Ask Polly: Why Won’t My Former Friends Forgive Me?

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Photo: Niceta Filippi/EyeEm/Getty Images

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Hi Polly,

At the beginning of freshman year of college, I became best friends with my roommate and her friend whom she’d met at freshman orientation. I’ll call them Abby and Brennan, respectively. I’d never had that kind of friendship before, with easy banter, similar personalities, common interests, secrets divulged cautiously and carefully. I thought, Finally, I’ve arrived. All the things people had promised me about college and finding your tribe were true.

A couple months into the semester, I met a man eight years my senior who was in his last year at our university. At the time, I was stuck in a cycle of self-sabotage and low self-esteem. This man was a mentally ill alcoholic, and looking back, I berate myself for not seeing that I couldn’t change him and that he was toxic (he’s now in a maximum-security prison, serving a five-year sentence for a felony stalking charge). But I was dealing with my own mental-health demons, and I believed only someone as damaged and broken as I was could love me.

Abby had an emotionally abusive alcoholic father, and she recognized my boyfriend for what he was. She tried to warn me and stage an intervention of sorts, but I rebuffed her. I spent more and more time with him, and my friendship with her grew strained and soured. At the end of the year, I moved in with the boyfriend rather than room with Abby and Brennan, as we’d once planned. It was a terrible decision — I hurt them and chose a horrible man over their friendship. I betrayed their trust. I was a shitty friend, and they deserved better.

As you might imagine, the relationship with the boyfriend became increasingly emotionally abusive. I walked away from it almost friendless, hating myself. Meeting Brennan for lunch was the catalyst for me to leave. I’d reached out to her, and she’d agreed to meet me. She was polite but civil. She said she was doing it as a favor to me — she thought that perhaps I was having some sort of personal crisis like a pregnancy scare. She made clear the door was very firmly closed on repairing our friendship. I went back to my car, cried, called my parents (who, thank God, forgave me and helped me leave him), and began extricating myself from the tangled mess of our relationship.

A few months later, I emailed Abby, saying I’d left him, and apologized for hurting her so deeply. Maybe I was selfish for reopening her wounds and asking for absolution that I didn’t deserve. She replied and said that while she was glad I’d left such a harmful relationship, there was no going back. I’d caused too much pain and done enough damage already. She asked me not to contact her again. I didn’t.

Not long after, I met someone else. He got a job at a coffee shop. After his first day, he told me that Brennan worked there, too. She wound up telling him about that email and how inappropriate it was that I’d contacted Abby. I was so ashamed and embarrassed and a little angry that she’d discussed it with him, but after all, who was I to ask that she not hurt me by telling someone about it?

Fast forward a few years. I have moved to NYC and rebuilt my life. I now have a loving relationship with my boyfriend of three and a half years. I have a small but supportive circle of friends and have found a community here. I’m looking toward the future — talking about getting engaged, moving forward with my graduate degree, considering pursuing a Ph.D. But I still have recurring dreams where I’m 20 years old and ask for and miraculously receive their forgiveness. We room together and make up for lost time.

Brennan recently followed me on Instagram. I looked at some of her posts and in the comments saw that she and Abby are still friends. Their comments reminded me of the jokes we’d passed back and forth so easily back then, so much so that I wished I could have jumped in and joined. For some reason, I cannot let go — I see on Facebook all the people who are still best friends with people they met freshman year. I foolishly traded that away for a boy. I forfeited that college experience in an impetuous, shortsighted decision. And I can’t forgive myself for how quickly I gave them up.

I don’t want to contact them or disturb what should now be long buried and at rest. But I still have the dreams, and it’s like the pain and regret has not lessened in the years that has passed. How do I get over this: the damage I did and my selfishness, that I didn’t just leave them alone like I should have? I will never get their forgiveness. I don’t deserve it, but I still crave it. I have forgiven myself for other awful things I’ve done, but I can’t seem to stop atoning for and repenting what I’ve done. How can I finally forgive myself and forget?

Repentant

Dear Repentant,

It’s incredibly hard to accept that some friendships can’t be repaired and some people will never forgive you. You can apologize for your mistakes, you can continue to care, but that doesn’t change reality: The door is closed.

Just as you had a lot of murky reasons for falling for a guy fucked up enough to land in a maximum-security prison for felony stalking, your friends have a lot of mysterious reasons for not wanting to forgive you and be friends again. Abby had an abusive alcoholic father, so watching you fall into that guy’s trap must’ve felt like reliving her childhood. It’s not hard to see why she’d have a traumatic reaction to your disappearance. If you weren’t raised by an abusive alcoholic, the darkness of that experience is unfathomable to you. You became a symbol of something for her. Rejecting you permanently was a way of refusing to revisit the darkness of that childhood trauma.

