My Therapist Says

My Therapist Says All Relationships Are Impossible

It’s okay to lose a friendship

Illustration: Kate Dehler

This summer I reached an impasse with a close friend, who is white, over the Black Lives Matter movement. In the decade we’ve known each other, I had always felt comfortable talking to him about my own experience of otherness as an Indian American. But when I pointed to his whiteness as a privilege he ought to examine, he grew defensive, blew up, and ghosted.

I’m not someone who falls out with friends easily or often. The few times it has happened, my instinct is to ask, “How did I get myself into this?” or “Why didn’t I see this coming?”

When any situation in my life goes awry, I tend to perseverate, fixating on how I might have caused it to fly off the rails. “Am I a bad judge of character?” I think. My therapist is used to me trying to locate responsibility within myself (and of course, sometimes we find it there!). But when it comes to the shock of a breakup, whether with a friend or a romantic partner, it’s the fantasy that we can ever fully know someone, or achieve a kind of perfect unity that’s to blame.

My therapist put it bluntly: “All relationships are impossible.”

All relationships come with the inherent futility of achieving total communion, and understanding as much is key to sustaining them.

His statement was one of those breakthrough moments when my jaw dropped and I felt an immediate sense of relief. The existentialism of it thrilled me, and its practical application made perfect sense. In every relationship, there will always come a conflict (likely many over time) that indicates an unbridgeable distance between two people. Labels like “best friend,” “partner,” and, of course, “parent” represent fantasies of unity and wholeness that are always, ultimately unattainable.

All relationships come with the inherent futility of achieving total communion, and understanding as much is key to sustaining them.

“A lot of the things that the world tells us about what a relationship is supposed to be present an ideal that everyone feels they’re failing to live up to,” says Jamieson Webster, PhD, a psychoanalyst in New York City and author of Conversion Disorder: Listening to the Body in Psychoanalysis. It’s not just that the messages we get from pop culture, about fairy tale romance and lifelong BFFs, are unrealistic. The very idea that any relationship, no matter how close, can make us less alone or separate from each other is perhaps the ultimate human fantasy.

“Separation and difference are very hard, including the capacity to understand being alone,” Webster says. “There is so much fantasy that tries to cover over ‘aloneness,’ which is simply a factual reality.”

When we’re able to more clearly understand our innate separateness, we can also more readily accept that personal differences are bound to arise in every relationship. The question then becomes how two people acknowledge the essential distance between them, communicate their feelings about it, and reach a mutual resolution that doesn’t attempt to paper over it. Sometimes it’s possible to bridge the gap and continue forward together; in other cases, it may be time to move on. “Whether with a friend or a partner, it’s about what you build on the basis of your differences,” Webster says. “Because you are two unique people with different histories and different pleasures and pains.”

Recognizing the impossibility of a “perfect” relationship is also useful when we seek to build new ones. While swiping through dating profiles, for example, it’s easy to point to a picture you don’t particularly like or the fact that someone prefers cats over dogs as reasons why it would never work out. This type of everyday sorting is also based on what my therapist calls that impossible fantasy: that any two people in a relationship can be perfectly aligned and without irreconcilable differences. How many potential connections have we cut off at the pass due to preconceived notions of compatibility?

Breakups are hard, even and especially with close friends. But they’re also the surest way to recognize, and even honor, the truth of our individuality. “Breakups really propel people forward in terms of their development,” Webster says. “Whether it’s with friends or partners, a breakup is a time to recover yourself and find your separateness,” something you may have been struggling to find inside the relationship. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t allow ourselves to feel hurt and disappointed, or take responsibility for our role in the process. But rather than frame a breakup as a personal failure, we can acknowledge it as a reflection of one of life’s most essential truths.

Naveen Kumar is a culture writer and editor whose recent work appears on them.us, The Daily Beast, The Hollywood Reporter, and The New York Times.

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