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Unfriended: Podcast Transcript

Anita Rao
The most visceral memory I have of pain in my childhood was not when I broke both of my wrists at once, or felt so hard off my bike it left a scar that's still there today. It was the aftermath of a friend breakup. In classic 90s fashion, it happened over AIM. They said I was too nerdy and didn't care enough about boys, sports or makeup. It sounds so childish, and it was. But trust me when I say that it wrecked me. I was a kid who loved school, but for days I begged to stay home. The thought of navigating my last year of elementary school with no friends was awful. I have not been dumped in that kind of horrific way as an adult, thank God, but navigating conflict in friendship has not gotten much easier. It often takes me weeks to write that dreaded kind of email: "Hey, can we check in about our friendship?" Or months to take what feels like a super human step — an in person conversation about friendship problems. Friendship conflict feels so uncomfortable, because we have no models for addressing it. Nor do we have any guidelines for what could come next: A friend breakup. This is Embodied. I'm Anita Rao.

Sophie Katz
This person didn't want our friendship to work, and there was nothing I could do or say that would ever fix that. It would be a really long time — like years — before any other breakup of any kind hit me that hard again.

Kat Jensen
To this day, I'm just left with lots of hurt and anger and resentment. I tried to do everything that I could to save the relationships, but at the end of the day, it will always hurt.

Rebecca Martinez
When my child was born, she emailed to congratulate me, but I was so bitter. I told her to leave me alone. I regret that. Breakups with best friends can be just as alienating as those of romantic relationships, but friendship breakups are more isolating, because they're just not recognized the same way. They're really lonely.

Anita Rao
You just heard from Sophie Katz, Kat Jensen and Rebecca Martinez — listeners who helped convince me that the discomfort I've felt around my own friend breakups isn't rare. It's just that nobody is talking about this stuff.

Michelle Elman
I think it's largely due to the shame that we feel around it. We think it's because we're a bad friend. And I think because we have this expectation of lifelong friendships, we don't talk about this area of life where you start growing up. You start growing apart. You might maybe have different values. Maybe you're just in a different phase of life.

Anita Rao
Michelle Elman is thankfully anything but silent on the matter of friend breakups. She's an author and life coach best known for her activism campaign "Scarred Not Scared." A few weeks ago, I saw an Instagram reel she made about friend breakups, and it inspired us to reach out to her. Turns out there was a point in her life in which she broke up with so many friends, she called it The Mass Exodus.

Michelle Elman
Yes, so there was a period of about two years where it felt like I was losing more friends than keeping friends, and it was so painful. You spoke earlier about your childhood friendship that you lost, and I remember one in particular, where I was about to go on stage and give a talk about Christmas of all things, and on the way there she broke up with me. And I walked in, and I was like — all I could think about was the fact that I just gone through a romantic breakup with someone who I'd had in my life for eight years. I'd lived with her for seven years. If I had gone through a romantic breakup of that length, I would walk in, and I'd be met with sympathy and people [would] go: Oh my God. That must be so painful. And yet, if I walked in and said: Oh, my best friend of eight years just broke up with me, you sound like a 13 year old on a playground, and so it was the first moment where I started going: You know what, I think that hurt me more than any guy ever has.

Anita Rao
The Mass Exodus came as a result of some major introspection, and Michelle deciding to stand firm and no longer being a people pleaser. Sticking to that boundary meant figuring out a whole new way of approaching friendship.

Michelle Elman
The best way I did it with new friends was to stop fast friendships. I realized I made friends too quickly, so I didn't allow for those warning signs to appear, or the red flags to appear, because I was jumping in headfirst with people who I didn't know who were strangers. And then two months later going like: Wait, I don't like the fact you do this, and I'm not sure I can trust you with this information, rather than giving them small pieces of trust over periods of time. Letting that trust build up, and then giving them more access, more information, and trusting them with more — as they've earned it. With the friends who I actually had in my life, to be honest, setting the boundary and then seeing their reaction was the greatest test of it all — it is not so much the boundary itself, it's how they respond to it that told me a lot about our friendship. And some friendships survive that. Some there was a rocky period, and then we came out of it. And there were some that obviously didn't. And in those, I did have really tough conversations with those people and just say: Hey, look, we're so different now.

