Do rough times show you who your real friends are? Laurel Hermanson says it’s not that simple.
I sometimes think my daughter’s third birthday party was the best day of her life. She wanted a pirate theme, so we decorated the backyard and ordered a custom cake in the shape of a parrot. Since it was July, I bought an inflatable pool with a slide and a fountain. She was surrounded by kids and adults who loved her, and she was unselfconsciously delighted to be the center of attention. Her father and I were still living together in a beautiful home, and she had no reason to expect that things would change.
Two months later, my husband and I separated. He moved out and we began the long process of divorce. We shared parenting time equally, and tried to figure out a way to keep the house so Gigi wouldn’t have to move a third time in as many years. I got a great job right away, scored a spot for Gigi in a fantastic daycare, and found a roommate I felt comfortable with. I told myself we would be OK.
The first time my roommate’s bulldog bit my daughter, Andrea said, “No, Boo,” and wagged a finger in his face. It was just a nip on the hand, so I let her halfhearted scolding slide. But the next time, he bit Gigi’s face right next to her eye. I screamed at him, dragged him upstairs, and threw him in Andrea’s room. She and I argued, and she moved out not long afterward.
I kept my great job for a whole month, and was let go right before Thanksgiving. In hindsight, I don’t blame them for firing me. I hadn’t worked in an office in over a decade, and I’d forgotten how to navigate the politics and egos. More importantly, I was under-qualified and didn’t work hard enough to compensate for that, but I was too angry to see it then. I left the building, sat in my car, and cried.
One of the best parts of my life before it began to unravel was my network of friends. My husband and I had moved to Portland without knowing a single person here. It took a while to break through the polite-but-aloof social wall, but we eventually found friends. Most were couples, married or living together, yet these friendships were more than casual—for me. I became close to my girlfriends, and when we all started having kids, our families spent a lot of time together.
I leaned on these women during my separation and divorce. They were compassionate and supportive and there—for a while.
They continued to invite me to parties, but I was now that divorced woman in a room full of couples. At one party, a married man talked to me for so long that I said, “You should go pay attention to your gorgeous wife.” After I left, he and his wife had a very public argument about how much time he had spent “talking to my boobs.”
My friends still included me in girls’ nights out, but I sensed a shift, a discomfort when I talked about my life, that left me feeling alone. Even phone conversations were awkward and I didn’t know why.
Still, I felt lucky to maintain these connections. My ex hadn’t been close to the men (or women) in our circle, and I worried he wouldn’t have enough friends to support him.
Over time, most of my closest friends slipped away, one by one. I felt abandoned. I was hurt, scared, angry. And I blamed them. I told myself that I chose to end an unhappy marriage, which must have made some less-than-happy couples uncomfortable. I wondered if they judged me for disrupting my daughter’s life, for selfishly believing I deserved to be happy and that my kid would be OK. And I suspected they didn’t realize how hard I had tried to salvage my 14-year marriage, that our divorce felt like the biggest failure of my adult life.
It has taken me years to recognize the role I played in the breakdown of my friendships, to see that those women were trying to help me, rather than judging me. I look back on that time and cringe. I was self-absorbed, whiny, and not much fun to be around. That might not have been enough to push them away, but I also made some really poor decisions, and became defensive when anyone questioned me or showed concern.
I was in the middle of a six-month Vicodin addiction, which I suspect didn’t help me keep my job. It did, however, help me stay super thin, which I showed off by wearing tight clothes.
I initiated a couple of long-distance flirtations with men from my past, both married. Not only did I share these interactions with my friends, I subjected them to every detail of every email exchange or phone conversation. Things ended badly, and I talked ad nauseum about that, too.
Finally, I invited a man I hardly knew to move in with my daughter and me because I was terrified of being alone. I convinced myself I loved him, although we had little in common. He was unemployed and broke, but unlike me, he made little effort to change that. He talked too much and had anger issues, so my friends who met him thought he was kind of a dick. We didn’t socialize much.
This went on for a year or so, a year in which I sold my house and moved into a tiny rental that I paid for with the proceeds from the sale of the house, the dream house where Gigi had her perfect birthday. This was when my friends reached out to me the hardest, wondering what I was doing supporting an asshole who spent his days playing World of Warcraft while I tried to figure out ways to make money.
I felt judged and defensive, because I failed to see what my closest friends saw clearly: I was pissing away my time, emotional energy, and money on a relationship even I knew wouldn’t last. They were worried about me and being honest about that, but I didn’t want to hear it. I wasn’t ready to hear it. So I pushed them away with my anger and denial and unwillingness to have a real conversation about what I was doing. There was also a part of me that was ashamed, embarrassed by choices I couldn’t defend, but it was a tiny part that I ignored until I was ready to be honest with myself.
I ended the year-long relationship because I didn’t like how he treated my daughter. He was strict, unforgiving, and angry. I might have put up with him behaving that way toward me, but I couldn’t subject Gigi to his outbursts during such a confusing time in her life. And I was running out of money. I moved the two of us into an even tinier basement apartment in a good school district, thinking about kindergarten in the fall.
By then I had made new friends, mostly mothers I met at Gigi’s daycare. Their presence made my old friends’ increasing absence less conspicuous, and I stopped trying to maintain those old connections. It never occurred to me that my old friends might miss me, that maybe they felt hurt or abandoned or angry that I had given up on them. I was still feeling sorry for myself, and a little self-righteous about not needing them anymore.
There’s a cliché about how you find out who your real friends are when times get rough, but I don’t believe it’s that simple. I had real friends who were there for me, but I couldn’t see them because they were saying things I didn’t want to hear. I miss them more now than I did three years ago, maybe out of guilt, or maybe just because they were good people who I let go.
Laurel Hermanson has been been a freelance writer for more than 10 years and is the author of Soft Landing, a novel.