by Meredith Maran
It’s a thin line between loving a friend and smothering her.
In recent e-mails, my best friend, Nan, and I have both realized that despite the friends, values, and passions we share and the milestones we’ve seen each other through, our friendship is in trouble. For the past few months we’ve been talking on the phone weekly instead of daily, seeing each other once a month instead of once a week. And when we do spend time together, I often come home feeling lonely.
I tell Nan how empty I feel when we talk about superficial things. Then she tells me she feels invaded when I pry into the intimate details of her life.
“We really do have different boundaries,” she says.
My ambivalence about the B word affects all of my relationships. I’ve always seen my lack of boundaries as a writer’s occupational hazard and a personality quirk that serves me well in at least some realms. But now I’ve got a tough choice to make. I’ve got to make an attitude adjustment or risk losing my closest friend.
So I’m eager for a miracle cure when I receive a new book that seems tailor-made for me—Boundary Issues: Using Boundary Intelligence to Get the Intimacy You Want and the Independence You Need In Life, Love, and Work, by social psychologist Jane Adams, PhD (John Wiley & Sons). “Boundaries,” I read, “regulate distance and closeness … controlling not only how open we are with others but also how vigilant we are in protecting our real selves from intrusion or encroachment.”
Boundaries are a women’s issue, Adams says. Because we’re socialized to define ourselves by our relationships, she writes, we “tend to confuse the absence of boundaries with real intimacy.”
And what does the book prescribe for this condition, which sounds a tiny bit like mine? The development of what Adams calls “boundary intelligence,” the ability to open, close, or leave ajar the doors that separate oneself from others. Mastering this skill, Boundary Issues promises, “can make you a more loving mate, a wiser parent, a better friend.” I decide that I need some boundary intelligence, pronto, so I arrange a consultation with Adams and tell her what’s been happening with Nan.
“The issues you’re experiencing are quite common in friendships between women,” Adams explains. “We expect our female friends to understand us completely. But it usually doesn’t work that way. Some women are on your end of the boundary continuum; they’re driven by the urge to merge. Others, like Nan, only let people in to a certain degree; their boundaries are very firm.”
I ask if a boundary mismatch like ours can be fixed. Adams assures me it can, if I’m willing to do one of my least favorite things—compromise.
“Don’t you think it makes sense to maintain the connection,” Adams asks, “but dial it down to a level that’s comfortable for Nan?” After a pause, she adds convincingly, “Especially when you consider the alternative.”
The doctor has a point, so I decide to try her approach. Instead of bugging Nan to get together, I wait for her to call. When she does, we make a date.
Nan greets me at the door and tells me dinner will be ready soon. I wait in the dining room instead of hanging out with her in the kitchen, the way I used to. We sit down to eat. We’re both being very polite. My questions bubble up, and I swallow them back down.
For 2 hours Nan and I make small talk. She shows me her new easel, tells me funny stories about people we both know. My loneliness rises to the surface, and my anger, and my fear. I tell myself that Nan and I are going somewhere, that every step we take is getting us there, even though I don’t know exactly where that is.
Two hours later I find myself curled up on the couch with Nan. I’m listening, because she’s talking—even when I don’t ask probing questions. Maybe, Adams would say, it’s because I’m not asking probing questions. Then Nan asks about me, and listens while I talk. For the first time in months, we don’t discuss what’s wrong with our friendship. For the first time in months, I leave Nan’s house feeling happy.
— Meredith Maran is a frequent contributor to Health and author of Dirty: Inside America’s Teenage Drug Epidemic and many other books.