Ellen King asks, when does a desire to have our friends grow up with us become a selfish endeavour?
February 2017 marked the beginning of one of the most painful and formative breakups so far in my life.
Like all good clichés, going to university away from home like, changed me, man. Inevitably, I grew into a very different person to the one I had been when my ex-best friend and I went to school together where saw each other every day. Of course, so did she. I pompously viewed my change as positive growth into a better and more well formed human being, and hers comparatively as regression into a less evolved human being. I couldn’t move past the chasm that was growing between our personal preferences and ideologies. I also knew her well enough to know that she wouldn’t take kindly to me encouraging her to ‘grow’ like me.
So, we broke up.
There were no dramatic shouting fights, no accusatory words, no tears. In the place of these usual markers of a break up were plans that were delayed, delayed, and then cancelled. Texts that went unanswered, Birthday cards not sent. But rather than the breakup itself, the thing that gives me plenty of material for sessions with my therapist is that the break up was instigated by me, and the person I was breaking up with was my childhood best friend.
Aside from the pain over the end of one of the most integral and important relationships of my life, the other thing that was gnawing at me was whether or not it was wrong of me to want my friend to grow as I did, or if I was a bad person for no longer wanting to accept her for who she was. Wasn’t the whole point of loving someone to be able to accept who they are either in spite of/because of their flaws? Ultimately, ending that relationship was the best thing for the both of us; not only had we grown into different people but we both became more toxic versions of ourselves when we were together.
But what about the other relationships I’ve ended because I deemed someone ‘less evolved’ than me? Or the friends that I’ve encouraged to grow with me even without them asking for my help to do so?
At their most fundamental level, friendships are formed on the idea that you enjoy spending time with someone and find their personality to be compatible to yours. It seems a sweeping generalisation to say that for the most part people don’t change all that often. There may be a few Big Events in a person’s life that alters the way they view the world and expands their ability to form well thought out opinions such as moving away to university, getting married, having children or starting therapy. There may be a period of ease that relaxes someones awareness of those around them, altering their dispositions to be more selfish or harsh than they used to be. Change is not always good – and it is scary, so we do our best to avoid it.
It takes a lot of looking within oneself and being willing to face the parts of yourself that you don’t like or are critical of to grow, which is why it’s so damned unappealing to do it. Because of this, I don’t think that it’s unfair to say that on the whole ‘people’ as a collective often stay very similar throughout their lives, with perhaps a few growth periods thrown in. So if you’re going through one of these growth periods now and are finding your old friends values no longer align with yours… what do you do? Are you wrong for wanting the person you love to be different just because you now are?
Well, like most of life’s questions, the answers unfortunately are yes, no, and maybe. The real answer lies in your reasoning: whether you want your friend to grow for their benefit or yours, and more importantly whether they even want to grow in the first place. If you want someone to change because it makes your life easier then that could be considered wrong – it’s manipulative to mould someone in the image that you want to see them as for your benefit. That counts double if they’re happy with who they are and don’t want to change.
For the most part there’s very little wrong with wanting a friend to grow with you if that change is going to tangibly improve their life, such as becoming less codependent, or less likely to make unhealthy choices. If you’ve grown past the need for external validation and see your friend being dragged down by exactly that then there’s no harm in encouraging them to come round to that way of thinking too.
There is a difference between wanting the best for someone that you care about, and wanting someone’s presence in your life to be easier for your own comfort. You need to ask yourself – is this for them or is it for me? It’s also important to remember that everyone will have a different interpretation on what ‘changing for the better’ really means.
Sometimes, for any number of reasons, relationships have to end. Learning to let go of relationships with people that you have grown past, and who do not want to grow with you, are part of the natural cycle of life. You aren’t wrong for wanting to end a friendship that is no longer healthy, but you might be wrong if you try to force them to change for your own comfort.
Words: Ellen King
Illustration: Livi Wilson