I recently went through a period where I thought a friendship of mine was dying. It didn’t, thankfully, and much of the anxiety I had about it was in my own head. I had never experienced an adult friendship breakup, and I had no idea how to handle it. Did I need to put a fine point on it, to pronounce it as dead? Did we need to have a talk, or could we let it die with the dignity of cowardly silence?
Whether because of a fight, distance, or natural causes, friendship death can be especially painful. Unlike romantic relationships, we don’t expect friendships to have expiration dates. There are no “where are we going?” conversations, no breakup war stories, no vows or pronouncements in front of friends and family. Friendships are what you turn to when you end a romantic relationship; they’re there when you begin a new one. Friendships, it’s understood, are forever. Why wouldn’t they be?
The most painful breakup I’ve ever had wasn’t with a boy.
I was 12, and, at that time, had started rigorous figure skating training. I had been skating since I was 8 years old, but adolescence became the time to up the ante in order to show you were getting better, to prove your parents’ investment was worth it. It’s the age when many figure skaters quit, as the next few years become only more intense. Trying to get to the Olympics may the best argument against libertarian ideals that exists: working hard is no guarantee that you’ll get ahead. It’s a small window to begin with, and only a tiny portion of those of us who desire it may get through that window with some success. And even if you’re a fantastic skater, and all of your dreams do come true, you will likely peak at 16.
Like every figure skater at that age, I had Olympic dreams and the injuries to show for it. During the school year, I trained from 6-9 a.m. on the weekdays, going to school later and making up my assignments on nights and weekends. During the summer, I attended special skating camps that kept me busy for about 6-8 hours a day. These camps included weightlifting, group interval training, ballet classes, coaching sessions, and, finally, if the weather was nice, a swim in the Olympic-sized pool at end the day. I did this five times a week.
My best ice skating friend, Nina*, was the same age as me but had started skating about six months earlier. It was understood that anyone who started before you would perform better than you in competitions. It was only natural, and everyone accepted it. Until you got to the top of the game, the narrowest point of the pyramid, could you expect those age and time differences to even out. But not at our level. Nina was always just a bit ahead of me – a better jumper, taller and stronger, better at dealing with thumps and bruises. She trained hard.
Nina and I took every class together, rolled our eyes at instructors we didn’t like. We had the same coach until my parents wanted to try a new one. We listened to the same music (Paula Abdul was one of our favorites). I made her laugh. We had sleepovers together, lunches together. She was my favorite Marco Polo partner for the pool. Nina was an only child being raised by a single mother, and she was fond of telling me that if she could have a sister, I would be that person. I once worked on a friendship bracelet for her that was so involved it took me two months to complete it. She wore it to competitions.
You get the picture. As with many friendships, ours was based on the fact that we were isolated together, going through a unique experience most others couldn’t comprehend.
Nina was my best friend for two years. Then, in the summer of 1991, right before I turned 13, Nina and I both entered the same competition somewhere outside of Philadelphia. We had competed before – Nina always placing ahead of me, as was the natural way. But unlike those other competitions, I had recently started landing the Axel jump (arguably the hardest jump in figure skating), as well as a few double jumps, and they were incorporated into my program. (Skating, like many sports, relies a good deal on muscle memory and practice. Despite changes in my body, I had started regularly landing jumps I couldn’t before. It felt like an overnight change even though it had taken hours and hours of training. There is definitely something to Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hours theory.) In essence, Nina and I were now on the same level.
We both did OK in the competition. Not great, but not bad. I stumbled once, and she fell on a double jump. I always had nerve issues when it came to competitions; I often couldn’t feel my legs because of how nervous I was. Nina’s nervousness showed in opposite ways: she blustered through her program like a gladiator, as though angry at the ice, often losing track of her own music.
The results were posted on a wall across the rink. She grabbed my hand and we ran over together. We couldn’t see over the heads of the other competitors. But once they cleared, my eyes landed on the middle of list, hoping to find my name. I would never look to the top three – it seemed impossible that my name would be there.
Fourth. I was fourth. Fourth! I was excited – it was my best performance to date at this new, higher level. I looked closer. I wasn’t the only one in fourth place – there was another name there.
“Nina!” I screamed, turning to find her face, “We tied! We tied together for fourth place!”
I don’t know what I expected. Did I expect her to be happy because this was one more thing we could share? Her face was unreadable. She stared at the paper again. “There must be a mistake,” she said. Then she turned away.
That was the last time Nina ever spoke to me.
I quit skating one year later, in 1992, at 13, right before I entered high school. Despite the hand wringing over the decision, it was the right one. My parents were angry, but it was a relief to me. I didn’t have to choose between going to school or skating (many skaters were homeschooled to give them more training time), could stop worrying about injuries, and thought maybe I could have a normal teenage life.
But I never did recover from Nina dumping me. It took me a long time to understand how it could have happened, to understand what I might have done (or not done) to make her hate me. We would see each other at the skating rink every day after that competition, making it painful and embarrassing when our mutual friends asked what had happened. I didn’t know, and saying so turned my cheeks crimson. I didn’t quit skating because of Nina, but the loss of friendship there certainly made the decision easier.
Today, I can understand why a 12-year-old might, under pressure from her mother to perform, cut off a friendship with someone who had caught up with her, skills-wise. She couldn’t afford to be nice to someone who might one day beat her. I understand that now. And if the roles had been switched, perhaps I would have done the same. I’d like to think not, but we were 12, and many 12-year-olds don’t know magnanimity.
But the experience created a blind spot in me. I can’t see how to bring a friendship to a gentle end. Maybe when you’re dumped like that, it’s too painful to think you might have to do it to someone else. Maybe there are no nice breakups, no matter how you view it.
I would love to hear your own friendship breakup stories – what worked, what didn’t, and how you coped.
* Her name wasn’t Nina.