Extricating yourself from a toxic friendship can be tough. Unlike romantic relationships, there’s not a ton of advice out there about how to tactfully “dump” a friend. Fortunately, if you’re struggling to find the right words, you can take a few pointers from one of America’s greatest writers, John Steinbeck.
In the mid-1930s, Steinbeck was close with an aspiring writer named George Albee, Brain Pickings reports. But by 1938, the friendship was beginning to sour. Jealous of Steinbeck’s professional successes, Albee began gossiping behind his friend’s back.
Brain Pickings explains that despite Steinbeck's literary successes, including the recent publication of Of Mice and Men, the author was in the midst of a profoundly trying time. He’d been accused of getting a childhood friend pregnant, and was surrounded by gossip and unkind rumors.
During that time, Steinbeck discovered that, rather than stand up for his friend, Albee had been fueling these rumors, speaking ill of him behind his back. In response, Steinbeck began subtly retreating from the friendship, giving Albee the cold shoulder. Finally, Albee confronted Steinbeck about his withdrawal from the relationship. Steinbeck, who famously preferred written correspondence to phone calls, responded with an artfully written breakup letter.
“I’d like to be friends with you, George, but I can’t if I have to wear a mail shirt the whole time,” he wrote. “I wish to God your unhappiness could find some other outlet. But I can’t consider you a friend when out of every contact there comes some intentionally wounding thing.”
While Steinbeck ended his friendship with Albee in no uncertain terms, the two managed to reconcile about 12 years later, though biographers note that the relationship never regained the level of intimacy it once had.
Read Steinbeck’s masterful breakup letter below, and for more of Steinbeck's written correspondence, check out Steinbeck: A Life In Letters.
Dear George: The reason for your suspicion is well founded. This has been a difficult and unpleasant time. There has been nothing good about it. In this time my friends have rallied around, all except you. Every time there has been a possibility of putting a bad construction on anything I have done, you have put such a construction. Some kind friend has told me about it every time you have stabbed me in the back and that whether I wanted to know it or not. I didn’t want to know it really. If such things had been reported as coming from more than one person it would be easy to discount the whole thing but there has been only one source. Now I know that such things grow out of an unhappiness in you and for a long time I was able to reason so and to keep on terms of some kind of amicability. But gradually I found I didn’t trust you at all, and when I knew that then I couldn’t be around you any more. It became obvious that anything I said or did in your presence or wrote to you would be warped viciously and repeated and then the repetition was repeated to me and the thing was just too damned painful. I tried to sidestep, just to fade out of your picture. But that doesn’t work either. I’d like to be friends with you, George, but I can’t if I have to wear a mail shirt the whole time. I wish to God your unhappiness could find some other outlet. But I can’t consider you a friend when out of every contact there comes some intentionally wounding thing. This has been the most difficult time in my life. I’ve needed help and trust and the benefit of the doubt, because I’ve tried to beat the system which destroys every writer, and from you have come only wounds and kicks in the face. And that is the reason and I think you always knew it was the reason. john
[h/t Brain Pickings]
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