I am by nature a packrat. I left behind a garage full of junk when I moved to Tampa, and my garage here is full of boxes that I have yet to unpack. This hoarding instinct even applies to relationships.
My parents were missionaries. In the 1960s and 1970s, missionaries typically spent 4-5 years on the field followed by a year back in their home country, so it was normal to have classmates vanish to the US or Canada after a couple of years. Often they came back a year or so later, but sometimes they stayed up north or were reassigned elsewhere.
I treasured my friendships, even when they were far away. I wrote faithfully to my good friends and even to some that weren’t close. I collected their responses in a file drawer at my parents’ house, and later in shoeboxes at college. When I first got married in 1985, I still had nearly every letter I had received in my life.
A few months into marriage, I worked my way through my college mail accumulation and threw out letters from ex-girlfriends. This was important because I had now committed myself exclusively to my wife.
Many years later, when I was doing some serious soul-searching, I sorted my lifetime accumulation of mail and threw out most of it, keeping only letters from family and a couple of very close friends. It was part of a process of uncluttering my life so God could do new things. I didn’t need anchors binding me to my past.
Perhaps because of the transitory nature of missionary-kid friendships, I have clung to relationships as I did those old letters. I have hundreds of Facebook friends, from nearly every slice of my life. My cell phone is full of numbers for people in Dallas that I may never have occasion to call again. I track the blogs of people I have met here and on Xanga to see what news they post.
This clinging has not served me well. After my divorce in 2002, I continued to do major repairs to my ex-wife’s house, help with her rental properties, stop by for long Sunday evening chats, celebrate family birthdays and holidays with her… This set me up to be hurt over and over and over.
In the last decade, I’ve finally been learning the value of a clean break. In 2005 I somehow committed to working several times a week for a handyman client that I dreaded visiting. Finally, after a week in which every single day she did or said something that bothered me (including interrupting my Sunday afternoon with my kids with a call asking me to unload her car, which was full of laminated flooring she had just bought), I had it out with her. It felt very good to drive away from her house for the last time.
At my previous office, I used to be easygoing and open with people. After discovering that things I had told someone in confidence had spread to other co-workers, I pulled back and stopped talking to all but one or two trusted colleagues.
A relative for whom we found and subsidized an apartment became persistently rude and aggressive, so we regretfully cut off contact and financial support. A couple of other close family members have also demonstrated a serious lack of integrity and required us to distance ourselves. These are people with whom we used to spend lots of time.
My wonderful wife Alicia has helped me to see how important it is to break off nonessential contact with my ex. I now communicate with my children’s mother only in writing. As a result, my buttons no longer get pushed, I avoid being manipulated, and I can see clearly to free myself from unreasonable commitments made when I was vulnerable.
Cutting ties goes against my nature, but has turned out to be very healthy. I treasure good and healthy friendships and no longer waste emotional energy on relationships where there is clearly no hope for reconciliation.
Leaving people to the consequences of their actions is often the best thing for them as well. We usually learn more from hard knocks than from explanations.