down at her hands. "I don’t believe that anymore."

I nodded, staring into my lap. I couldn’t look at her.

"I’m scared for you, Peaches," she said, using the pet name she’d given me in graduate school. "I love you, but I can’t watch you do this anymore." Tears plinked onto the thighs of my jeans.

I could tell she wanted to say more, but I couldn’t bear to hear it so I nodded decisively, signaling the end of our conversation. She got out of the car and I watched her walk into her building before I leaned my forehead on the steering wheel and sobbed.

No one writes pop songs about friendship breakups. The pain of a friend’s disapproval is too complex, too unromantic, too real to be anthemic. Though most people who cultivate intimate friendships have known this kind of heartache.

Amit and I were not lovers, but our friendship was intimate in ways none of my romantic relationships had ever been. Over the course of a decade, I’d confided in her as I have few people in my lifetime. I trusted her to see my truth before I could see it for myself. Which made it hurt all the more when she told me that I was making a mistake so big she couldn’t bear to watch it unfold.

My lover was the issue. The year before, we had met at an academic conference and kissed after barely speaking. I went straight home to New York and broke up with my girlfriend. That night, I knocked on Amit’s door in tears, a bag of clothes in one hand, my pit bull’s leash in the other. The three of us slept in her bed for three days. I woke each morning seething with shame and grief, unable to eat. I had ended the best relationship I’d ever had and I was hung up on a total stranger who lived 2,500 miles away. For three days, Amit hugged me and reminded me that I was human. Though I didn't feel it, I trusted Amit. Her words helped me breathe.

An infinite number of romantic comedies tell us this is de rigueur for grown-up female friendships: We fall apart, and our friends reassemble the pieces. But I had never let anyone see my broken pieces — let alone reassemble them. Even in childhood friendships, I had been the confidant rather than the confider; the source of advice and emotional insight, not the recipient. Self-sufficiency was my religion. I’d been raised by a therapist and had practically learned to read on psychology textbooks. I didn’t trust anyone’s counsel but my own.

I was the same in my romantic relationships. I was the lover who loved less, who never lost control, who’d never been broken up with. I was independent, and I did trust my own counsel. But I also suspected a larger truth: I was terrified to rely on anyone for fear of losing them. To be “needy” was my worst fear. I lived to avoid it.

Amit and I met in our first class of grad school. I was a year sober and had recently quit my job as a professional dominatrix to finally pursue my dream of being a writer. She had moved to New York City from Tel Aviv and was learning to write fiction in a new language. We were both a little tender, in the process of drastically changing our lives. The Melissa who first met Amit had recently been humbled by her powerlessness over heroin, and the help she’d needed to overcome it. But I don’t think that’s what made me trust her. Amit understood self-sufficiency and the ways I hid my own humanness.

During the first nine years of our friendship, I moved in and out of love a few times, published my first book, got into the healthiest relationship of my life and then became caretaker to that partner when she was stricken with a chronic illness. Through all of it, Amit was the person in whom I most confided, the person I trusted to call me out when I was buying my own story a little too easily. I'd never showed up on her doorstep in tears, though. Until suddenly, there I was.

As I moved through that breakup, into my new love, something unleashed in me. Whatever resolve or fortitude or repressive power had insulated me from my own neediness evaporated. Finally, I fell apart.

I was the same in my romantic relationships. I was the lover who loved less, who never lost control, who’d never been broken up with.

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New love can sell you on almost any type of reasoning, but reasoning, good or bad, didn’t field my desperate calls when my new lover didn’t answer, or balm the reality that that new lover had a wife. And reasoning didn’t reassure me every that I wasn’t losing my mind. Amit did.

Every day of that entire year, I cried. I stared at my phone throughout dinners with Amit, who listened and listened, who dissected our conflicts for hours on the phone with me. I had been hijacked by a crazed needy imposter of myself. One night, I walked the six blocks between our apartments just for a hug. "Why is this happening to me?" I asked her. She cupped my face in both hands.

"Oh, Peaches," she said, and pulled me in for another hug and spoke over my shoulder. "I think the universe has decided you’re ready to be vulnerable,” she told me. "I know it hurts, but I trust that this is part of your path." But I couldn't trust myself. And I couldn't trust my fickle long distance lover. But I trusted Amit.

When my lover broke up with me for the first time, I called Amit. "I can’t get out of bed," I said. "Yes, you can," she said. When my lover came back to me, Amit assured me that I had been opened up in a way that would make my heart even bigger, more ready for whatever came next. She said this again the second time we broke up, and the third. When I found love letters that my lover had written to another woman, it was Amit I called.

