A Lost Friend Leaves an Empty Chair

Yesterday I went to a lunch for a beloved old friend; he is one of the most important people in my life. I knew his birthday was nearing--83 years old! He had invited three women, all of us in our forties or fifties; each of us adores and worships him and he loves us dearly.

One didn’t show up. I arrived a bit early, only to find my friend looking a bit glum and nonplussed. “She’s not coming,” he said, pointing to an empty chair. “She always does this. Cancels at the last minute.” I made soothing noises, and he smiled wanly. “That’s okay. I haven’t given up on her yet.” However, I noticed he was vexed, and he glanced at the empty chair from time to time throughout the lunch.

(Her behavior, I might add, violates a basic tenant of the Slow Love Life: SHOW UP. I know I have been the one to fail to do so, from time to time, and I realize how important it is to try and do better.)

We went on to a discussion about friends who drop you, and friends you drop because you have given up on them. My friend referred to a line in an Auden poem, to the effect that it was better to be left than to leave. Is that true? I haven’t stopped thinking about it.

One of the more upsetting things about the mid life crisis I write about in my new book, Slow Love, was the realization that people I had thought were loving friends were anything but. This subject has come up again and again in Q&A sessions during my readings. It resonates. Many of us have had the experience of having friends disappear while we were ill, or going through a divorce, or lost in mourning. It is as if people were afraid we might be contagious. Our troubles might spill into their lives. Or, they don’t know what to say, so they avert their eyes, little realizing that a simple line, a quick email, a kind gesture--anything--is better than nothing.

The cases in which friends disappoint are the easy ones: either you discuss, forgive and forget, or you strike a line through the relationship. The calculus--when to let go, when to work through it--is complicated and fraught. The durability of friendship has something to do with how long it has existed, the strength of each person involved, and the quality of the relationship when it was good. You have to make a judgment about balance: was there more bad than good, in the end? And, a frank assessment of the nature of its core. What is the emotional bedrock of the relationship? For instance, in the case of some work friends, I had to face up to the fact that once I no longer had an editorial budget I was no longer important. Hard cheese, as they say. (I love that expression.)

Sometimes you have to get divorced from friends, just like you have to get divorced from spouses. Sometimes that is the more loving thing to do--it means you are protecting yourself, and removing toxic energy from your life. Sometimes you just need a separation, while each person cools, and grows. Some friendships evolve as your life changes; others hit the wall. It is a painful rupture, not entered into lightly. It doesn’t mean the friendship was wrong to begin with--it means it has reached an impasse, or died. It certainly feels like a death; there is an empty space where there once was someone sitting in a chair, chatting and laughing. So be it. We become more cautious about giving our hearts wing, as we get older, because we are aware of the potential for loss, and anticipate its heavy burden.

But then again, we recover. We find new friends. Miraculously, even, we pick up lost, or dormant, friendships--I have recently connected with people who were my closest friends in elementary school, and in high school! What surprising joy--just to be in touch, however sporadically! And we learn not to place impossible demands. We learn to accept what it is our friends can give us, and not expect what they cannot give us. We practice resilience, forbearance, forgiveness--all the qualities that, in their very roots, indicate gifts for other people. We move on. Lovingly, hopefully, treading lightly.

I found the Auden poem I think my birthday friend was referring to--"The More Loving One"; it is beautiful and thought-provoking. My friend clearly interpreted the thought in the last sentence below to mean that it is better to be the one to be left behind, than to have to do the leaving, which to him is a torment. (I read it as more about unrequited love....) As he said, he is not ready to drop his errant guest--he loves her, knows she has a tendency to overcommit, and know that he will bask in her company some other time. But when the weighing up of options begins, one has entered the danger zone.

I’m not sure: sometimes I think it is better to do the leaving. I have read the poem hundreds of times, wondering if I agree, or not. But I am always moved and intrigued. I think I stayed in a painful relationship of unequal affection way too long because I was the more loving one, and it cost me health, happiness and peace. (But that’s another Slow Love story.)

