While every year has its ups and downs, 2020 will go down as an especially interesting year for lots of reasons. Our everyday vocabulary expanded to include words previously only used by doctors, lawyers, and politicians. And the conversations we’ve had with friends, family, and colleagues have challenged our understanding of what we thought was true. Sometimes, the new understanding leads to a re-evaluation of the relationship, or even a decision to call it quits.
Our question this episode: how do we know when it’s time to let go of a relationship?
2020 has been a year for courageous conversations: about our health, racism, politics, education, what constitutes an “essential service,” what it means to be a community or family, and in many cases, what we need to survive. Some of those conversations haven’t been so courageous, because in its best sense, to be courageous means to come from your heart, to take a risk, to make a statement or take an action that’s confident yet tempered with humility. There have been plenty of conversations that barely qualify as such. Rather, they’re argumentative and arrogant, close-minded and judgmental.
And I’m admitting here, despite my calls to heal the divide, I had a “conversation” this fall with a friend that ended with us blocking one another on Facebook. I felt – and still feel – heartbreak over the situation. It was also something of a relief. It was confusing, but also clarifying. It led me to revisit a blog post I wrote almost 8 years ago to the day, because in a weird twist, the post from January 2013 was inspired by the same friend I blocked in November 2020. I’m going to share excerpts from that still-timely post now, updated to share the lessons learned from this latest painful encounter.
The original post was called “Let’s just kiss and say goodbye: the art of letting go.”
“I don’t know what happened. We just grew apart, I guess.”
How many times have you said this about a relationship? It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about a friend, lover, co-worker, mentor or family member. When relationships seem to fade, evaporate or otherwise disappear, we’re sometimes left with a lingering despair. We wonder, “Was it something I said?” While the catalyst for the breakup is sometimes obvious and memorable, there are also times when we can’t retrace our steps to pinpoint the moment when we started to drift.
When one of those relationships fades, we really feel it. We might not feel it right away. In some cases, there might even be a sense of relief if there was unresolved tension or drama. But eventually, there will come a moment when we think, “oh, I should tell so-and-so about this!” or “So-and-so would think this was so funny!” and realize that that person isn’t in our lives anymore.
Sometimes the relationship has served its purpose and run its course. I’ll share a personal example: I had a dear friend that I met during coach training back in 2008. She was (is!) an amazing woman who inspired me, made me laugh and overflowed with creative, positive energy. We were close for a few years, and then we slowly started to drift. A few days between phone calls became a few weeks, then a few months. I felt the loss, while also feeling like we might not have as much in common anymore. So I was curious about the drift, but not curious enough to reach out with any persistence. After all, that also requires lots of energy, as well as vulnerability.
I don’t remember where I heard or read this, but I came across a liberating idea: perhaps some relationships serve a particular purpose in a particular point in time. They aren’t meant to last forever. The relationship’s claim-to-fame isn’t that it lasted 30 years. It’s important simply because something was learned. Something was given and received, and both people were transformed by it.
It’s easy to acknowledge that now. But in the moment, I felt a sense of grief over the loss of her companionship. I wondered if I did something wrong, or had become boring or too dull for her. I assumed that what was happening was my fault.
In these cases, it’s not about fault. Unless my memory is failing me, I didn’t do anything, and she didn’t do anything. It just turns out there was an expiration date on the real-time friendship, and that date arrived. It doesn’t mean the friendship was a failure, or a waste of time. She will always occupy a place in my heart, and I will forever treasure the gifts she gave me.
That’s how I felt in January 2013, and I still feel that now, even after our falling out in late 2020. This time, the inciting incident was shockingly clear. 2020 started out promising; we reconnected via Facebook and had a lovely 90-minute Facetime chat that left us both with tears of gratitude for being in one another’s lives again. We promised to call again soon, even regularly, so that we could rekindle the friendship that meant so much to us. Then the pandemic hit, life went topsy turvy and the months slipped by.
It was late summer before we were in touch again, and much had changed in both our lives. The biggest shift was in her political views. Speculation about the origins and scope of the pandemic was the gateway that led her to alternative media. From there, she began to embrace conspiracy theories on everything from the pandemic to systemic racism to the 2020 Presidential election. When the difference in our views became clear, I was initially shocked and upset. The beliefs she promoted on social media seemed to be the antithesis of what I had thought she stood for.
I tried to practice what I’ve shared on this podcast: to look at the differences through the lens of compassion, humility, openness, curiosity. I tried to interrogate my own beliefs, checking in with what I thought was true to see if I could unearth blindspots or biases that were keeping me from seeing a different perspective. I talked it through with my husband, doing reality checks and considering various responses so that I didn’t say something I’d regret. I asked her questions, gently challenging her posts while trying not to make it personal. At one point, when I realized a reply I’d sent sounded arrogant, I admitted it. I shared my own beliefs without being defensive – at least, I don’t think I was – and tried to understand hers. I tried, really, really tried, to understand hers.
