When friendships fray


What happens when your deepest values clash?


By Caitlin Kelly

There are many moments in life that can test, end or even strengthen a friendship — graduation from years of shared classes and experiences, engagement, marriage, divorce, becoming a parent, miscarriage, serious illness, injury or disability.


What is friendship really based on?

What keeps it alive for months or years or even decades — and what causes it to wither and die?

I’m really fortunate to have friendships that have lasted for decades, even through many major life changes on my end: leaving my home city, leaving my home country, getting married and divorced and re-married, getting (early stage, all gone) breast cancer in June 2018.

The people I became friends with in my teens or 20s are people who share my social, professional and ethical values, just as they are now.

They tend to be people who have traveled widely — and not necessarily in luxury or comfort — they’ve worked for an NGO or as a journalist or physician or photographer.

Many have also weathered some tough issues in their lives, like mine — like a mentally-ill sibling or parent or someone who’s alcoholic or abusive.

Many have lived outside their home cities or towns, and most have lived outside their native country, often many times, adapting to new languages, cultures and customs. It has taught them to be open-minded, flexible, aware that there are many ways to work, relate, worship, vote, savor leisure.

They’re really curious about the rest of the world and how it works, or why it doesn’t. The rest of the world can mean anything outside their postal code or zip code — not some tedious, annoying abstraction, but a place as filled with contradictions and joy as our own.

Sometimes, though, a friendship springs to life through the least likely — and such fun! — common interests. On Twitter I became friends with a Berlin-based archeologist because we started tweeting the lyrics to Time Warp (a song from the Rocky Horror Picture Show) at one another.

Other friends share my passion for books or writing or design or antiques or travel.

My oldest friend is a mother of three adult women and lives a very different life from mine and very far away. I have no children and have only met her husband maybe once or twice in decades, thanks to our geographic distance.

But we have deep roots, thank heaven! We met in freshman English class at U of Toronto, rolling our eyes at one another.

We dated two men who were also best friends, both of them faithless shits!

She was my maid-of-honor at my first wedding, when I whispered to her before it started — “Just be my friend if this doesn’t work out.”

It didn’t and she did.

Sometimes friendships end, as our lives diverge or our values shift — or our tolerance for bullshit just finally evaporates.

I had three female friends a decade or so ago I thought, like my earlier Canadian pals, were likely to remain my friends for many more years to come. They were not.

Weary of biting my tongue, I confronted all three of them, as politely as I knew how, asking them to examine their privilege and be more sensitive to the difference between their income level (never enough for them!) and my own. Two chose to end the friendship instead.

A third married a man whose values just appalled me, boasting to me about his enormous income as a corporate executive — while making my friend work non-stop through chemo for her breast cancer.

I didn’t want to be a part of their lives any longer, and vice versa.

One friend, who was really supportive of me through a work crisis in 2014-2015, was weird when I got breast cancer and said some really stupid things. When you’ve gotten a cancer diagnosis, even the least threatening, everything changes forever.

Like every relationship, a truly intimate friendship allows enough room for disagreement, conflict and, ideally, resolution. Over time, we reveal our tenderest bits to one another, confident those soft spots will be met kindly and with respect.

It was decades before one friend of mine even knew I had/have a half-brother. It wasn’t a subject I wanted to discuss.

I’m watching my friendships carefully now, since it’s been more than three months since I’ve seen most of them face to face as we continue to isolate due to this pandemic.

It’s a time of real reflection and re-assessment.


Have you had, and lost, friends?

Did you ever reconcile — or just move on?



14 thoughts on “When friendships fray

  1. JosephineKarianjahi

    Good morning from Dusseldorf!

    Thanks for sharing this. I wanted to reply, rather than comment because for me, friendship runs very personal to my life stages. I am in my early 30s, and just learning that my mother was right, friendship is a two way street. That friends who do not purchase building supplies and become willing to build towards mutual friendship will not be long term friends.

    I appreciate your perspective as a long time reader for almost 10 years of your blog, which always is smart and surprising.

    Warmly, Josephine


    1. Thank you! It’s such an honor to have a reader like you stay so long. That means a lot to me.

      Your mom is right! It took me a long time, with that 3rd friend I lost, to see how much work I was doing and how relatively unreciprocated that friendship was, or had become.

      I know we can also just outgrow a friend, and vice versa, but I really value decades of intimacy — as our friends also carry our history as we do theirs.

  2. JosephineKarianjahi

    A pleasure to keep reading!

    I like the fact that in a lifetime of change friends for the long-term are people who can carry your story.