Anita Rao
So when you're actually going into that breakup conversation, you've had the reflection, you feel like this friendship really isn't working, how do you do that, practically?

Michelle Elman
I think if you have had any respect for that person, or you've cared about the friendship at all, I think it's the right and fair thing to do to have the conversation with the person. I think the way to end it, where you both have a question mark over the relationship, is not really fair to the other person, because you're essentially ghosting them. So how I do it, I tend to do it over text. I think actually, a text works better for both parties, because then both parties can think about what they want to say and not feel the time pressure to say [it] exactly in the moment. A lot of the time, I will just keep it short and sweet: You don't need to get hurtful. All you need to say is: Hey, this isn't working. You might have felt that this isn't working as well, and I just think it's better for both of us if we give each other some space. I love you. I care about you. I probably always will, but right now, this friendship is not working.

Anita Rao
This friendship is not working. It sounds so simple, but oof! It is so hard to say out loud. We did an informal poll on Twitter when putting together this episode and 0% of y'all said that you approach a friend breakup via direct conversation. So apparently, you're all right there with me. For most of us, friendship endings have looked more like a slow drifting. That was also the case for Tony Liu.

Tony Liu
My friend was behaving in a way that I didn't think I agreed with the values and that type of behavior. I thought that it was harming a few other people. It was a slow kind of fall out.

Anita Rao
Tony is a med student at the University of Chicago and a former radio and podcast producer. He's written about friendships, tenderness and toxic masculinity. His friend breakup was with a high school friend, and not to get too Ross and Rachel from Friends on you, but it was more of a break than a full on breakup.

Tony Liu
After about a year, we ended up seeing each other again, and we did have a conversation, and we did talk about: Hey, I really care about you. I care about this friendship. We both do, and taking ownership over behavior and how can we show up for each other in a ways that makes sense for each other?

Anita Rao
Yeah, it's so interesting, because I think we have this notion that romantic relationships take work. We expect them to take work, but the idea that friendships take work is kind of hard to wrap your head around at first, but like the idea of communicating expectations, and that being an essential part of the work of friendship — I think is something I've really had to learn as an adult. I'm curious about what that [friend breakup] experience taught you about expectations that you have for friends and how you go about communicating them?

Tony Liu
I think that when it comes to friendships — the really strong and powerful friendships — the ones that are really nourishing, they require vulnerability. They require us to express ourselves. And having expectations makes a lot of sense, because you're thinking about: What does it take for me to feel safe to express myself in a way where I won't be judged; I won't be shamed, and I will be accepted for who I am? So I think one can start to think about: Okay, well, what does that look like? Is it the way that we talk to each other? Is it the type of language that we use? I think it's also important to name that with friends. There are many moments where those people might not be able to meet those expectations because life is hard. Things get complicated, and it's not a personal " I don't want to be there for you." It's not out of a lack of desire, and it's more so just the nature of my life right now.

Anita Rao
Totally. Some of those expectations for friendship can come from those very real life circumstances that evolved, but also from these kind of inherited narratives we have around gender and friendship. I know that is something you've thought a lot about in terms of masculinity in particular and this link between masculinity and friendship and how that's shaped the kinds of bonds that you've forged in your adult life. Tell me about that.

Tony Liu
Masculinity is really interesting, because for those who are socialized into masculinity, there is a desire to have those deep friendships. But there's always this sort of tiptoeing as well. Not being too earnest about it, and things that I think are funny, because I think it's so great to just be direct and communicate and be explicit about — I would like to be your friend. I've seen that wave change throughout my adult life. I think as I graduated college, most of my friends were women, and I think [that] happened because it was harder to find men who were emotionally open and who were wanting to create that type of friendship. But now in medical school, it has been really great to find that community of men again, and I have a group of men that we have a book club, and we're reading Bell Hooks' "The Will to Change," which is about masculinity and unlearning and relearning ways of being that promote a type of masculinity that is more tender and open and nourishing for the people in their lives.

Anita Rao
Has connecting with that kind of healthy masculinity that you want to be a part of your life led you to do any boundary setting or friend breaking up or distancing with any friendships in your life?

