How To Burn Bridges With Friends
Photo: Violette

In friendship, in work, in life, in relationships, we’re advised “not to burn bridges.” You never know who you might need later and you don’t want to the truss of communication to be broken beyond repair. But doesn’t that directly conflict with other common teachings that we should give of ourselves unconditionally and without expectation of reciprocation? I find myself grappling with having been taught from an early age that some of us will have lasting meaningful relationships and others of us will maintain purely transactional relationships that serve only to benefit us strategically. Which one am I?

The person who maintains intimate and loving relationships is healthy and good and the other, though, probably successful, and charming is janus-faced, a social pariah and most likely untrustworthy. But are those of us who value every single relationship equally and commit ourselves never ever to cross someone even though we may have been crossed truly the winners? Or are we just holding on to some idea that never letting go of a bad thing makes us strong?

My commitment to preserving the bridges I’ve built and never burning them, while maintaining the integrity of the proverbial bridge, has often burned me. When I am wrong, I am regretful, I am apologetic, and I will take the temporary scorn of whomever I’ve wronged. I carry the burden of having challenged the relationship. I am sorry. But, too often, as a practice of my personal humility, forgiveness, and commitment to giving all of my friends and colleagues, the “benefit of the doubt”, I’ve resisted scorning those who have wronged me, I’ve turned the other cheek, I’ve let it roll off my back like a duck. But I feel the exact opposite of strong. I feel completely foolish!

People who are generally not cool to me whether friend, co-worker, employee, or significant other, shouldn’t be allowed to do so just because I don’t want to burn “the bridge”. While I expect that friends who have hurt me in some way will feel regret and concern for me, I am often struck with the realization that my feelings are “not that serious”. That their feelings are more important than my own. And then I realize that of all the accommodations, I make to maintain one bridge I am prioritizing a bridge to a person who’s not prioritizing their bridge to me. I am desperately trying to lay the foundation for a relationship that will never be solid and I’m not sure why.

In the last decade or so, I’ve taken stock of how many good friends, and solid bridges I’ve passed over and not attended to in favor of engaging in the excitement and drama of other people who had limited interest in maintaining their bridge to me. I’ve come to terms with the reality that the concern over a burned bridge must be shared by both parties for the fire to catch, in the first place. Basically, the bridge can only be burned if both parties care about it.

When a relationship isn’t equally valued by both parties, the bridge is shaky at best. And then, what load can it bear? In my quest toward assessing my feelings of disregard in some of my precious but unreciprocated relationships, I have learned that there’s a very specific moment when the responsibility of bearing all of the weight in any relationship is simply no longer worth the effort. And at the precise moment when I feel just beyond foolishness and can no longer bear to support the structure, I just let it go.

It’s easier on the soul to feel peace in letting go of relationships that feel burdensome. A bridge that two let go can not be considered burned, just no longer functional. When a bridge burns it leaves space for a new structure to be built whether anew between the same two people or in a new capacity all together. When a bridge burns it releases you from a tether and brings new freedom.

So how do I build a bridge and never burn it? Who cares. It’s now my opinion that perhaps the adage was meant to remind us that every relationship should be one in which we are valued and valuable, fragile and flexible, trusted and trustworthy. When a bridge burns it reminds me of the strength of the others on which I feel secure and supported from all sides. It reminds me that something important and incomparable is lost when a bridge burns. But that my being burned shouldn’t come at the cost of keeping a shaky foundation standing.

— Tia Williams

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