    To friendship in every shape or form

      1. JosephineKarianjahi

        Family is complex, as you have written about over the years. Friends who become like family are priceless companions

    1. Catherine

      Interesting read, I have lots of friends, through work, family etc and I know I am lucky. But I was/am part of a circle of 5 friends, I was the latecomer, at aged six. We grew together through school, both primary, through secondary, work and marriage. Not seeing some or all for years at a time but distance/time never an issue. Twenty years ago I moved with my family to a nicer area, closer to one of them than the others,and we started going out separately to the others on evenings. I was totally oblivious to the fact that I was being used as a decoy for her numerous affairs, for which, when she was eventually found out, tried to implicate my husband and one of the other girls husband’s. Her reason? She was a sex addict. I thought I had been kicked in the stomach, at the same time as the rug was being pulled from under my feet. Never doubted my OH, he is solid as a rock. Turns out she was also having an affair with her brother in law, go figure…she only has her sister as family. This had the potential to wreck my family, her said sister was my boys child minder. Took me a year to get over this whole fiasco but I realised the other girls were there, protecting my back. We are now a group of four we have all been through much in the years, cancers, widowhood, all sorts but I know I just pick up the phone and they will be here. 54 years of friendship…I am blessed.

      1. Wow….just….wow.

        Thanks for sharing this.

        The 3rd ex-friend I mentioned, who married “well” had kept some secrets from me as well — and they weren’t as explosive s yours, but REALLY pissed me off. She lied to me about her massive student debt (by 40%) and when I visited and stayed w her sister in a distant city (we were that close) she told me this woman had been reneging on her student loans (despite making 4x the sister’s blue collar salary) because the sister had co-signed for them.

        Not cool. I lost a huge amount of respect for her and then she married a guy who clearly felt I was beneath him.

  3. this is something i’ve dealt with and pondered myself. i have my first friend, who i met when i was 4, and lost touch with over the years as she married and moved to california. we reconnected a few years ago on facebook and have caught up. when my youngest daughter was traveling with her family in california, they actually had the chance to meet, and i love that there was the circle of connection. over the years, i’ve noticed some friendships are circumstance-based – work, a project, a school, a class, and while some of those last over time, most do not. some people just connect in a very real way and others are just for a time in your life. currently, i have a small group of good friends in a variety of places, and i recently had to step back from one, due to her views on things like race and politics, that seem cruel to me, and with the other, we get along well, but i see myself as always being the one to reach out and that gets old after a while, so i’ve stepped back. it’s hard to do this, but life is short and why spend time and energy with people who don’t use the energy to make time or be open to ideas? like you, my circle of friends are family to me and very important and i value them. the family i’ve created with children and grandchildren are really all that connect to me by blood and i appreciate all of them.

    1. It’s great — sometimes — to reconnect.

      I did this with someone from very early childhood but the things that made me stop being friends then were still evident decades later. That was difficult.

      I don’t get to see my Canadian friends often (and now not at all!) but they have seen me through most of my life (I lived there ages 5-30). Several have been very protective of me, one only letting down his guard and being warm to my husband only after we married!

  4. In the midst of this deadly pandemic, the race riots in the USA and the attendant deaths, not to mention a severe economic recession from both, a friend of mine flew back to Paris from NYC on Air France. Her sole preoccupation? She was going to lodge a formal complaint with Air France. Why? Because she was not served breakfast on the plane. Right then and there, I said I had to go and I hung up the phone.

    After reflection, it occurred to me that despite the many years we’ve known one another, she never asks how I am or how my friends are, or how’s my job, my book project, or my life in general. As for my blog, she still remains baffled as to the point of having a blog if it doesn’t bring in money.

    There are people who give, and people who don’t give at all. In fact, they don’t even take. They neither give or take. They just live in an egocentric, self-involved, very limited world caring only about themselves and their own needs. Life’s too short. I’ve cut this “friend” out of my life.

    Yup, the COVID lockdown has given us the time to re-evalute and examine our lives, to pare down to the essential. That’s a good thing!

    1. Sorry to read this — but these epiphanies are useful, a good time to “clean house” emotionally.

      We all grow (up) and change and it can take a while to realize when someone really is NOT a friend, even after knowing them a long time and having lots of shared history.

      It took me a long time to see how lopsided my 3rd friendship lost really was. My husband speculated that, after she married “up” financially and socially, it was quite likely she was scared I would dish the dirt on her/our wild past…as if!

  5. Mil brat life sort of taught me that most friendships are transient and that’s okay. My two best friends I’ve had for literally twenty years and most others have grown and faded in natural and graceful ways. The only real friendship cut off I can think of was a girl in middle school who I went from seeing and hanging out with every day to calling me a cultist on a school bus and deciding I couldn’t be “saved.” So…

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