Now let’s talk about what you actually did: You bailed on your housing plans with your friends without warning. You dropped those friendships to spend all of your time with your boyfriend. When they tried to warn you that he was bad news, you got defensive and you cut them out. This is terrible behavior, but it’s also very common. I was dumped by a friend for acting this way when I was younger, and I dumped a few friends who acted this way, too. When a friend consistently bails on you because her boyfriend always comes first, that says something about her. It’s understandable for a young person to do this, but it’s also messed up, particularly when it’s obvious to everyone involved that the boyfriend is a dick who won’t be around much longer. When you throw in concrete plans to cohabitate that were destroyed, leaving your friends in the lurch without an apology, it makes sense that they’d hesitate to forgive you or renew the friendship.

The thing is, you were only friends with these two women a few months at the very beginning of your freshman year. Then you met your boyfriend and quickly iced them out. There wasn’t enough of a foundation for the friendship to withstand a major blow. Moreover, lots of freshmen make friendships in those first few months of school that don’t last. It’s not at all unusual for freshman-year friendships to fade as people decide what they want.

So you tried to talk to Brennan, and she told you the friendship was over. Then you emailed Abby and apologized, and she said she was glad you’d moved on from the bad boyfriend but she was done. No matter how Brennan or Abby feel about how insensitive it was of you to contact Abby and apologize directly to her, that seems perfectly acceptable to me. You wanted to apologize directly, and if you hadn’t done it, you might feel even worse than you do now.

The fact that you’re hung up on the idea that your emailing Abby was “selfish” tells me that you’re seeing the situation in black and white terms. You believe that you’re guilty and every bad thing they say about you is true. They’re right and you’re wrong. This reductive thinking is also why you’re seeking absolution: You talk about how other people on Facebook still have friendships from freshman year, but I don’t think that what you want, more than anything else, is to spend time with these two women. What you want is to be forgiven so you can stop feeling shitty about yourself. You want them to change their minds about you, to let you off the hook, to admit that maybe you’ve changed and grown and you’re a good person now. Your fixation on their forgiveness has more to do with insecurity and self-hatred (and a tendency to let other people define you) than it has to do with wanting to spend time with these two living, breathing human beings with needs of their own.

Recognizing that this situation isn’t black and white includes recognizing that Abby and Brennan are not perfectly evolved saints with the power to cast some Eternal Verdict on how worthy you are as a human being. Just as they’ve become a symbol to you of your mistakes and your rottenness, just as they’re a talisman of your fears about your future and whether or not you’re truly honorable and generous, you’re a symbol for them, too. Here are some guesses on that front: For Abby, you might be a symbol of the fact that even people you love and trust can disappear on you (like her father did). For Brennan, your ability to directly address the past might feel uncomfortably confrontational because deep down she believes that relationships are either effortlessly great or shitty and there is nothing in between. Maybe she sees herself as a guardian who keeps her friends safe from “bad” people.

I’m not saying that’s who they are, I’m just trying to show you that just as you’ve come to use Abby and Brennan as a symbol of something unresolved and sad in your past, you might be a symbol for them, too. There is no objective truth that needs to be sorted out, in other words. Friendships can end for good reasons, for bad reasons, and for some combination of the two. Sometimes people drop you because you acted like an asshole, and sometimes they drop you because your strong opinions remind them of their overbearing father’s strong opinions. Likewise, sometimes you feel haunted by breakups because there’s something that still needs to be said or done, and sometimes you feel haunted because the breakup has warped into a symbol for you, a little reminder that you’re not as healthy as you pretend to be.

Our minds and our hearts are attached to repeating loops. If we work hard to stay on track, to stay focused, to be kind in our daily lives, that takes effort. Some small part of our souls wants to work against that illusion of forward progress, because the impetus toward PRODUCTIVE FORWARD MOTION sometimes shuts out big pieces of us that still need attention: We are still fragile and afraid. We still need reassurance. We still feel unlovable and unworthy. So our souls look for symbols that make these feelings concrete, so we have something to identify and label as THE PROBLEM.

