the agonies of broken friendships


“A lot of people will be angry and say, ‘How dare they do that to me?’ ‘Why don’t they understand what I need right now? I would do this for them’,” says Cavenett, of clients who have felt betrayed by friends who’ve failed to invite them to a group event, stopped hanging out with them in the wake of a big life change like getting married or having a child, or failed to support them in the way they needed during a difficult time.

Unlike now, broken friendships used to be the focus of serious ethical inquiry among Western philosophers and they provided real guidance to sufferers, says Professor Ruth Abbey, a political theorist at Swinburne University.

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“Cicero says one of the ways in which you can tell a true friend from a flatterer is that [the latter] will flatter you, they’ll make you like them, they’ll never give you a hard and painful truth,” says Abbey. “A [true] friend will do that.” (Capote was a famous flatterer who once wrote a feature in Vogue extolling the virtues of Lee Radziwill, who perennially felt overshadowed by her sister.)

And Friedrich Nietzsche, says Abbey, offered tips – based on his own very personal and painful experience – about how to cope with the agony of losing a great friend. Nietzsche was once close with the composer Richard Wagner.

“The friendship ended because Nietzsche came to realise that Wagner was not the person that Nietzsche thought he was,” says Abbey. “That he was hugely egotistical.” Not to mention an anti-Semite who was sympathetic to German nationalism.

But Nietzsche refused to be bitter or regret his friendship with Wagner. “Let us then believe in our star friendship even if we should be compelled to be earth enemies,” wrote the German philosopher. Even if friends part, he meant, their former relationship is “sacred”. It was once a thing of beauty.

It’s not far off what Cavenett tells her clients who are struggling with friendship breakdown.

“I’ll often describe it as a bit of a dance,” she says, meaning that sometimes a bond with a friend will be strong, and at other times it will wane depending on life’s circumstances or how much each person can give emotionally to the other.

“Friendships ebb and flow. And the likelihood of you having one person that meets all of your needs through all of your different seasons is unlikely,” she says. “Often I encourage people to realise that it’s almost about their capacity to be able to let them [a friend] go when they need to. And allow them to come back when they need to.”

If a friend is hurting you, then it might be time to let them go, she says. “The biggest question I would ask is, ‘Do you feel good when you’re around them? Do they lift you up, make you feel good about yourself?’”

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Asking yourself this early on in a friendship might save you a lot of pain.

“We’re vulnerable every day when we have friendships with people,” says Dr Katie Greenaway, a psychology lecturer at the University of Melbourne who has studied the impact of secrecy on relationships. “We’re always just putting our hearts in other people’s hands.”

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