Another couple I know has copied Auden's poem onto a wall of their house, to remind themselves of a necessary quality of cherishment in their relationship--if each of them wants to be the more loving one, there is a chance to overcome any strife. That makes perfect sense to me. Here is the first half:

Looking up at the stars, I know quite well
That, for all they care, I can go to hell,
But on earth indifference is the least
We have to dread from man or beast.

How should we like it were stars to burn
With a passion for us we could not return?
If equal affection cannot be,
Let the more loving one be me.


Pamela Terry and Edward said...

Oh yes, one can think about this lovely poem in so many ways. And no doubt I will, all day.

Perhaps your friend knows that, to be the one to leave, means you must banish love from a portion of your heart, which is almost always a dangerous thing to do, and once done, almost always leaves a scar.

But your point is well taken, sometimes it is a necessity of survival. No one ever said life was easy, did they?

Blue said...

What a fraught word is friendship. People come and go in our lives - one minute friends and the next strangers - and at times one is left wondering what one did or said, or more cruelly, what is lacking in one that the other person previously so loving changes so much.

Luckily, as one ages and experiences this situation more and more. it becomes apparent that friendships are but temporary alliances and that being dropped in a time of need is a constant. The value of it is to know it, own it, and move on the next happy meeting and the next temporary sharing.

Anonymous said...

I used to think that friendship was the purest relationship because it is purely voluntary, then I realised what that said about my idea of other relationships.

ALL relationships are voluntary - we make them up as we go along even if their name is 'marriage', or 'motherhood'. I had categories in my head and thought the living reality had to fit - silly me!

I am much happier with fluid expectations. I huff and puff less.

mary said...

Friendship--equally joyous and opportunities for growth. When a friendship there is always the sadness of an empty chair even when new friends arrive. Thanks for making me think this through.

tuto said...

you are your true friend.
others are gifts
who like the tide come and go

if you are not for yourself
who will be?
if not now when?

from the talmud.


Anonymous said...

It is a tough one.....
I have been on both sides...and never feel very good about any part of it.
I went through a life changing divorce, lost friends, lost job/business, lost my self esteem.
But I am so much better now than before, wait for the miracle.....smiles.

Unknown said...

After I read each of your columns, I think, "Oh, this one is really special--so meaningful." Just want to let you know how much I enjoy, dwell on, and carry away from your writing.

Karena said...

So many poignant thoughts here...friendship can be so rewarding and then so disappointing. When you are going through a rough time, very few people want to hear about it, or are so glad it is not them!

A wonderful poem Dominique.

Art by Karena

Vickie H. said...

A really wonderful, thought provoking piece. Love the Auden poem.
Love your writing.

Anonymous said...

What another lovely piece. I've only recently found your blog and it resonates with me on a number of levels.
Thank you for a thoughtful way to start the day. :-)

William said...

I think it is important to leave friendships from time to time - leave as in run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. Two of my close women friends in the past couple of years were going through divorces that just went on and on - I was being called / emailed / texted 24/7 from both of them with news on how awful theirs husbands were being at that particular moment day in and day out. I was hearing the same stories over and over and over again. It started to drive me insane - literally. I finally reached a point where I had to say to each of them that divorce talk with me was limited to 1 time per week - with a cap of 30 minutes. I told them to use the time wisely and it included all forms of communication - telephone or computer or texting. One fully understood, respected and honored it - and we remain close, great friends. The other just completely ignored my request and continued to go on and on dumping on me 24/7. After 2+ years of hell and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent on legal fees and hearing how awful my original friend, her husband, was treating her suddenly in 48 hours a deal was made - she got millions to stay and she moved back in. Radio silence for 2 weeks - it was bliss for me - then the calls / emails / texts started all over again about what an asshole he was being, etc. I started running and I never looked back. I didn't return the calls or respond to the emails or texts - I made declaration that I was swamped with work and eliminating emails and texts from my life - and it worked!!! She finally stopped calling/emailing/texting and I feel fantastic - liberated - FREE!!!

Reggie Darling said...

