The best of pals can fall out, never to speak again – and some friendships are only meant for a season. But if you find yourself haunted years later by the loss of a broken friendship, it’s worth trying to fix, writes Karyn Henger.
I was 14 years old when I met Catherine. It was 1985 – the setting, Napier – and we were both finding our feet in high school, trying to break away from our good girl reputations.
She soon became my best friend and I couldn’t tell you who led who astray. We got into loads of trouble together. Catherine was fun, bold, exciting. When we weren’t grounded we shared with one another cigarettes and secrets, poorly written poetry, all our hopes and dreams.
With Catherine I felt invincible, and I was completely drawn to her intuitiveness and intelligence. In 1986, when we were 15, we were involved in a horrific car accident that killed my mum. Catherine almost died too, and I don’t know what I would have done if I had lost them both. The experience brought us closer. I was sad for a long time afterward and leaned on Catherine through that period of grief.
My dad was bipolar and after Mum died it often felt like I looked after him more than he looked after me. Where other people said, “How’s your poor dad?”, Catherine said, “You’re so good and patient with him.”
Later there were boyfriends and break-ups, weddings and divorces, the birth of my first child. Through all of it Catherine was there. She knew and understood me better than anyone.
But then in 2009, after 24 years of sisterhood, we fell out in the most underwhelming of ways. Over email, a final showdown: me upset that she wasn’t stopping over in Auckland to see me during a trip home from the UK to visit her mum, and Catherine annoyed that I was making such a big deal about it.
We had argued before many times. But this time we were both heavily pregnant, stroppy and hormonal, communicating from opposite sides of the world. We made the fatal mistake of saying too much, as can happen when keyboards are involved; I pressed “delete” on her last email and we both pressed “delete” on our friendship.
I didn’t miss her to begin with; I was still angry. But then I gave birth to my son and wasn’t able to tell her. She had her son too, I heard through the grapevine, and didn’t tell me.
The days turned into weeks turned into months turned into years and then a decade had passed with still no reconciliation. Yes, we were stubborn.
I thought about her often and dreamed about her too. The dreams were always the same. The past had been righted and we were best friends again. I always woke up happy from those dreams only to realise, with disappointment, that we were still disconnected.
On reflection, I had been a demanding friend. I had always placed a lot of expectation on her. But I didn’t realise that for a long time, then was too afraid to reach out in case she rejected me.
However, a few weeks into 2020 I was rummaging through my old books, looking for something to read. I hadn’t touched them in years and had no idea what was in the mix. Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit by Jeanette Winterson was the one I picked out, and on opening it I spied on the inside front cover a handwritten message from Catherine. Dated November 10, 1993: “My very best wishes to you,” she had written to me on my 22nd birthday.
It brought a surge of unexpected emotion. Had finding this book been a sign?
If a broken friendship still haunts you years after you fell out it’s probably worth revisiting, psychologist Dr Ruth Jillings gently suggests. But proceed with caution, because your relationship won’t reset to exactly the way it was. And if you cannot bear to be hurt again, it may be wiser to let sleeping dogs lie, she warns.
“You can forgive a person without letting them know,” she offers. “You may ultimately decide you’d rather not have them back in your life. Some people write a letter then burn it. Some perform an act that is symbolic to them.”
But I wanted to make peace with Catherine. I sent her a Facebook message explaining that I had come by her note in the book, thanking her for her friendship and wishing her the very best. When, one month later, I still hadn’t heard from her, I had to resign myself to the fact she didn’t want to know me – and it hurt.
Then out of the blue, on a Wednesday morning in March, a message flashed up on my phone screen. It was from Catherine. “Hello Karyn. It was really lovely to see your message there…” it began.
My heart sang – I can’t even tell you the joy.
Throughout lockdown we wrote to one another regularly and it made the time in isolation so much lovelier. Our reconnection has brought me peace, because I had never found a friend again like Catherine. We haven’t raked over the past. There is no point and neither wants to reopen old wounds.
What I have learned is that Catherine has been ill and I regret that I didn’t know and wasn’t able to support her. She now practises Buddhism and remembering her as I do, this makes perfect sense. Some of the other things she has told me about her life have not surprised me either. We’ve swapped pictures of our sons and Netflix recommendations.
I don’t know when or if I’ll see her again, but for now it’s just great to be in touch. If I hadn’t reached out to Catherine, I would have always regretted it. And if Catherine had not responded I would have been hurt, but I would have at least known I’d tried.
She did though, and I am thankful – because life is infinitely better with Catherine in it.
New Zealand clinical psychologist Dr Ruth Jillings has this advice for anyone wanting to reconnect with a friend or loved one they have fallen out with:
Acknowledge what happened
Think about the incident and how it has made you feel. Allow yourself to grieve, let yourself be hurt and angry. Before you can forgive you need to face the incident head-on.
Think about the role you played
Perhaps you have learned some hard lessons or grown from the incident. Perhaps you now realise you were too quick to judge, too caught up in your own viewpoint, you expected too much. Be willing to apologise for the part you played and make sure you forgive yourself, too.
Consider the other person
Maybe they made a mistake. Maybe they had a lot going on at the time and didn’t have the capacity to support you. Maybe they didn’t mean to hurt you. Maybe they didn’t feel comfortable with what you might have asked of them. See if you can stand in their shoes, things might look different from there.
Make a choice to forgive
Forgiveness is both simpler and more complex that it seems. Simpler in that, in essence, forgiveness is just a choice. Complex because that choice can be difficult to make and then it needs to be made and remade until it sticks.
Be prepared for them to not feel the same way you do
They may not want to reconnect with you, and if this is the case, you must respect their decision.
Then move on
Don’t rake over the grievance, this can cause more harm than good. It can be enough to acknowledge that you both weren’t at your finest and then let bygones be bygones.
The Spinoff Weekly compiles the best stories of the week – an essential guide to modern life in New Zealand, emailed out on Monday evenings.