Book Review: What Did I Do Wrong?

June 7, 2011

It happens without warning and it hits you with devastating force. Your closest girlfriend…stops calling you or seeing you. She has decided for whatever reason to move on with her life and she leaves you to clean up the broken pieces of the friendship.

I’m sorry, but CAN I QUOTE THIS ENTIRE BOOK AT YOU FOREVER AND EVER? I mean, I am seriously considering doing just that.

Not only was I currently going through an “unending” (what Liz Pryor calls it when a friend drops out of your life with no warning whatsoever in What Did I Do Wrong?: When Women Don’t Tell Each Other the Friendship Is Over) (and, yes, that whole title is necessary), but I had the same experience Pryor did when I realized I was in this situation:

Deep in your heart, where bullshit can’t survive, it’s impossible to mistake one woman blowing another off for anything other than what it is. […] I knew somewhere inside me that our friendship was over.


Something inside felt inexplicably off. I had a nagging feeling in the pit of my stomach […] An entire trail of ended friendships with women ultimately surfaced. A few had ended naturally…but this trail revealed numerous friendships that had stopped, with basically no ending.

The endings to each of these friendships in my adult life had come through some form of avoidance. And not just regular avoidance, but a masterful, calculated, methodical kind–quiet, brutal, and alarmingly effective.

I no longer had to question the meaning of the feeling in my stomach. It was a mass of unaddressed emotion that had accumulated after each unresolved ending with a female friend.

LIZ PRYOR. GET OUT OF MY HEAD. No really. I mean it.

I just…yes. She describes it perfectly. PERFECTLY. That is exactly what happened with my recent unending. I went from the grudging acceptance to the WAIT A MINUTE. THIS HAS HAPPENED BEFORE stage, and it has happened A LOT. Just all of these experiences kept coming back to me. Remember her? And her? Oh and don’t forget about her! And, wow, it just made me sad.

Here’s the thing, though. (And this is why books that deal with unpleasant subjects are necessary, idiot WSJ writer who I really shouldn’t be giving any more pageviews.) (I mean, seriously.) (I just…ugh. I don’t have the energy to get into all the ways that article sucks.) THE THING IS that my experience does not exist in a vacuum. At all. It is, in fact, a pretty universal experience, according to the (informal, granted) research that Liz Pryor did.

That’s right. All of the women she interviewed had been dumped unceremoniously by at least one friend. It is not an individual experience; it is one shared by many. Pryor isn’t a social scientist, so she doesn’t actually give the kind of research details that would be expected of an expert doing this kind of field research, but she offers up pretty powerful anecdotal evidence that confirms what I know to be true: the end of a friendship can be devastating, especially when you don’t know why it happens.

What’s even more devastating, Pryor discovers in her talks with these women, is the lack of respect and acknowledgment afforded to the end of a friendship–either by the person who dumps you or society at large. Some quotes! (Of course.)

The act of girlfriends dumping girlfriends is simply void of any guidelines or rules. […] there is no protocol when it comes to how a woman should end a friendship with another woman. She is free to behave and act in any fashion, fit or unfit. Not a soul will question her. Like no other situation I can think of, accountability and responsibility simply don’t exist.

Or like a friend of mine recently said, “A guy who drifts away is a dick. But sometimes friendships drift, and it’s different.” (Obviously, I do not agree with her. A friend who drifts away is a dick as well, but somehow, we’ve convinced ourselves that it’s different. I have been guilty of this myself, so I’m not throwing stones. I’m just saying. Amazingly, perspective always changes when I’m the one on the receiving end of crap behavior.)

The worst for me (and Pryor) is when you flat out ask your friend if you’ve done something wrong or if something is going on/shifting, and she says, “Oh no, I’m just busy” or otherwise continues to BRUSH YOU OFF when you know something ain’t right. As Pryor says, instincts don’t lie (see also the b.s. quote above).

Our not acknowledging that we are indeed ending the friendship is what could be considered lying by omission. To deny something is wrong when a friend asks, is an actual lie.

THANK YOU. It’s also a lie to say to ourselves, “Oh, I don’t want to hurt her by telling her I don’t want to be friends anymore.” YOU ARE ALREADY HURTING HER BY PRETENDING EVERYTHING IS FINE WHEN SHE KNOWS IT ISN’T. OMG. A friend and I discussed this when she was going through a break up with her boyfriend. When someone says s/he doesn’t want to hurt you, what that person actually means is they don’t want to deal with the emotional consequences of knowing they have hurt you and your reaction to said hurt. That is why it’s always so bothersome when someone says that. It’s bull.