This was very good writing, thoughtful, and honest. I once read a quote from Carolyne Roehm, in which she was discussing her divorce from Henry Kravis. Apparently when she broke the news to her mother, her mother said "Well, now you'll learn who your real friends are." Those words were spoken with the wisdom of experience, certainly. I can personally attest to their veracity. Both coming and going. Change in situation, whether in one's love life, health, employment, burnishes us yes; it can also leave scars. It also is a time when our friendships undergo change; some die, some blossom, others go dormant. I have both left and been left; neither is easy. While there is greater resolution for the one who leaves ("I did it!" they proclaim), it can be a lonely path, at least initially, for there is generally greater sympathy for the one who has been left, and what had once been mutual friends in many cases rally round the "wounded" one. It is also a time to sit back and make choices of our own, to test what does and doesn't "work" anymore, including who are friends "really are" as Ms. Roehm's mother perceptively said. Ah, you have served up a strong cup of coffee for this reader's Sunday morning. Thank you for this post, I will think about it and the issues you raise in it, for some time...

Grace said...

I am a woman in my mid 30's and I have learned in the last couple of years the truth about a couple of my friendships. I have known all of my close friends since childhood. Through the years and the miles and now the ocean that has divided me from them for over 5 years, I have cherished them and always made time to nurture our friendships. You mention of friends who disappear while we are going through troubles; I had one friend who simply could not be happy for my successes. Initially, I would excuse her deeper-than-usual sarcastic remarks when I shared my joys with her, thinking that her new role as a mother was somewhat taking a toll on her. Or something. But her words continued to cut deeper. So, after over 25 years of friendship (although not always smooth), and nearly 2 years of being on the receiving end of her stabbing, I cut her out completely. It was a difficult decision and I wondered if I acted too abruptly. Perhaps, I was the one not being a good friend. Time has continued to prove it to be a huge relief. If I feel good about it, then I most certainly can't conclude that it was a bad decision.

I have just recently come upon your blog, and have read each and every post. Although I am of a different generation and I have not been through any of the crises you've shared, your feelings and thoughts resonate with my own experiences. Your writing inspires me and I thoroughly enjoyed Slow Love.

Be well. Keep calm and carry on.

home before dark said...

Many life lessons here that I will take to the garden today and think about. I had to leave a 40 year friendship behind. I had been the one who had been there for her through her two divorces and scaring childhool. I was the one who had the happy marriage. I was the strong one. That was our contract. When I went through my own mourning, I needed the roles to be reversed. She found that role "depressing." I opened my eyes, WIDE OPEN, and saw I had helped create this one-way only friendship. I will never do that again. Solitude offers more in return than that.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Dominique, for opening this topic (and so many more!); and thank you, William, for addressing a situation I have found myself in too many times -- That of being the "best friend" who is on call for every upheaval, 24/7. Now in my 50's, I have gotten clear that life is so very short, and that the mutually loving and caring relationships are the ones to tend, nurture and bask in. There are a great many folks who identify themselves with swirling unendingly in an emotional vortex, and seem to thrive on the attention that the chaos brings. Sometimes, being "the more loving one" can serve as a guilt trap. I am grateful for those friends and loved ones who, in spite of difficulties large and small, have the grace of spirit to be aware that they are a part of a much larger universe than that which immediately surrounds their every breath.

Jasmine Lamb said...

A number of very dear friendships have ended in my life and the losses came with such intense grief and hurt. But eventually I stopped assigning blame of who left who. Although outwardly it may have seemed clear that it went one way or the other, I came to feel strongly the seismic shift that took place under our feet that was beyond anyone's control.

The question shifted for me, to what is it that remains and makes the pain so painful when a connection is lost? And for me, I came to see that it is love. I came to see that however hurt, abandoned, lost I might feel, and how ever much the relationship had disintegrated and may never know its former clothes, I still could meet the essential love I feel for the other person (and this hurt but also deeply healed). Slowly I've come to fear losing friendships a little less, now that I know my love is so indomitable. This doesn't mean I necessarily ever run back into their arms!

We must all keep coming back to our centers—our centers where love is present and also strength and clarity and boundaries.

Thanks for this post.

Marlene G said...