Tony Liu
Absolutely. If I hear things such as like locker room talk — I have no tolerance for that type of language, or that type of behavior. If we are trying to build an identity based on denigrating other people, that is not an identity that I would want to celebrate or be a part of. And so that has led to setting really important and clear boundaries about: There are ways that we can build an identity and find, like, strength in it, but that can't and should not be at the expense of other people or at their diminishment. And so I do think that this has led me to be much more selective with the types of friends I have in general, but also particularly with men.

Anita Rao
We don't need to consult Esther Perel to determine that connecting over disparaging other people isn't going to make for a strong friendship foundation. But other types of disagreement in a friendship aren't inherently bad, and conflict certainly doesn't mean it's time to break up. Rough patches can also be an opportunity to check in and be honest about whether it's time for a conversation or time to let go. If that sounds just too intimidating, take it step by step. Step one: Communicate your feelings. Step two: Embrace vulnerability.

Michelle Elman
If someone's forgotten your birthday, and you were hurt about it, then just simply say that: I was really hurt that you forgot my birthday. Can we do something to celebrate my birthday on a different day? I think a lot of the time when we're hurt, we don't want to be vulnerable, because that's increasing the chance of even more hurt — and so we close in, and we don't share what's affecting us. And then what happens is you're passive aggressive, and that leads to resentment further down the line.

Anita Rao
Step three: Set and state your boundaries. When setting a boundary then leads to a breakup. it's time for step four: Allow space for for grieving.

Michelle Elman
I think it's really important we remember that grief is around any type of loss and not just around death, which is why it arises when it comes to breakups. And in the same way you would give yourself patience and compassion and kindness around a romantic breakup, you can do the same around friendship breakups. I think the main thing I say both in platonic and romantic breakups is: Stop stalking them online. You are not letting that wound heal. And not going over those conversations in your head. I know we're so tempted to replay the conversation and start going: Well, what if I said this? And what if I said that? And then you build this illusion that if you could just change the conversation, the outcome would be different. And in order to not do that, what you have to do instead is write a list of all the reasons why you chose to end that friendship. Keep that list accessible. So in those moments where you feel sad, where you feel lonely, when you start missing your friend, understanding that you can miss them, and you can still have made the right decision.

Tony Liu
The thing about friendship is, friendships hold so much of our own ideas of who we can be — like the sense of longing, a sense of this was an identity. And so when that friendship ends, it is often: Okay, well, I have to rebuild or reconstitute some aspect or sense of myself. And so I think because of that it is okay to have patience, and it is okay to let things be a little bit messy and to be patient about figuring it out, knowing that it will happen.

Rebecca Martinez
My best friend of 10 years and I broke up in 2015, and it totally gutted me. We had a big fight one New Year's Day after her tiny and stupid and horrible dog bit me. We made up afterwards, but it was never the same. After some mutual back and forth of mounting histrionic emails, she declared we would never be friends again.

Kat Jensen
I've reached out to her a couple times. We tried to talk about what happened, but she is kind of just not standing up for us or for our friendship. And so ever since then, we haven't been able to be friends.

Jake Smith
In most cases with friendships, I think it's more of a growing apart. You kind of see differences from your path and that person's path, and then you might stop talking to them as much, and so it's less of a discrete moment and more of a gradual growing apart and separating of ways.

Sophie Katz
For me, it came out of nowhere. Like, everything I did was wrong. She would get so mad at me and snap at me, and she wouldn't explain why. And I assumed that I must have done something wrong or else this wouldn't be happening.

Anita Rao
Those were stories from Rebecca Martinez, Kat Jensen, Jake Smith, and Sophie Katz. If you remember way back to the beginning of this episode, I told you a story about mean girls dumping me in sixth grade, and I'm going to let you in now on a little secret, which is that I still have printed out versions of that AIM conversation and the many heated AIM chats that led to that moment. I came across them a few years ago when cleaning stuff out at my parents house, and those documents confirm that: Yes, they broke up with me. But also that Chachi 150 — aka Anita Rao — was a little asshole herself sometimes. I have reformed (for the most part) but how do you know for sure that the bad friend in the relationship isn't you?

KB Newton
As much as I would have liked to point the finger at other individuals, at some point you just have to kind of say: Okay, what is true of me? And that is when I came to the realization that: Yeah, you've been a trash friend.

