I've posted before about toxic friendships, people that I've "lost" over the course of my changing life.
I can't pinpoint exactly why this thought popped into my head yesterday, but I finally realized something about the most toxic friendship I ever had. Let me see if I can articulate this in a way that makes sense.
E was my best friend in college, and saw me through my first horrible marriage and through the breakup and then through my next serious affaire and that broken engagement, all the way up through my meeting and marrying DH, and us moving West and me getting pregnant. That's when things went awry, pretty much permanently, because she said to me:
Just because you think you have everything you always wanted doesn't mean you're really happy.
Mmmm, yeah. Being accused of being delusional when, for the first time ever, you're in a great relationship, enjoying your work, and just really loving life, is just not going to endear you to a person, especially a person who has made a habit of cutting you down at every possible opportunity. That's the point at which E and I began to drift apart, and we never reconciled.
So now it's more than eight years later and for whatever reason, I finally figured out why things collapsed so completely between the two of us: I had upset the balance of power, so to speak. All the years that we had been friends, I was the screw-up, the one that was struggling with my grades, the one with the low-paying job, the one with major self-esteem problems. She was self-assured, she was brilliant, she studied for a semester in France... she was the one who had it all together, whereas I was pretty much a basket case socially, romantically, financially -- you name it.
So by the time I meet DH, I'm making as much money as she is plus more because I'm consulting on the side. I own my house, and I've had more marriage proposals in one year than she's ever had, period. Then DH and I get married and move and build our own house and I get pregnant, and at this point even E can't continue to deny reality any more: I really do have my act together, and things are great.
But that can't be right, because I was supposed to be the screw-up! E was the one that was successful and all that jazz. She was the type that relied on pushing those around her down, to raise herself up. (Isn't it funny how you don't realize this while it's happening, but looking back it's so obvious?)
So, E did the only thing she could do to sustain our relationship's status quo: she filed me under delusional, but made the mistake of telling me that.
I think there are a lot of people out there like this. We all love to riff off that "Don't hate me because I'm beautiful" commercial, but these people do the opposite: they love us because we're failures in some way, because they feel, by comparison, they look better.
Shortly before E and I fell out, I had the opportunity to go to a Red Sox game with her boyfriend (very uninteresting story as to how that came about, suffice it to say it was all on the up-and-up.) I was left sputtering at one point (about the 4th inning) when he said to me, "You know, I like you a lot more when you're not with E."
It was good that I didn't know what to say, because that made me take the time to think about what he said, and what he could possibly mean by that. It didn't take me long to realize that E brought out the competitive side in me, that we would find ourselves one-upping each other constantly in an effort to be the most witty or smart or something. My immediate reaction was: Ick. I don't want to be that way.
It was such a gift to be told that, under certain circumstances, I was a jerk, but generally I'm a nice person. Kind of like getting smacked up side the head with a really huge bouquet of flowers. The flowers are beautiful, but the smack still hurts. I consoled myself with the realization that it was apparent to E's boyfriend, where the competitiveness came from, that is, not me.
So after that I started watching myself around her, and feeling myself respond to cues she would set up, and buttons of mine she would push -- and I stepped back from that game and stopped playing, because, as I said, Ick.
This is how you realize a friendship is toxic: you don't like how you feel/act around the "friend".
The simple test for whether or not someone is a friend? Do they support you and help you feel good, or do they just suck all the energy out of you to make themselves feel better? Sometimes there's an ebb-and-flow in a friendship, and that's OK, unless or until you sense that the tide has ebbed permanently. After a certain point, it didn't matter that E had been there for me during some of my worst early break-ups; what mattered was that she was never there for me at all by the time we drifted apart -- it had all become about her.
In retrospect, it really cracks me up to realize that I was the screw-up. Nearly nine years later, the only thing I've always wanted that I don't have is my health, and I'm exactly as happy as I think I am.