"Just take a breath," Amit said. "Try talking to her." She rightly knew that I wasn’t ready to walk away. Maybe, she knew that I couldn’t. After eighteen months, and yet another ravaging blowout fight, during whose aftermath Amit spent hours listening to me, my lover and I were broken up again.

"I’m really done," I said. This time Amit answered, "I’m scared for your health. You haven’t slept a full night in over a year. It’s dangerous."

"I know," I said. My own stamina baffled me. I had been falling apart for so long I couldn’t remember how a whole body felt. My short-term memory was shot. I had no idea what was going on in Amit’s life, or that of anyone else I loved. To be in crisis is a profoundly self-centered state, one I’d been in for eighteen months. It affected everything. "This is how people in their thirties have strokes." she added. I knew it was true. Whatever hard lesson the universe had in store for me, the leap of intimacy shouldn’t include risking my life.

But a few days later, my lover showed up on my doorstep and I let her in. This time, when I called Amit to talk, she didn’t answer. She texted me to suggest that we meet in person. While the agonized fights and sleepless nights of the love affair all smear together in my memory now, that conversation with Amit in my car is clear.

"Peaches," she said. "I’m scared for you. This is an addiction." She started to cry. "I will be here when it’s over. But I can’t watch you do this to yourself anymore."

I could not end the madness of my relationship and I could not make my friend believe in it. At 10 years clean, I lived in more pain, isolation, and powerlessness than I had with any drug. But I knew — even in that very dark place — love’s success is not contingent on its lasting. I knew that in the most painful and grown-up conflicts, no one is wrong. There is nothing to fight against, and no armor of self-righteousness to protect you. There was nothing for me to do but watch my friend walk away. Whatever our chances of survival, I wasn’t done yet.

An infinite number of romantic comedies tell us this is de rigueur for grown-up female friendships: We fall apart, and our friends reassemble the pieces.

A few months later, my girlfriend moved across the country into my one-bedroom apartment. For two years we had lamented, fought, and blamed the distance for our relentless angst. Finally, we would be together. I think we both understood that it would either be our solution or our final undoing.

It didn’t take long. Hysterical fighting across 2,500 miles is a particular kind of torment: Doing it within a 700-square foot apartment is yet another. Like desire, our fights always had an object —money, jealousy, who had suffered or sacrificed more. But these were straw men ablaze with our deeper, less sayable grievances, namely the ways we had expected to be healed or completed by each other, and how absurdly we had failed.

Ending that relationship was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do, but I finally did it. Two months after she moved in, my girlfriend moved out. When I came home from work that first day to my empty home, I sat on the couch for hours, watching the shadows slide across the floor, filled with loneliness and relief.

Amit and I only lived a few blocks apart. In the beginning of our estrangement, I scanned the sidewalk for her every day. It seemed a small miracle that I never saw her.

Then one evening I stood at the back of a crowded reading and spotted my friend, wobbling on tiptoes to see over people’s heads. She had a new haircut and an old, familiar jacket. My heart ached. I considered leaving, but didn’t. Amit didn’t see me until the reading was over. Across the room, our eyes met and we each gave a small wave. The crowd of our mutual friends jostled us closer, until we faced each other. "Hey Peaches," she said.

We both laughed, at first nervously, then for real. We knew each other too well to look away from our situation. As people elbowed by, we began the process of filling each other in on the things we had missed. I knew it would take time for us to rebuild our friendship, and it did. But the fear that I had lost my friend forever, or that that was even possible, disappeared in those first minutes.

Where Amit and I thought it was time for me to be vulnerable, to risk more of myself in love, we were right and we were wrong. So often we mistake the route for the destination, which is always longer and harder than that of our design.

Often the leads of our lives are disguised as supporting characters. This is how the universe tricks us into learning the unexpected.

My worst fear became real. I risked myself in love and became needy beyond any reckoning. I lost the people I least wanted to lose. But through it, I learned that living through your worst fear is sometimes the best thing that can happen to you. How else can you know the strength of your own heart?

In truly intimate relationships, change is inevitable and disappointment guaranteed. As we grow, our loves must also grow or end. And when we let ourselves be seen, we give our imperfections along with our strengths. The people we love might back away.

Amit and I have not loved each other perfectly. But I know that our love is built upon honesty and resilience, a mutual desire to help the other grow into her best and bravest self. These intentions never promise a love without error or pain, but they do leave room for us to transform, to forgive, and to find each other — changed, but not gone. The people to whom we return after a storm passes are the true loves of our lives: our friends, our families, our own selves; softer, braver, stronger than we were, even in the calm.

Melissa Febos is a writer and essayist who penned the critically acclaimed memoir, Whip Smart, in 2010. Her latest collection, Abandon Me, debuts from Bloomsbury on February 28, 2017.
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