Surviving All or Nothing Friendship

By Shawna Ayoub Ainslie

Hi. I’m Shawna, and I’m a survivor. I have all or nothing tendencies, and that doesn’t often make me the best friend, except when I’m the BEST friend. Like I said, all or nothing.

As you can imagine, it has taken me most of my adult life to learn how to set proper boundaries (raise your hand if you’re a survivor too, amiright?) and maintain them. I do the best I can. Living means learning. And one life skill I’m learning is when to take a step back.

For six years, I was a BEST friend to a truly exceptional woman. We did all the things together, even set a weekly “playdate” for just the two of us. We talked about parenting, shared sorrows and joys and laid plans for personal triumph. It was an amazing exchange of compassion and love.

We hit road bumps. They would skew our course a little bit, but with some practice and a commitment to communication and conflict resolution, we smoothed the road every time. Until my son’s differences got in the way of us supporting each other’s ability to reach our personal bests.

We had no plans to be perfect moms. Bad Moms has us pegged. We had no desire to be problem-free individuals. I had my own struggles and she had hers. We accepted each other as we were at any given moment.

Part of that included our kids playing together and us helping them practice compassionate conflict resolution. But my kiddo, it doesn’t click for him yet. He’s brilliant, loving and athletic, but some social skills remain beyond his reach. And the social interactions he was having with my friend’s kids were destructive to their sibling relationship. It had to stop.

My friend very apologetically set a boundary. No more of my kiddo at her house. It made perfect sense. It was the right choice for all the kids. It was the right choice for her. But it broke me.

First it was one crack in my heart. It spread throughout my whole body. I have three kids, but most of my time and energy goes to my first child. Tending different needs in a neurotypical world is a full time job. When you’re a survivor and your kid’s needs double as your triggers, it’s maybe 100 full time jobs. And my bestie was my main support sometimes even before my spouse. With her, I never had to shoulder the burden alone. So while it was the right choice for her, her kids and mine, that boundary was incredibly destructive to me.

It wasn’t my friend’s fault. The need of the many outweighed the need of the one.

I couldn’t get over it.

I’m still not over it.

All or nothing.

All my compassionate communication skills failed me. I couldn’t tell her I was sad or angry or that I understood because my feelings were so big they were lit matches angling toward the threads of our relationship. I wanted to burn it all down. And I almost did. I wrote it out and shared my heart on the page with her. She was far more hurt than I expected.

I still don’t understand. I don’t even know if I want to. Our relationship has changed. We aren’t mom friends anymore. She made the request. And because I’m still healing from being shattered by the need for distance from my child, and because he is still most of where my energy goes every day and therefore a huge portion of my identity, the friendship we have feels lean. My brain knows the boundary was not meant as a rejection, but my heart can’t accept that as truth.

Sometimes it still hurts enough for me to cry. I want to open up and share. Being a mom is hard even without neurodivergence. Having mom friends to talk about parenting struggles with to is critical to success. Support is everything. At that point, she was the only person I trusted fully with my story. Then it no longer felt safe to share that story, so I locked it away from all friends. I locked my heart away from her.

All or nothing.

I’m learning to give in pieces. I’m learning not to overcommit myself or my friends. That’s a big part of this. I brought a lot of assumptions into our relationship that I now recognize as either unfounded or unfair. Now, I’m learning to have friendships based on fun rather than depth. I’m slowly learning how to re-allow depth.

My bestie? We still have a great time together, especially when it comes to books or movies. We both just had to take a big step back to get to a place where we can enjoy each other. I’m working hard at inching toward her again. What we built was no small foundation. It was massive and beautiful. I’ve never experienced a friendship as powerful and long-lasting as ours except with my spouse. She brought me out of a cocoon and watched me butterfly. I’d like to think I offered her the same. Six years of unconditional love (now seven) is no small potatoes. Especially between women who have repeatedly been hurt by women.

There are still mountains to climb and the path feels jagged, but I’m moving through the obstacles the best I can. Right now, what we have is nothing compared to what we had, but it is friendship. It’s not everything, but it’s also not nothing, and that is plenty for me.


Shawna Ayoub Ainslie is a writer and coach who teaches expressive writing for release and recovery. This post is part of her Survive Your Story Guest Exchange. Her work has appeared in Huffington Post, Mogul, Stigma Fighters, Role Reboot, [wherever] and The Manifest-Station among other places. When she’s not editing Open Thought Vortex Magazine, you can find on TwitterFacebook or hosting #LinkYourLife.