Anita Rao
KB Newton knows what makes a trash friend, because she was one. She founded an online resource to help folks make better connections. It's called Heart Convos. Some of the things she says you can assess in your own behavior: Are you putting in work, or leaving it mostly to the other person? If someone tells you a boundary, do you respect it, or ask them to compromise? And in order to be a good friend, it's important to find a balance between giving all or nothing to a friendship.

KB Newton
Most people have two categories for friendship: you're either close, or you're not. You're either my best friend — you're in my inner circle — or you're an acquaintance of some sort. Well, I would like to suggest that having those two categories creates a very broad extreme in the way that you engage relationships with the people who you are closest to. You're transparent. You're vulnerable. You're honest. You feel like you owe them that because there's closeness there. However, there's almost either a list that people have to check off in our minds, or a certain amount of time that has to pass for somebody to qualify as an individual that is trustworthy, or an individual that you can invest in. And it's almost a counterproductive cycle, because in order for deep, meaningful connections to be established, you have to be willing to invest. Typically, people are not willing to invest until something has been proven to them, by which I would say: No one can prove anything to you unless you invest.

Anita Rao
So as you have moved throughout your life, I'd love for you to kind of take us into how you navigate comfortable differences versus the differences that mean that the friendship needs to change. If you have any kind of examples of friendships you can share with us?

KB Newton
I tell people all the time: Conflict, disruption, difficulty, strain, challenge, tension — words that we would use to describe moments in our friendships. Those are all indicative of something in that they're opportunities. When you don't see them as opportunities, and you see them as a roadblock, or some type of signal or sign that this is not working, or it's not healthy, then you really do limit your ability to grow deeply with people. And in relationships, we are often stressed. We are often stretched. And we sometimes process that difficulty or that challenge as a sign that this is not good — and I think some of that has to do with the narrative that we have around comfort right now. Just in society and in culture, but what I've learned over the years is that in relationships, the ones that have presented the most challenge are also the most satisfying. In the end, the ones that I've had to work for are the ones that I find the most freedom in now. And so when the pandemic stripped our ability to do things together, and people again had to think through: Well, what is really holding this relationship together? And for me, [it's] the ability to communicate to you who I am, how I am and why I am — in a way that makes you feel like you know me more intimately.

Anita Rao
There is no getting around the hard conversations and necessary work in friendships. But I will say that if there is a silver lining to friend breakups, it's that you create more space, time and energy to invest in the friendships that are serving you and the version of you who you want to be today. KB says that watching her five year old make friends has been a reminder of what friendship can be when it's at its best.

KB Newton
She sees someone who's doing something she would enjoy. She goes: Oh, Mommy, let's go play with our friends. If she sees — she saw a little girl after church on Sunday who had a frozen lunchbox. She said: Mommy, she has a frozen lunchbox like me. Can we be friends? I'm like: Sure! Like all it takes is knowing that she liked the same things, which again, is how we form relationships when we're younger. But, and I know that it's different. It becomes a lot more complicated as adults, kind of. But I think the lesson that we should learn from this, and what we should hold tightly to, is an openness and a willingness to look for opportunities to build connection with other people before we take them through this checklist or this auditioning process assuming the worst about them. I think that's the beautiful thing about children. My daughter assumes the best about everyone until she has a reason not to. And I think we lose our ability to do that as adults. And so the lesson that I learn from my daughter daily is that I have the opportunity to believe the best in other people with the hopes of building connections that are deep and meaningful if they go there, but definitely just significant on whatever level we end up connecting.

Anita Rao
Embodied is production of North Carolina Public Radio WUNC, a listener supported station. If you want to lend your support to this podcast and WUNC's other shows on demand, consider a contribution at wunc.org. now. Incredible storytelling like you hear on Embodied is only possible because of listeners like you. This episode was produced by Audrey Smith and Elizabeth Friend. Kaia Findlay is our editor. Jenni Lawson, our sound engineer and Quilla wrote our theme music. This show is supported by Weaver Street Market, a worker and consumer owned cooperative selling organic and local food at four triangle locations in North Carolina. Now featuring online shopping with next day pickup: weaverstreetmarket.coop. Until next time, I'm Anita Rao — taking on the taboo with you.

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