The Burden of Childhood Friendships

For the past fifteen years I’ve been saddled with a disturbingly incessant childhood friendship. Despite my best (or, rather, worst) efforts, I cannot seem to shake it. We’re now in our thirties, live drastically different lives, and have not a single unifying hobby. Yet, this person persists. She will not let things go. Whether I like it or not, I am bound to her forever.

Oh, I should mention I cannot stand this person.

For reasons that escape me, she is blissfully unaware of my utter indifference towards her. I am checked out of every conversation. I make no effort to see her. Her husband is one of the most annoying people I have ever met and have said this to her face. Still, she remains.

As when faced with an undying lich, my only means of survival is avoidance. The game, then, is to stay away as long as possible. In the end, I always lose.

I’m not alone in this. Undying, unnecessary childhood friendships can be found everywhere you look. You probably have one. I found one, just today, in the pages of Meg Wolitzer’s terrific novel The Interestings.

In it, Jules Jacobson meets an unlikely band of friends at a teenage summer camp for artsy types called Spirit-in-the-Woods. The outsiders become quite close, and their friendships last into their fifties. Not without some hiccups, though.

Jules’ two friends, Ash and Ethan, end up (slight spoiler) pairing off. Later, they get married. Ethan becomes a success, makes a ton of money, and unintentionally alienates the rest of the group as a result. More than fifteen years into their friendship, it suddenly dawns on Jules that, were they to all meet today, their connection simply wouldn’t–or, couldn’t–form.


“If we all met now we would never become friends. You think they would feel a connection if someone said, ‘Here is a very nice social worker and a very nice ultrasound technician?’ That’s why meeting in childhood can seem like it’s the best thing–everyone’s equal, and you form bonds based only on how much you like each other. But later on, having met in childhood can turn out to have been the worst thing, because you and your friends might have nothing to say to each other anymore, except, ‘Wasn’t it funny that time in tenth grade when your parents came home and we were so wasted.’ If you didn’t feel sentimental about the past, you wouldn’t keep it up.” — Meg Wolitzer’s The Interestings


On the one hand, there’s something undeniably sweet about my friend’s persistent attachment to me. She cares, a lot. More than I deserve.

But on the other hand, we’re so different it makes me want to scream.

Do I have a certain obligation to this person? Am I honor bound to our friendship just because we met when we were toddlers? What is it about childhood that creates these seemingly unbreakable bonds (albeit from one side)?

My theory is that she doesn’t have a lot of friends. Despite her protestations, her marriage is a bit of a gong show. She hates her career. She lives away from home. All in all, she is unhappy. And so that happiness falls to me. It’s a burden I don’t want, nor have I really earned it. Yet, here we are.

At least I got a blog post out of it.

6 Comments

  1. Such an interesting topic! I have relationships on both ends of the spectrum. I’ve let go of friends from the past who were negative influences in my life and it is not easy. Sometimes, the end was harsher than I would have liked, and it does make me sad that it had to be that way, but I was relentless in knowing those people couldn’t be in my life any more. And on the other side, my oldest friend is like family to me. We were strikingly different as kids, and drawn to each other by interest in our differences, but have grown to be so similar, and yet, because life is life, we live too far away to ever see each other.
    I always think of Mary Schmich’s Wear Sunscreen speech: “Understand that friends come and go, but with a precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography and lifestyle, because the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.” Interesting take!
    Anyway, that was a ridiculously rambling response, but all to say this was really interesting. I hope you somehow manage to go your separate ways with this person in a peaceful way!
    And.. did you like The Interestings after all?

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    1. Thanks for the thoughtful comment! Do you know the context for that line? She says “the older you get, the more you need the people who knew you when you were young.” I’m curious as to why she thinks that.

      And I haven’t been able to finish the book yet. It’s been a busy few days. Zero reading time. I’ll have it finished by the weekend, I’m sure. I’ll let you know!

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    2. Finished it last weekend. It was really, really good. I haven’t read many books like it. There’s not really a central event that drives the book, or a particular arc you follow. It’s more just a chronicle of several friendships over a few decades. Follows them through marriages and divorces and deaths and kids and everything else. Could have been super boring, but Wolitzer is great. Recommended.

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  2. I love Chelsey’s quote.
    I have several old friends that require bridging the gap of geography & lifestyle. But they are worth it. We’ve all moved around the country now – I think we ground each other and provide a sense of belonging.
    There can be an element of comfort in old friends as you get older. They knew you & liked you with pimples, flared jeans (& hair) and fluoro socks! They also shared the same music, neighbourhood stories and memories as you.

    Like you I had one of those friends that was difficult to shake. I’m not sure I ever considered her a friend, but she tried to be mine for years. Perhaps my inherent politeness at the time was all she required (our parents were good friends and our younger sisters were also best friends).
    Looking back I see that she never had (for any length of time anyway) a bestie female friend. She was not & is not a good friend to other women…she’s too busy trying to flirt with their man!

    I felt such relief when I finally shook her off, but it did take about 10 years (& several moves) post-school. I also believe that old adage about ‘people come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.’

    Thanks for the thought-provoking post and good luck.

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