Should We Go to Therapy with Our Friends?
Should We Go to Therapy with Our Friends?
Written by: Christie Tate
Published on: February 2, 2023
Christie Tate, the New York Times–bestselling author of Group and the new book B.F.F.: A Memoir of Friendship Lost and Found, reflects on how a therapy session with a former friend helped repair their rupture.
“It means so much to me that you were willing to do this session,” Deb said after the therapist welcomed us to the session, and we both teared up. Deb had approached me with the therapy idea after we managed pleasant chitchat about our kids and school politics at a mutual friend’s party. It was our first conversation in a decade; before that we’d seen each other on only two other occasions, when we passed each other on a crowded public street and exchanged tense smiles without breaking our strides. During our party conversation, I wanted to say something real to her about our friendship, now 10 years dead. I’m sorry. I handled the end so poorly. Friendship is really hard and I miss you. But I couldn’t make myself say anything deeper than, “My son’s travel baseball schedule is hellish.”
“I want to be here,” I said.
Deb and I became friends in our early 30s, when we were both single, finishing graduate school, and running 10Ks. We created online dating profiles in tandem, read Melody Beattie together, and dissected our childhoods, diets, friendships, and five-year plans. Within the first year of our friendship, we’d clocked the 200 hours to earn the title of “close friends,” according to a University of Kansas study. Deb was my go-to friend, especially around dating. After every bad night out, I’d call her from my entryway with my coat still on, begging for reassurance that I would not die alone. She’d invite me over before one of her triathlons, and I’d keep her company while she carb-loaded. We both had other friends, but our bond was special, sister-like. I’d agreed to this session so I, too, could understand why we’d fallen apart so completely and hopefully ensure it wouldn’t happen to my other friendships.
For years, I’d wondered why Deb and I couldn’t hold on to our friendship when we transitioned from single women to married mothers. Yes, as mothers we had much less time to tend the friendship but surely we’d banked enough love and good memories to get through the rough patches. Why couldn’t we bond over the hard parts of motherhood and married life as we had when we were single? Why was it so hard to talk about what was happening to our friendship as it frayed before our eyes? During the rough patch that preceded our breakup, Deb leaned on our friendship, but the weight of her malaise added to my own and made me bristle with resentment. She became one more person I had to take care of.
Deb was hurt when I made plans with other friends and disappointed that I left her son’s baptism early to take care of my newborn. I couldn’t admit that I lacked the emotional reserves to be the friend she needed and that I was not capable of holding space for her distress because I had my hands full with my own. Now I wanted to revisit our dynamic and answer the question: What choices did I have besides ghosting—and why couldn’t I see them at the time?
“I really want to understand what happened between us,” Deb said. “At the end, especially. The most important people in my life were my husband, my son, and you. And then you were gone.”
I took a deep breath and realized that without the therapist present, I would never have the courage to tell the truth because I was scared of hurting her feelings. But why did telling Deb the truth about my experience seem so harsh, so unspeakably cruel? The irony, of course, was that by withholding my feelings, I’d made the relationship untenable and forced myself into the cruelest act of all: ghosting.
“In the last months of our friendship,” I said, “you were disappointed by me all the time. Our relationship felt like a burden.” I paused. “I didn’t want to carry it anymore.” Beads of sweat rolled down my back. I half expected the room to go up in flames from my admission.
Deb nodded. “You’re right. I put a lot of pressure on you and the friendship, and that wasn’t fair. It was never your job to make me happy, but back then I was often angry and upset. I took it out on you.”
Then, she asked the million-dollar question: “But why did you feel like you had no choice but to disappear?”
The answer was layered, and I peeled them back one by one: the fear of hurting her, of saying harsh things, of being abandoned. “I couldn’t imagine having the conversations we needed to have. How do you tell a friend you need space? What does that mean in friendship? I had no idea.”
Deb laughed and nodded. “I didn’t either. Why was it so hard for two smart, self-aware women to talk about what was happening between us?”
At this point in the session, I also realized this: If I’d told Deb the truth 10 years ago—that I needed space, that her needs felt like a burden—then she would have gone looking for a new BFF, someone large-hearted and emotionally available enough to embrace all of her feelings. And while I chafed at the burden of being her number one friend, I also enjoyed the power and attention it gave me.
“I was scared of being abandoned or replaced,” I admitted, and she nodded because of course she understood.
The exact same fear had stalked us both, and we’d had no models for deep boundary work and truth-telling in friendship. We grew up thinking that friendship was an enjoyable but expendable supplement to the more primary relationships with our family members. When my friendship with Deb faltered, I had no idea how hard I was supposed to work to fix it. After all, no one says friendships are supposed to last forever. We weren’t raising children together, filing joint taxes, owning property, or sharing assets. Letting go seemed cowardly, absolutely, but also somewhat reasonable.
The therapist asked us how we were feeling, and my answer surprised me. “Happy and grateful.” The session confirmed a lesson I learned over and over in my marriage: telling the truth, no matter how scary, keeps a relationship healthy. There is no work-around for the emotional labor of speaking up.
The session also opened the door for a new friendship with Deb, one built on a foundation of radical honesty and rigorous emotional housekeeping. We know better than any two friends that we cannot let unexpressed emotions build up; we must also be clear about our wants and needs. Without the therapy session to clear away the wreckage of our former friendship, Deb and I would be nothing more than two women capable of pleasant but superficial chitchat at a party.
Post-session, our bond is much deeper and richer: We are former friends who hurt each other but did the work necessary to reconnect. And even if the session hadn’t repaired our friendship, it would have been worth it to show up in the therapist’s office to make amends for my behavior, affirm I would make different choices in the future, and tell the truth as I never had before.
I can’t say if therapy would work for all friendship ruptures, but if we are serious about the importance of these relationships, why not consider it? Therapy may clear a path that allows us to better love and care for our relationships with our close friends, those people we are bound to not by blood or law but by love. It’s never too late to learn how to be a better friend.
Christie Tate is the author of the New York Times bestseller Group, which was a Reese’s Book Club selection, and the forthcoming book B.F.F.: A Memoir of Friendship Lost and Found. She has been published in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Chicago Tribune, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and elsewhere. She lives in Chicago with her family.