Oh, When Harry Met Sally, that ever-renewing spring of arch observations about love and friendship, excellent hats, and Carrie Fisher’s immortal awesomeness. Every viewing feels like a peek into the Hogwarts Room of Requirement—what is it going to give me this time that I didn’t know I needed? Most recently, I was struck by an exchange that doesn’t get nearly enough attention, despite reflecting something that almost everybody has experienced at some point.
Sally and Marie (can I just call them Meg and Carrie?) are walking together to a double date when Sally casually explains something I’ve been trying to articulate for almost a year.
Sally: “Look, Harry is one of my best friends, and you are one of my best friends, and if by some chance you two hit it off, then we could all still be friends instead of drifting apart the way you do when you get involved with someone who doesn’t know your friends.”
Marie: “Well you and I haven’t drifted apart since I started seeing Arthur.”
Sally: [stops walking] “If Arthur ever left his wife, and I actually met him, I am sure that you and I would drift apart.”
I used to interpret this scene as Meg Ryan nicely trying to say that she probably wouldn’t like Arthur, and that if she ever met him, her dislike would create space between her and her friend. But now I think it’s much more universal than that. It’s not about Arthur, it’s about that sneaky, malaise-y plague on friendships that is drifting apart. Specifically, drifting apart as a result of romantic relationships.
I’ve never been in a romantic relationship. I’ve also never been good at knowing how to be a Good, Normal Friend when my loved ones are in romantic relationships. Of these two things, I am unquestionably more chagrined about the second. Especially since I used to pride myself on being Chill and Easygoing about my friends’ relationships. But it turns out that it’s way easier to be Chill and Easygoing when you can put your trust in the ebbs and flows of youthful infatuation, before your friends start actually committing their lives to other people. And the truth is that even before that, I was always better at counseling friends through breakups than first dates. I never was quite able to shake the cactus prickles in my gut when plans had to be rearranged to accommodate a significant other, or keep my shoulders from rising to the level of my eyes when dismissed with a “You don’t understand because you’re not in a relationship.” (To be fair, that is a pretty terrible thing to say. Please don’t ever say that.)
The last year in particular, my frustration with my friends’ relationships has grown to a point that I can’t ignore anymore, and it’s been…confusing. I watch a lot of rom-coms, so at first I assumed I was just jealous. Or maybe I was just afraid that other people would think I was jealous. But the one thing I know it isn’t is envy. I have an entire other set of ambivalences about being in a relationship myself, and in a bizarre twist, it’s turned out that the more friends enter relationships, the more I dig in my heels about the whole thing. But like I said, that’s a whole other suitcase to unpack.
Of course, there’s the element of feeling left out. I see pictures of “couples’ dinners” that I wasn’t invited to, and fall silent when conversations about personality tests turn to in-depth discussions of how everybody manages conflict with their partners. I work hard to be a good sport, not to make a fuss at weddings when people say “okay now just the couples!” because I really don’t want to be pitied, don’t want to be set up, don’t want to imply that they’re doing anything wrong. Because most of the time, they’re not. They’re just living their lives, excited to have found a person to kiss a lot and fetch them snacks at family events, which is my understanding of what a romantic relationship entails. And it’s also not as if I’m the only one—many of my friends are single too, so it’s not as if I’m the only one standing alone at the party (pardon me for a moment while I swat away the ominous “For now…” buzzing around my head).
So if I’m not jealous and I’m not mad at them and I’m not the sole spinster in the bunch, why do I feel so out of sorts?
Last weekend I drove two hours to spend the weekend with one of my closest friends. We’d been texting for weeks about all the Netflix and cheap Trader Joe’s wine we planned to consume, mutual relief a tangible undercurrent to the excitement. It had been a weird year for our friendship, thanks largely to her rapidly-accelerating relationship and my reactionary crankiness, but things were finally feeling normal again. As I settled into her apartment, stowing the wine in the fridge, and digging into the stirfry she’d made, she casually mentioned that her fiance and his friend were going to come by the following afternoon and stay the night. I tried to hold all of the sudden tension down in my stomach to keep my voice even and my shoulders from starting to creep up. At this point, getting upset seemed futile and a bit pathetic. When they arrived, they mostly holed up in the second bedroom playing video games and left us to our Parenthood marathon and peanut butter M&Ms. Later they emerged and we ate Swedish meatballs together and I made a concerted effort to laugh at their jokes, to eat, drink, and be merry and hope no one noticed how tightly I seemed to be clutching my wineglass during the movie we all watched together.
Back in my own city, stuck in traffic and talking (to myself) over a podcast, I struggled to articulate what was so depressing about the whole thing. Really, I reasoned, it had been fine. It had, in fact, been just like dozens of other occasions, with other friendships, in other apartments or pizza places or movie theaters. And that, I realized, is what I was actually sad about: hitting that point that happens in nearly every friendship when you just have to accept that from now on a large portion of the time you spend with your person is also going to be spent with their significant other, who may even be a fine person, but who isn’t your friend. They’re not the person you can be fully yourself around, not the person you’ve cried to on the phone, not the person you stayed with all night at Perkins surrounded by textbooks and cold fries, frantically trying to finish a Works Cited page. They didn’t do your makeup in the cafeteria bathroom before every home basketball game, or show up to support you at the lit mag readings you tried to hide from them. You didn’t nervously text them the day you got an IUD, or the day you told your parents you got an IUD. It’s not their fault that they don’t contain years stockpiled knowledge of your mumbled fears and rambling opinions on the 1998 Parent Trap. It’s not anyone’s fault. It’s just a fact of life.
Of course, facts of life are the worst kind of thing to take issue with. In general, they’re not very sympathetic, despite having such universal griping potential. Maybe that’s why the Meg and Carrie scene stuck out to me so much: Meg delivers her lines in such a decisive, clear-eyed way, no window dressing, no blame.
I don’t know if it’s because I’ve never been in a romantic relationship that my friendships have meant so much to me, or if because my friendships have meant so much to me that I haven’t ever been in a romantic relationship. I can’t pretend the two are unhooked from each other. Maybe I really would rather be the last one standing at the party than contribute to the drifting.
I don’t have any solutions, I’m afraid. Nothing pithy or Instagram-worthy. In the end, it’s not even anything to write home about. Dear Mom and Dad, nature continues to follow its due course? Groundbreaking. But I do have one more thing left to say. In high school my best friend and I picked out Christmas presents for each other with the care usually afforded to well-tended 40-year-long marriages. My expectations have been set way too high ever since then.
By Kelsey Widman
Kelsey Widman lives most of her life waiting for the opportunity to give a complete rundown of every podcast she listens to and why. Other hobbies include: tricking her friends into watching terrible movies, puzzling through the gender politics of science fiction, trying to make cats love her, and in general being a huge know-it-all.