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"Black Hole" Friendships: Are They Worth the Angst?
Journalist and author Cindy La Ferle writes about "black hole" relationships and how to make sense of them.
When my son was a child, I often volunteered to help at his small parochial school. I supervised Valentine's Day parties, carpooled for field trips, wiped sticky cafeteria tables, and baked countless batches of cookies and cupcakes for fundraisers. In the process, I formed some warm and lasting friendships with the other volunteer moms. Except for one.
There was one mom who just didn't like me -- a mom who had a knack for making me feel like a social outcast from Mean Girls. Even when I tried to extend my hand in friendship, she was as chilly as the Eskimo Pies we handed out to the third graders on Ice Cream Day. Had I known what I'd done to offend her, I would have apologized. Whatever it was, my transgression remains a mystery.
Even if you’ve never been a homeroom mom, you know exactly I mean. You’ve probably got your own social nemesis.
The woman who doesn’t like you might be the tetchy neighbor who criticizes your perennial beds or the paint color you chose for the front door. She might be the toxic relative who snubs you at family barbecues. Or maybe she’s the competitive co-worker who can’t bring herself to pay a compliment on your new haircut or congratulate you on a hard-won promotion.
No matter what you say or do, you’ll never win these people over. Even when you’re as sweet as key lime pie, they’ll refuse to sit at the table of your friendship. Sue Patton Thoele, calls them “the black holes” in our personal universe.
Thoele is the author of a book of essays I keep at my bedside, The Woman’s Book of Soul: Meditations for Courage, Independence & Spirit (Conari Press). In one of the essays, Thoele recalls an awkward time when she wasn’t hitting it off with two women in her own social circle.
“The energy I put out to these women was merely absorbed as if it had disappeared into a black hole and none came back to me,” she explains. A psychotherapist, Thoele understood that the qualities we find annoying in others are often the same ones we unconsciously dislike in ourselves. But in this case, it wasn't even that complicated. The cold-shouldered women in the author's circle were simply lousy candidates for her friendship.
When I was a lot younger, I'd spend months trying to figure out why some relationships fly while others can’t seem to get off the ground. I struggled to understand why a simple case of envy can boil over until it scalds and destroys what could have become a mutually supportive friendship.
And I’m still in awe of the fact that most men, like my husband, rarely waste time wondering why some people don’t like them. They shake hands and move on. But many women I know tend to lose sleep devising ways to appease or impress folks who needn’t count so much. Some of us work twice as hard to avoid conflict and maintain the status quo, often at our own expense.
I realize now that healthy relationships are reciprocal -- a graceful dance of give-and-take. And when I find myself feeling snubbed, neglected, or short-changed, I’ve probably stumbled into Black Hole Territory. I trust my intuition and quietly bow out.
Being authentic, after all, is a key requirement for true friendship. Being authentic means that we own who we are -- and that we've finally stopped trying to adapt to what others expect of us. It can take years to arrive at that confident place. Meanwhile, it's liberating to give up the notion that everyone has to uphold our political views or religious beliefs. It's a relief to know that even our closest friends and colleagues won't always share our taste in books, movies, food, or fashion.
As Winston Churchill once said, "Having critics or enemies means that you've stood up for something, sometime in your life." In other words, there's no shame in the fact that some people we meet simply aren't going to like us. As long as we remain civil and kind, we're entitled to privately reciprocate the feeling.
Parts of this essay are excerpted from an essay in Cindy La Ferle's award-winning essay collection, Writing Home. It is reprinted with the author's permission. Visit Cindy La Ferle's Life Lines: www.laferle.com
Black hole friendships are inherently unsatisfying.