My friend's father who left this earth suddenly at age 59, happy after a tumultuous early life, used to say,
"It's not about what you lose, it's about what you have left." And what you always have left is yourself. When we begin to understand that our good does not come from people or things we can lighten up about "relationships" and just love being loving, without expectation. What joy!
Your blog is a great way to initiate dialogue on subjects that matter. Thanks for including "us" in your work.

Cristina said...

as you say, it's always bad not to show up once promised to do so, but I do find it even worst in this case, due to the age of your friend.
beside affection, there should've been some respect too.

studioJudith said...

Ah, the leaving of friendships & the importance of showing up
Eloquent words which ring true.

I'm delighted to find your blog - and note that we have several friends in common.


Pragya said...

Wonderful writing, I think about this often. Always had a hard time coming to terms with having lost friends when the reason for the loss is not transparent. But you found the perfect poem for it!

I love your blog and will pick up your book on soon!

Nan said...

I remember reading the phrase 'situational friendships' which I think means those people we are friends with at certain points in our lives - for example, women we stand next to on the sidelines watching our children play sports; women who have a baby the same age. The best friendships are those that live through the situations, the ones that are still there when the kids are grown or the job has ended. This was a beautiful posting, and I am so very, very happy you are keeping a blog these days.

pve design said...

Have you read "The Dance" - well life has rhtymns and many tunes, just like friends. Lovely post.

Anonymous said...

You are my hero!

I listened to your interview today on NPR and I tip my hat to you!!

Good luck to you and I can't wait to read your book.

Charmed aka Christi

Janet Dunphy said...

Hello Dominique: I was so pleased to have a few free hours today and had the pleasure to play catch up on your blogs. I also re-read a comment I had written back in April. I was so delighted to see you had commented on my post and your kind words have brought a smile to my face that has not left all afternoon. I feel like I find a prize every time I get to read what you have written. Your gift of sharing yourself with others is a blessing for those of us who read your words. Many blessings to you.
P.s. I did email your publisher my new address. Thank you from the bottom of my grateful heart to your very generous one.
Janet Dunphy
Janet Dunphy

Errant Aesthete said...

With the scars of life come the scars of friendship and yet, it is the impermanence of the latter that never ceases to mystify, astonish, or disappoint.

As I've moved through my life and learned what I have, I am much gentler now with myself in letting things and people come and go as they will. It can be maddening, distracting, and yes, heartbreaking, to try and explain the why of it.

I have found comfort in the notion of the Buddhists who believe we encounter those who we need, to learn what we must, (When the student is ready, the teacher will appear) which is a rather graceful way of parting when it is time - no matter who does the leave taking.

There is wisdom in this passage from Thornton Wilder taken from "The Bridge of San Luis Rey" with the theme of love (or friendship, if you will) at its core:

“Now he discovered that secret from which one never quite recovers, that even in the most perfect love one person loves less profoundly than the other. There may be two equally good, equally gifted, equally beautiful, but there may never be two that love one another equally well.”

Or equally as long, I would add.

Marlene G said...

How is the quantity (more or less) of love measured? I'm not sure it can be.
Love is not arithmetic.

helen tilston said...

Wonderful thought provoking article.I share Christine's comment on the absent friend not "showing up" in honour of the dear 83 year old man.We must treasure our older generation and not impose unnecessary sadness on them. Thanks again

Brenda Pruitt said...

I just stumbled upon you this morning as I drank my cup of coffee and opened my still squinting eyes to the world around me. What joy I have found in your blog! I will be coming back again and again. And that poem has a sense of magic to it. I shall copy it to remember not just the words, but the feeling they gave me.

Jane Flanagan said...

I think it hurts either way. When I've left, I've later worried if I was too cutthroat, too harsh. As my memory of the small hurts fades, I wonder if I was over-reacting.

But, on the flip side, being left leaves one wondering what happened? I suppose I prefer the former because it puts me in the driver's seat. But I worry that I prefer the former because it's easier for me to leave friendships than make them work...

Pretty Lovely said...

You have such a wonderful blog!

I am so glad I have found it...


kansasrose said...