(Can you tell I have strong feelings about this subject? My word. I didn’t pick female friendships for my research/dissertation topic for nothing.)

Okay, back to the lack of societal respect for the ending of female friendships.

The hostess said, “When we end a relationship with a man we break up.” And I said, “Exactly, and the whole world acknowledges our pain. Our parents, our friends, society says, this is something! It’s a breakup. How are we doing? Are we getting through it? Are we moving on? We get set up on blind dates, taken for coffee, and sent cards. As women, we get more empathy and compassion for the ending of a relationship with a man than for anything else other than death or birth.”

So, I will not get into an epic and lengthy rant about living in a heterosexist society that only values women by their relationships with men and fails to consider that having an emotional response to any other kind of intimate relationship than one with a man is possible. I mean, haha, intimate relationship with anyone other than a man? SUCH A THING DOES NOT EXIST. Intimate relationship that doesn’t involve sex? WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT? I will just direct you to read Adrienne Rich’s “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence” and encourage you to pay particular attention to what she describes as the lesbian continuum.

Where was I? Right, not ranting. Pryor describes how she dealt with the ending of a relationship with a boyfriend vs. how most women end relationships with their women friends:

That breakup was clear, compact, and final. The confrontation was something I clearly struggled with, but I did it. After all my whining and stressing, I eventually faced up and broke off the relationship–because that is what you do. That is the protocol when it comes to male-female relationships. After the confrontation, there was never any second-guessing, speculation, or confusion about what happened and what the future would hold. So what is it exactly about friendship with women and relationships with men that carry such agendas at the end?

Again, this is where social sanctions come in. And someone who is a sociologist would be able to talk more about that, but since I am not that person, well, all I can offer is this quote from the book: “Friendship lacks sanctions set forth by society to describe it’s responsibilities.” There are no rules. Even though we all know deep in our hearts that it’s wrong to just dump a woman friend (most of the women in the book talk about having heartfelt conversations or doing deep reflection before deciding a friendship was over), that is what gets done. Because, like my friend said above, it’s okay when women just drift, right? Right?

The second half of the book is Pryor offering up alternatives to the calculated avoidance, lying, and misleading that leads to an unending. She offers more anecdotes of women who confronted their friends. They didn’t do it face-to-face (not only because it’s uncomfortable but because it is hard to say everything you need to say in those situations) but through a letter. Letters! Emails! These are why these modes of communication are effective. Sometimes it was the end, but often, it offered the women a chance to revisit and revise their friendships (if that’s what the letter writer was open to). Like Pryor says, “Most friendships can withstand some change. You don’t have to make the choice of being friends in a certain way, or not being friends at all.” I think Pryor is really clear that the letter can effectively end a friendship you don’t want to be in any longer. Which is fine because it does let the other person know you at least respect her enough to say what’s up and also that you valued the time you did have together.

When your friend blows you off that you have known and shared things with, the experience is just so, so bad. For me, it’s that feeling that I’ve been thrown away, that the time we shared together didn’t matter at all. That’s what hurts so much about the unending, and Pryor is really careful to address that. Sometimes friendships can’t/shouldn’t be saved, and that’s okay. But just basically deserting someone? Not cool. Not cool at all. Especially when, if it were a man/romantic partner, there would have been all of this talking about/through it. And, yes, I know it’s different when you’re sleeping with someone, but still. That dude could treat you like crap, and he would still get more than your friend that was there with you through it all got. And that just ain’t right.

“But when you’ve really made a friend, you know, an intimiate, someone you’ve shared all your stuff with, someone who really knows you in and out…one might say the ending deserves some words, some explanation, or for God’s sake, some acknowledgement.”

I really, really like that Pryor ends on this note, so I will, too:

May you always remember the joy and contentment that your women friends bring to your life, and the honor that deserves.

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  1. tnt

    “For me, it’s that feeling that I’ve been thrown away, that the time we shared together didn’t matter at all.”

    seriously. i’ve never understood why it hurts so much, but youve just succinctly summed it up.

    • Akilah

      It wasn’t until *this* time that I realized it myself.

  2. Vasilly

    Wow! I think I need this book! I had a friendship that ended almost without warning a few years ago. It probably wouldn’t have bothered me if I hadn’t been friends with this person for almost a decade. I’m definitely adding this to my tbr list!

    • Akilah

      It’s good, especially for the whole “whew, it’s NOT just me” thing. Plus, I do like the way she looks at how we can handle these break ups better, whether we’ve gotten dumped or we’re doing the dumping.


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