A new friend of mine recently told me a story about an old friend of hers. I use the term “friend” advisedly here because friendship is what this story is all about.
Ellen was asked by her school chum Cassandra to babysit her child so that Cassandra could nip off to a networking work function. She said she would be back no later than 4pm. In the event, Cassandra didn’t turn up until near midnight, having sent Ellen just one text message advising of her changed plans. Cassandra’s little boy missed Mummy, forcing Ellen to both manage and “cover up” for what she felt was a serious case of bad mothering.
When Ellen asked for the favour to be returned in kind, Cassandra agreed, then welshed on the deal. Ellen arrived to find her little girl in the care of Cassandra’s hubby, when Ellen had specifically requested that the child be minded by Cassandra herself. “That’s it,” Ellen shouted at her old friend. “You and I are through!” And so things have stood, though now Ellen has doubts. Was she too hasty? Harsh? Or was she right to have taken a stand?
Ending a long-standing friendship is hard to do. The reason why lies at the heart of what we understand friendship to be – a do-or-die, through-thick-and-thin pledge to another person. As our faith in the perpetual nature of romantic partnerships declines, a forever dedication to our mates has arisen to take its place.
But if fidelity is part of the modern definition of friendship, then dumping a friend can be seen to reflect poorly not just on the Cassandras of the world but the Ellens, too. I understand how we got to a place where preserving old friendships feels like a moral duty. We got there because however much we exalt the choice and contingency that defines modern romantic relationships (we marry for love and, if dissatisfied with our choice, pull the plug and try again), it also makes us nervous.
In the old days, everything was decided for us – work, who we would marry, the community in which we’d come of age, raise children and die. Gossip was rife, jobs were for life and divorce as rare as the social isolation that these days can be the consequence of constant job, house and partner upgrades.
Inventing your life day after day offers significant upsides (doing what you want, where you want and with whom you want) but also downside risks (wrong choices can leave you unemployable, isolated and alone). Into the breach comes an increasingly non-contingent definition of friend. A person to whom one owes a secure loyalty, not one contingent on the failure of someone smarter, richer or funnier to come along.
Despite this, there are circumstances where we are right to kiss an old friend goodbye. If a friend abuses your trust and takes advantage of you, they are not really a friend. Loyalty without limits sets the stage for abuse and becomes a destructive feature of a person’s moral psyche, not a virtuous one. Ellen needs to set limits on the friendship and explain these to Cassandra, as well as the consequences of their being overstepped. Cassandra’s response will speak volumes about the value she puts on the friendship.
When a friend in need oversteps the mark The Sun Herald (Sydney)