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If you don't want to be my friend any more,
Jennifer M. Smith writes, then at least be honest about it

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I lost a friend this summer. It wasn't a death, although it feels like one. A friend I made in my early 20s divorced me – by ghosting – ending a 30-year relationship.

We met on a field trip in our student days. We never lived in the same town, but we built and maintained our relationship with liberal letter writing and later by e-mail. Phone calls, Skype calls and infrequent trips to visit one another's new homes kept our friendship strong for more than three decades.

Last year, she was "simply too busy" to stop by. I understood, she needed family time with her aging mom and adult children. I thought I sensed a chill, but maybe I was imagining it.

This year on her annual visit home – I don't live too far away – she "didn't have a moment to spare." This time there was no question – she was avoiding me.

Gently in an e-mail, I inquired. I sensed a chasm between us. Was she okay? Was there something I'd said or done to cause this distance in our friendship, or was it something I hadn't said or hadn't done?

A month later, I received a reply by e-mail. In a carefully worded dissertation, I read a long list of my character flaws and shortcomings as a friend. She needed to move away from negative influences. I was one. I was no longer needed. I was out.

It was painful. My feelings were hurt. My ego, bruised. A fissure ran through my heart. Surprisingly, I wasn't angry, but I was humiliated by the deceit and affronted by her tactics. If I hadn't inquired, how long would the silent treatment have gone on? I felt a fool for not seeing it coming.

On social media, I'd seen her posters with self-affirming statements such as, "Giving up our relationship doesn't mean I hate you, it means I love me more," and "Delete the negative people from your life!" I thought she was railing against her ex-husband. It never occurred to me that I was the negative element that needed deleting.

I had no context for the experience. I've never been deleted or unfriended before. I wondered if it was a stage of life thing. Was a friendship divorce a normal experience in your 50s? Maybe we're all just too tired, too sleep-deprived from menopause. Maybe we don't have the patience to accept failures and imperfections in our friends any more. Maybe we're too irritable to tolerate slights, too tired to strive to work things out.

I found myself paying attention to items she had given me as gifts over the years. I suppose I was grieving. I admired her art hanging in my kitchen. I dug around in my desk and found the sterling silver letter opener she'd made for me, adorned with an opal, my birthstone. I wore the gold earrings she'd given me for a week straight. I felt terrible. How could three decades of friendship end like this?

I worked at finding something positive in the experience. I tried to garner something learned. I went so far as to feel proud of her. If she was suffering and needed healing and ditching me was the way to get it, then, good. After all, she was my friend. What I wanted most for her was a happy healthy life.

And yet, it didn't sit well. The long slow freeze out had been an insidious act, disrespectful in its duplicity. I kept thinking that there had to be a better way, a more noble way to end a friendship.

In looking for answers, I queried my friends, "Was this how things were done now?"

"It happens all the time," my twentysomething friends explained. "You get sick of somebody, you just ghost them."

"Ghost them?"

"It's a term from the online dating world. You know, if you're fed up with someone you just ghost them, you disappear out of their life without a word. It's the ultimate cold shoulder."

I was dumbfounded. Steadfast avoidance, the coward's way out, that's what's in? I searched for guidance online, hoping to find gracious unfriending strategies and advice on how to end relationships with integrity. I was disturbed to find just the opposite.

Authors crowed, "It's better this way!" while gloating that the self-serving tactic is "harder on them, but easier on you!" Total nonverbal rejection was the best way some purported. It was even better, apparently, to make sure that your friends knew their messages have been read and purposely left unanswered.

Writers insisted that one should never unfriend someone in person. Never agree to a meeting, stall a rendezvous at all costs they said. If pressed, one advice-giver suggested agreeing to meet and then cancelling at the last minute as a sure way to "send a message."

Obviously I was out of touch. Have more than two decades of reality TV taught us a new way to deal with people we don't like; we vote them off the island or fire them from the show? Have we become a society that believes that to ignore and avoid, to delete someone or to ghost them, is "for the best" simply because it's easier?

I guess I am old-fashioned. I believe in stepping up to the uncomfortable, to being willing to feel pain if you are knowingly causing it. Ghosting is no way to end a relationship – it's the desecration of friendship itself. After all, our humanity is not defined by how we treat our friends, but by how we treat the people who are not our friends or no longer our friends. I believe it is possible to care about others even if you do not wish to carry on a relationship with them.

I still care about my friend and I miss her, but I respect the decision she has made to let me go. I wish she had been less fashionable. I wish she had shown more courage. Even though the friendship was over, I wish she had shown me that she still cared.

Jennifer M. Smith lives in Burlington, Ont.