How timely this post is for me...I am doing the leaving. A friend I have had for 40 years has early onset alzheimers at the age of 54. I thought I could be there for her...to the end. There have been times in our 40 years when she suddenly disappeared from me, when I was separated from my husband, suffered very hard pregnancies and miscarriages, depression. She could not stand next to me when I was hurting. I wanted to do the right thing, love her in spite of the pain, the disease that is ravaging her, the non-stop neediness, the embarrasement. I can't...I'm not that strong, or loving, even after 40 years. I feel guilt, remorse, incredible sadness, but I have to let her go now. It's just too painful, all of it. Seeing her waste away, repetaing the same words over and over, being 95 when you are in your prime. I see my own decline and death when I look into her vacant eyes. She has taken too much from me...What does one do? We try to avoid pain like that...I try to dig deep to find the love again, but I can't. I can't bear to watch her die. There were so many plans...so many halcyon summers in our youth, so many adventures we shared! I forgave all of the other stuff in our past, but I have no words for this thing between us. When she was 16, she would hum the Cat Steven's song called Moonshadow over and over...how prophetic. Life is so strange. Thank you for this lovely article...it's been comforting.

Elizabeth said...

Gosh I love this post. I have lost or ended a number of different friendships over the past years, and have spent hours picking my way through the smoldering remains. The questions you pose as we ponder whether it's best to let a friendship go or to repair it are spot-on: there are no easy answers when it comes to this topic, are there?

Susan C Hammond said...

Thank you for your book and this blog. It is a small piece of sanity for me right now. Namaste.

keishua said...

When to stay and when to go in a friendship is hard. there are times when it can be taxing to stay and you may back away. Sometimes, you can ride it out and give each other space. Sometimes, it burns away and leaves the charred remains.

Unknown said...

I love this article and all the subtleness with in it. I have and have had cherished older friends who dearly mourn the empty chair of a friend who did not come. My comment is on leaving friends, and yes, sometimes it is very necessary to leave. I left a toxic friendship one year ago once it became clear this woman's daughter was leading an effort to bully my daughter at their elementary school. While she would wile you with lots of gifts, she would also back stab you verbally any chance she got, and her daughter took her lead and did the same to my daughter. The situation got so bad my daughter was waking up in the middle of the night, crying, writing dark thoughts. When this woman bullied my daughter herself in front of me making her run out of the school in tears, and then had the nerve to go and complain about us to the principle, the situation was at its most toxic ever. I had never encountered and offered friendship to such a manipulative, deceitful person, and I hope I never will do so again. My dear elderly friend Viola told me 'with friend like that who needs enemies.' Perhaps some heart needs to be guarded as one must not live in the naivete that all people seek the same goodness out of a friendship as I did. I am glad to have found Slow Love Life and look forward to more insightful posting!

annie said...

thanks for this beautiful post

mutheu said...

thank you so much for this post. and the comments are all so full of wisdom! it's wonderful. you have really managed to attract a wonderful community "village" of people! the comments were as inspiring as the post and that is powerful stuff! m

Peng SC said...

Dear Miss Browning,
Again you have hit the bull-eye in this article. Mid-life is the time in one's life where issues of relationship, health, life and death seems to rear its ugly head at us. Is it because of the reality that we are nearing half a century old? One thing for sure, whatever our problems are, we will find out who truly stands with us, and sometimes it is not the old friends but it may be new acquaitances. There are times when old friends are more judgmental than newer ones. Yes, we move on in our friendship, but we may have to do the unwarranted that is to discard the cancerous ones. Only to keep those we can grow with.

fraud_bustn_beancounter said...

Where can I find the other "tenets of Slow Love"?

Nan said...

My husband constantly teases me that I have a thousand best friends. Friendship is like a garden that will continue to grow as long as you tend it, even if it is just sporadically. I shared this post with two women in my life that have hit a wall in their friendship and I hope its wisdom allows for them to either grow or let go. Thank you.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Unknown said...

close friends, therefore, play an important role, and the following are some things you would expect from such friends. First, give you joy and pleasure of friendship.

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