When a friend doesn’t want to talk it over, it can feel like being left in an empty courtroom with a detailed case but no judge. One of the toughest things about friendships is that most people don’t want to talk things out with friends in the thorough, heavy ways they might talk things out with a romantic partner. But just as a boyfriend can kick up deeper issues and projections, so can a friend. Personally, I don’t see why it should be a big deal to dig down the root causes of conflict in an extremely close, long-term friendship, even if it means eventually throwing around crazy statements like, “I think some of my anger at you is a projection of how I feel about my mom” or “I think I rejected your supposition that my boyfriend was bad news because I spent my childhood being second-guessed by both of my parents.” Most people want to keep friendships very simple: I’m fine with you until I’m not, and then you’re dead to me.

The tough thing is that sometimes people realize that they don’t really like you or they don’t feel good around you, and there’s nothing you can say to change that. It’s not that uncommon to discover, after years of friendship, that you just don’t like your friend enough to put up with her bullshit anymore. And long-lasting friendships can mutate into symbols, too: You can crave a friend’s approval and love in compulsive ways without actually enjoying the time you spend together.

There are a million murky ways for friendships to end. What’s madness is that we tend not to analyze and repair friendships the way we do our romantic relationships, yet we take rejection by a friend more personally than rejection by a romantic partner. We expect boyfriends or girlfriends to dump us for bad reasons. But somehow the ends of major friendships reflect badly on us. There must be something fucked about us, that a close friend left us in the dust.

There’s a point where you have to let go and admit that even though you care, you have no control. Even when a friend tells you, “I’ve decided that you’re bad,” and you have a million and one rebuttals along with a million and one ways of asking for forgiveness and a million and one ways of reframing the whole friendship so that you can march forward together, arm in arm, it doesn’t matter. Sometimes all that matters is the way someone makes you feel. Do you feel good? Do you trust this person? Is your love appreciated? If not, maybe it’s time to say FUCK THIS once and for all.

Idealizing some vision of Abby and Brennan as two amazing friends who slipped out of your grasp is actually pretty ludicrous. You didn’t know them for that long. Did they have problems with you from the start? Are you as compatible with them as you imagine? Are they completely different from you in every way? Who knows? You have so little information about them that building an emotional temple to that lost friendship makes no sense at all.

Try to stop internalizing this rejection, and accept that your past will always be littered with a few people who disapprove of you no matter what you do. Should I tell you about all the people who’ve left me behind, who think I’m too taxing or conflicted or intense to keep as a friend? There are plenty of them. And I’ve made a lot of mistakes. But even on my best days, when I’m bringing the full force of my charms and my generosity to the table, there are people who’ll encounter me as awful. If we could all read each other’s minds, we might never leave the house again.

You can’t make people love you, and you can’t take other people’s indifference and bludgeon yourself with it repeatedly. You have to build a temple out of your values and beliefs. Do you believe that friends should be true to each other, and speak from their hearts, and tell each other secrets, and treat each other with generosity and love? Then build your friendships to match those values. Dare to show yourself and dare to see someone else for who they are. Dare to treat friendship as something just as important – and therefore just as thorny and worthy of open talk and vulnerability – as your romantic partnerships.

When you see the world in black and white, someone is always wrong. Live in the gray area, instead. In the gray area, sometimes friendships break and there’s nothing you can do to fix it, and that’s okay. In that gray area, every story doesn’t have a happy ending, and that’s fine, actually. Your heart breaks, and you don’t always get closure or forgiveness. Friendship is not something that happens effortlessly between two perfect people. Every friend has flaws, so friendship requires patience. Some people don’t have what it takes to admit that they are flawed and their friends are flawed, too. Some people can’t admit that they’re conflicted, so they can’t tolerate intimacy with anyone else who’s conflicted. And sometimes, people simply don’t like you. Get used to it, and try not to take it personally.

You can spend the rest of your life imagining that Abby and Brennan hold you in contempt. You can let two people you barely know be the authors of a big part of your story. Or you can forgive them and let them go. No one is perfect. No else defines you. Every time you think about those two, redirect your thoughts to what you believe in and what you want for yourself. Cultivate your faith in yourself privately. The world is so bright and so full, and you can’t see it clearly because you’re too fixated on old things that will always be broken. Stop using symbols of your unworthiness as a compass. Put that compass down in the dirt and say to yourself, “This thing is broken. If I keep staring at it, I’m just going to walk in circles.” Walk away, and never look back.

Polly

Order the new Ask Polly book, How To Be A Person in the World, here. Got a question for Polly? Email askpolly@nymag.com. Her advice column will appear here every Wednesday.

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