About three years ago my oldest friend, whom I had known since she was born, dealt her husband a massive body blow that left him haemorraging internally forever. She told him on New Year’s Day that she was leaving him to set up home with another man. Our friends had three children aged between 8 and 13. The man and his wife had three younger children, one still only a baby conceived in desperation. There was no discussion. No hope of reconciliation. The husband has a job that takes him away for months at a time. He had not the slightest idea that she was unhappy, though perhaps he was less than happy himself. I thought her unhappiness was no more than was normal for her age and given her husband’s job and her child care responsibilities. You could say that I had no idea what was really going on in her marriage. But I think you would be wrong: there was almost nothing I did not know.
My friend’s husband had also become our friend over the fifteen or so years of their marriage, we lived near each other, and our two families had spent many, many happy days together. We went away together, and camped out on the river with our boats as I had done with my friend when we were both children. I was godmother to their eldest child too. I cooked endless meals which they shared, and our five children ran around, dressed up, played in the mud, fought, made up, built bonfires and enjoyed each other’s company.
We were appalled by her behaviour and we felt keenly the hurt that her husband had suffered. Generally reluctant to judge, we felt pushed to condemn her very public vaunting of her new man in a small town of less than ten thousand people – not nearly big enough to avoid uncomfortable encounters.
We felt that we wanted to support the husband, and my husband, in particular, refused to countenance any friendship with my friend’s lover. My friend, in turn, declared that my friendship with her was at an end unless we welcomed her new relationship and carried on with our previous family arrangements, perhaps at the insistence of her new lover-now-husband. Driven to choose between my husband’s decision and my friend’s intransigence, I stood next to my husband and said a very reluctant goodbye to my friend. She was angry and called me judgmental. As did my sister. Over the next three years I constantly involved the husband in our family celebrations, fed him, remembered him, encouraged my husband to call him, reminded my husband to call him. But I get nothing back. He is my husband’s friend not mine. For whatever reason, he never initiates any contact with me and whole days can be spent in his company without any indication of what he is feeling. I have made endless allowances for a presumed sadness but now I just feel sad and upset and cross with him – and with my friend. If I did nothing my husband would not be bothered to call him, nor would he call us. But they would both insist that they are very good friends. They just do not seem to need each other as women need their friends.
And yet, when my mother died it was my friend who dropped all her plans and came round to spend the day with me. When I suffered the most humiliating experience of my life, my friend shared it with me and mopped me up afterwards. We knew each other better than we knew almost anybody else. We knew each other’s family and shared friends. We were honest with each other, and open. But it was still invariably me that gave and my friend that received. My friend is an only child who lost her mother when she was a teenager and her father as soon as her son was born. She is very good at looking after her own best interests and not very interested in any one else’s needs or wants. She would say she is selfish. She was, however, as close as a sister to me.
My sister navigated a different path. My friend is also her friend and at times our friend has played us off one against the other and vacillated between us. My sister has lived near Strasbourg for the last twenty years. She really knew my friend’s husband hardly at all and so it was easy for her to move seamlessly on with her friendship with our friend, substituting the new lover for the old husband. They will all spend Easter together.
I, too, have navigated a different much happier path with other friends who have divorced which have allowed me to retain cherished female friendships even if we could no longer see each other as two families.
I still hurt at what has happened. I still wish that she was my friend. I feel that I have lost a great deal. It does not help that my sister has kept her friendship.
My thoughts about the husband tie in to a wider frustration. Why don’t men initiate social contact? Should I assume from their apparent apathy that they are just not bothered? Or are they just lazy, happy to leave everything to an overfunctioner? Do they have any idea how much self-confidence it takes to approach them all the time, never knowing if rejection is going to follow? How do I know that they like me even? Are they just tolerating me because any social invitation is better than a lonely house? If I am their friend, why do they never call to tell me their news or to find out how we are? Is it “pay back” time as far as men are concerned, revenge against all women for the rejections they suffered when they were younger and it was their role to approach women? Are they all suffering from depression? I wonder but I do not have any answers. I feel as if there is half a world out there that I do not begin to understand.
Whatever the reason for it, it makes an equal, reciprocal relationship an impossibility. It makes friendship impossible. It is not the relationship of two adults, but the relationship of a caring, increasingly anxious mother, and a seemingly lazy, increasingly complacent son. I feel so frustrated. And he is only one of a batch of men, cast off by my friends, whom my husband would count as his friends and whom I thought were my friends too until I realised that their wives had been the scaffolding without which the whole thing just falls down. It seems that cross gender friendships are bound to fail if women expect friendship on a female model that men find too demanding, and men offer only a male version that leaves women wanting.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I know that this is a difficult subject. A can of worms even. Best left unopened. There are all sorts of reasons why my husband’s friend might shy away from initiating contact. But if you wish to explore further, this link has a long thread of thought-provoking comments following on from a short post.