After a few months of these back-and-forth texts and Facebook comments, mostly civil but still tense, I reached my breaking point. I posted a very direct comment that in effect said, “I’m done.” I spoke my truth while trying to make it clear I was disputing her facts, not her as a person. Although, I admit to starting to have doubts that I really knew what was in her heart, as what we choose to share is a reflection of who we are in our hearts. The dissonance became overwhelming.
After I posted that direct “I’m done” comment, a few hours lapsed before I saw a notification that she’d replied. I literally felt sick to my stomach. There were two lessons in that feeling: one, I shouldn’t ever speak or post a comment that I’m not ready for a response to, and two, that I couldn’t have her in my life anymore. Oh, and three, if I really want to preserve the relationship, don’t let the disagreement play out in public – take it offline and in real time.
I never read her reply. Before I could do so, she blocked me. I’ll never know what she wrote. And you know, I’m okay with that. After I got over the slight shock of actually being blocked, I felt relief.
It was hard to experience such a massive breakdown in communication when I claim to have any special insight into how to have courageous conversations. It challenged my self-perception as a healer, not a divider. But I ultimately worked through that. I reflected on the words I’d said, the approach I’d taken, and while it wasn’t a shining example of civility, it wasn’t evidence that I couldn’t walk my talk.
If anything, it’s been a lesson in the difficulty of walking the talk of courageous conversations. It’s a reminder that it doesn’t always work out. It’s a chance to revisit the idea that not every relationship is meant to last forever, but that doesn’t mean it was a waste of time or a failure. I’m grateful to my friend. I hope that if we ever cross paths again, we’re able to do so with mutual grace and compassion, even if we don’t kiss and make up.
I mentioned before this idea that a relationship could serve a purpose, and the idea that I picked up was this notion that a relationship would last for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.
If it’s a reason, it’s going to be around to teach us some sort of lesson. If it’s for a season, it’s there because of particular circumstances, like you’re in school together or you’re at a job together; that’s the season of your life. Or it’s meant for a lifetime, that’s one of those friends that it doesn’t matter how much time has passed when you reconnect, it’s like no time has passed at all.
This idea of a relationship lasting for a reason, a season, or a lifetime doesn’t only apply to people who are close to us. It can be true with anything you have a relationship with. Think about it: a job that was going so well but went sour. An idea that seemed promising but failed to deliver. A client who seemed like an ideal match who decided to work with someone else.
All of these are examples of things that come into our lives and eventually leave, yet we can hold on to them and become almost debilitated by any perceived failure. We’re attached to the way something “should” be, so we can’t let it be what it is.
And what it may be is this: the job that taught us that we can be a strong leader and make our voice heard. The idea that got us moving so that we’ve gotten that much more done on a bigger idea. The client who taught us something about how effectively we’re distinguishing ourselves from the competition.
Or the friend who allowed us to practice compassion and empathy, while gaining clarity on our values and boundaries.
If we let go of our attachment – that the friendship “should” last forever, or the idea “should” work perfectly – we open ourselves up to the lessons and gifts of the moment. We make room for a more positive flow of energy. And we create an opportunity to learn more about ourselves and how to make choices that honor who we are in our hearts.
Here’s your call to action: Free up space in the new year by doing an inventory of your relationships. What energy-draining feelings, relationships or attachments are you holding on to? What opportunities and energy would open up if you let them go? If you had to renew your commitment to that person, idea, or job, would you want to do it? Let’s say you recommit: what conversations need to happen in order for you to happy? And if you decide to let them go, what would help you to feel complete? What do you want to acknowledge about the relationship or experience? How can you honor it while still moving forward?
Letting go of things that don’t fit any more is a liberating experience. Appreciate the experience or relationship for what it was. Find a way to grieve the loss, as well as celebrate that space has been freed up for something new to come in. Blow a kiss out into the universe, and say a loving and grateful goodbye.
And with this episode, we blow a kiss and say a loving and grateful goodbye to 2020. It’s a year that’s hard to feel love or gratitude for, but at the same time, it’s love and gratitude that got so many of us through it. And those same things will carry us through 2021, if we nourish them.
I hope you’ll share this episode with any friends, family members and colleagues that you think might find it interesting. I also appreciate your reviews and ratings on whatever platform you find this podcast. And please, subscribe and come back for future episodes! Be part of the movement to bring more courageous communication into the world.
This is Beth Buelow, and you’ve been listening to How Can I Say This. Our podcast producer is Paul Messing, and our theme music is by Brett Anderson. Thanks to you for joining me today. I wish you health, happiness, joy and peace in the coming year, and I invite you to take what you’ve learned here and use it to speak up, speak out, and speak courageously.