Monday, November 22, 2010

Center of Attention (or Chicago)

I recently lost an old friend. I don’t mean he died. I mean he chose to end our friendship.

I would be visiting his town on business and wanted to catch up with him as it had been nearly eight years since we’d seen each other. During that time we’d kept a friendly but loose connection. He’d married, as had I, and the fact that we’d once dated never seemed to be a barrier to friendship.

While ours hadn’t been a very long relationship, he’d helped me through a pivotal point in my adult life and when we split it was with the understanding that we respected and cared deeply for each other and always would. It just wasn’t a love match. There had been lots of post-mortem talking and responsibility-taking and the air between us was well cleared for a healthy friendship. Or so I thought.

As my trip approached, he became vague about when and where he could meet up. I got to town and discovered my work schedule was more demanding than I thought. I also discovered I had no transport and asked if he could come to me. When the times I offered didn’t seem to gel with his schedule, he seemed to shrug it off: oh well, maybe next decade.

I was sad. It felt like seeing me didn’t matter to him enough to go out of his way. I regularly went out of my way to catch up with friends visiting from out of town, rearranging work or home schedules, so it hadn’t seemed like that outrageous of a request to me. That’s what friends do, isn’t it?

I stewed for a minute and decided I needed to tell him how hurt and disappointed I was. I realize this could come as a shock or challenge to some guys, but not this one. He is a great communicator, well-trained in feelings, personal responsibility and the like. Of all people, surely he’d hear the friendship behind my message. Instead, he snapped. He accused me of not respecting his time or family, confusingly of ‘playing the same shit games’ I allegedly played when we were together. He sneered that since I was all about being an independent woman I didn’t need to play helpless; I could figure out how to work around his schedule and come to him. And finally he spat that he was sick of me needing to be the center of his attention. He then unfriended me online and cut off all communication. It was a complete blindside from an evolved guy who’s great at communicating about feelings – from a friend. I was shocked.

It felt like I’d been punched in the stomach and my first thought as I fought my shaking hands was “it’s not safe to communicate upset feelings.” That’s a horrid, bottled-up, WASPy place to be. Did he really think of our relationship in the horrible terms he spewed at me? That by asking him to take time to catch up during my visit I was playing “the same old shit game?” What shit game? I wondered. Why had he never talked to me about this during all our post-relationship time as friends? Had he been holding on to these resentments all these years while I thought we were all clear? This probably saddened me most, knowing that there were still issues from our time together that he still carried with him and to which I was oblivious.

He could have a grain of truth with the independent thing: I am strong and in control at home, true, but when I travel I tend to revert to wanting my hand held if someone I know is around to help. Does being independent mean you can never ask for help?

It was his final comment about the need to be center of attention that resonated with me most. Since we talked maybe once a year, he clearly couldn’t have been referring to the ongoing nature of our friendship. While I hadn’t expected to be center of his attention here – maybe off to the side while I met his wife and kid, sure, part of his attention but not center - it had made me think that that was where he felt said ‘shit games’ were.

I’m aware of a preference for the spotlight. I mean I’m a Leo so there’s that and then obviously I believe my thoughts and beliefs deserve some modicum of attention or I wouldn’t bother writing this blog. It also wasn’t the first time a need to be center of attention came up in the context of relationships. I had been left by a college boyfriend after the same accusation. The same boyfriend had previously run to my dorm room daily and was annoyed when I had to shift my attention from him to go to class or to my shift at the radio station.

More recently, I had dumped a boyfriend for cheating on me – not as soon as I should have either. But what had hurt most, I reflected, was that I had lost my spot as center of his attention. He’d been ultra-devoted when we’d started dating yet after a few months it seemed I was sharing his attention with several prospects. I couldn’t live with that or forgive it.

I had in fact started dating this now-former friend in question after being particularly neglected by a self-absorbed boyfriend. In a period of unsure direction in his life, he had been devoted to me. In the end we saw that we came from worlds that were too different and had life goals too divergent to make a go of it but it had been a restorative relationship for me while we were in it. I had felt like the center of his attention. Now it seemed he regretted that.

As the shaking and pain subsided, I realized it wasn’t me. To actually end a friendship over a travel mix-up and an honest, open communication of feelings was a tad rash; especially for a fairly evolved adult with above-average communication skills. There had to be more to it.

I checked myself with friends and family – was I out of line? I got the same response from several parties: first, that one does go out of one’s way when a friend visits from out of town, and second, that there was something deeper that was triggering his anger, and it was most likely issues with his wife with whom he’d had issues over the years. Since she was one female it would have been more costly to lash out at, I got the shit-storm dumped on me. Disappointing to be sure but oddly comforting.

Upon first read of the vitriolic message I’d panicked that this need of mine was a bad thing, a character flaw. But then I thought again. I do expect to be center of attention to the man I am in a relationship with. I unapologetically think that’s how it should be. I’d hope said man also focuses on a satisfying career, old and new friends, and other interests, but as far as women go, yes, I have no problem admitting I need to be center of that realm of his attention.

When my husband and I first started dating, he went back and read my entire blog, cover to cover as it were. I was touched and honored. Here was a guy who was making me his focus, trying to learn all he could about me and understand the ways in which we might fit together, where my weaknesses were, when I would need my hand held. In turn, I made him the center of my attention.

But that’s serious partnership. I certainly did not have that same level of expectation regarding meeting up with my now-former friend in his town. I just wanted the attention it takes to catch up with someone over a beer and would have gladly given him the same in return. I’m sorry to have lost a friend over a long-ago frustration with me that could have been worked out in conversation. I know at the end of the day it wasn’t about me but whatever else he has going on with his family. Perhaps one day he’ll see that and reopen the lines of friendship.

I responded to his spew-mail saying that if this really was it, I wanted to end by thanking him for who he’d been for my life, pointing out some key contributions he’d made to who I am, and wishing him well. I felt relief that I’d walked away with positivity mixed with sadness knowing I may never see or hear from him again. I don’t agree with his choice but I can’t control it. And that, I think, is the hardest lesson of all.

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Blogger Andrew G. Carson said...

I went through a strange set of circumstances myself recently that led to me loosing a close friend albeit a friend I had never met in persononly online. It was a combination of a error in judgement by my then girlfriend and a misunderstanding of the situation by another blogger led to the end of a cherished online friendship and my alcohol fuelled attempt to check out so to speak. Loosing a friend is always painful but if it’s any consolation I would guess that the anger in his message was not aimed towards you as you were not out of line at all, when a friend visits from out of town it’s kinda expected for the person they are visiting to make some sort of effort to allocate time to meet up with them.

4:34 PM  

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