Text by Chantel Simmons & Marissa Stapley-Ponikowski
Chantel Simmons and Marissa Stapley-Ponikowski met seven years ago when they worked at the same magazine. Their friendship began, as many do, on a slightly superficial level. “We’d go for cocktails and talk about office politics or shop together for the dresses we were coveting at Anthropologie (me) or Betsey Johnson (her),” recalls Stapley- Ponikowski. Their friendship evolved when they joined a golf league one summer. During their four-hour games, they revealed more personal details about their lives, including their shared desire to become authors. Years later, they signed with the same publisher, but instead of feeling competitive, they dreamed of tandem book tours. But then their publisher went bust. Suddenly their dreams—and their friendship—were no longer compatible. “In an ever-shrinking industry, we desperately wanted to succeed,” says Stapley-Ponikowski. “We as in me; we as in her—but not we as in us anymore.” Mutual distrust set in, and they drifted apart until an unexpected encounter on a subway platform led to an honest-to-goodness breakthrough.
When I ran into Chantel that rainy morning on the platform, she had somehow become one of those people you say hello to, make plans to get together with at some point in the murky future and then walk away from, feeling slightly relieved. But she wasn’t just an acquaintance; this was one of my best friends. And our relationship was in the middle of a collapse so profound, she now felt like a stranger. Before I could censor myself, I asked if she had time for a coffee. Moments later, we were sitting at a table staring at each other. I hate confrontation and thought about glossing over our breakdown by making a simple excuse— or even pretending it hadn’t happened and trying to pick up where we left off—but I knew that if we were going to rescue our friendship, I needed to work up the courage to tell her how I was feeling. “I don’t think you fully appreciated how crushing it was for me to learn that my first book wouldn’t be published,” I told her. Chantel, who had published two novels by then, looked surprised. “I feel the same way,” she replied. “I’m in the same position: My next book won’t come out either, and I felt like you didn’t care about that.” It was a start, and for the next hour we were completely honest about everything we felt had gone wrong with our friendship and why. It felt great. “Maybe we should try to do this full-disclosure thing permanently,” I suggested. “How about we give it a trial—say, for 30 days?” Chantel asked somewhat cautiously. We made the pact and sealed it with biscotti.
Later that night, I had second thoughts. A few years ago, a friend ran into trouble with her partner and, as the relationship was dissolving, she asked me what I truly thought of him. I told her that he was a two-timing jerk (I used a different word) and that she deserved better. Then he proposed. She said yes. It probably goes without saying that we are no longer close. If I had kept my mouth shut, I wouldn’t have had to go through the pain of losing a friend, even if I didn’t support her decision. Since I had always considered Chantel to be the sensitive one, I was worried that if I said something truthful but thoughtless (like “I don’t like your perfume” or “Your new hair colour doesn’t suit you”), it would hurt her. Turns out, I was the sensitive one. A week into our pact, we were supposed to meet for dinner. I was running late as usual. By the time I arrived at the restaurant, Chantel was annoyed. Pre-pact, I know she would have let it slide. But this time, she told me how inconsiderate my constant lateness was. Instead of accepting the criticism—being forced to wait for someone is irritating—I suddenly wanted to cry. I have two preschoolers and an office job, and I live in the west end; Chantel has a cat, works from home and lives downtown. I found myself wondering who I preferred: the old Chantel, who would have done anything to not hurt my feelings, or the new, honest Chantel, who told me how she really felt. The next day, she sent me a funny e-card (“Sorry, my selfabsorption got in the way of yours”) and we were able to laugh at ourselves. We didn’t necessarily solve the problem, but we got a chance to see things from two different perspectives.
I liked having someone with whom I could be really, truly, I-just-pushed-a-pregnant-lady-out-of-my-way-toget- a-seat-on-the-subway-and-I-don’t-regret-it honest without fear of judgment. After the 30 days, we decided to stick with the pact—even if it wasn’t always easy. Once you start being radically honest with someone, it becomes part of the identity of your relationship.
Our “honesty pact” encountered its first big challenge a couple of weeks after Marissa and I shared that coffee. I had sent her an email asking her for advice on something career-related. She didn’t reply right away, which was unusual, so I suspected that something was up. It surprised me because it never crossed my mind that Marissa wouldn’t keep up her end of the pact. In fact, I was worried that I would be so hurt by her truth-telling that I wouldn’t want to be friends with her anymore. Who wants to be friends with someone who makes you feel bad about yourself? I like to think that I can give and receive the truth, but sometimes, just like Jack Nicholson famously said, I can’t handle the truth. Or I can—just not without a box of tissues. Tears were certainly shed when Marissa told me that I was tactful and gracious but too worried about what others thought of me. But if she had the courage to tell me how she really saw me—after years of knowing me—I had to put some stock in that. Actually, I already knew there was truth to it, and that’s why I was hurt.
In the spirit of keeping things honest, I invited her out for a drink to chat about my career dilemma. “I didn’t reply to your note because I knew that what I had to say would only hurt you,” she confessed. I realized then that sometimes what we want most in our friends is for them to tell us what we want to hear. Whether it’s that our jeans make us look skinny (when they don’t) or something more significant, sometimes our girlfriends are the ones who nod sympathetically and take our side, even if we both know we’re in the wrong. Did this honesty pact mean I could never ask Marissa to be that friend? At times, I found myself seeking out other friends who would tell me what I wanted to hear, but, to my surprise, I ended up missing Marissa’s honest opinion.
Pre-pact, I hadn’t considered that we’re usually asked to be honest about someone’s appearance. For example, “Do you like my haircut?” is a question I hate: If I don’t and say that I do, I’m lying; if I say I don’t, what good will come of that? I’ll have hurt someone’s feelings for something that can’t be fixed, except with six weeks of patience. Fortunately, Marissa has gorgeous hair, so that’s never an issue. But now, when she asks if I like a dress, a pair of shoes or a shade of nail polish, I tell her the truth, which occasionally ends up sounding like “Yes, but not on you,” “Not really” or “Not unless you want to look like a harlot!” She still buys the dresses, wears the shoes and paints her nails the same shade. Marissa tells me that she values my opinion, but she also recognizes that we have two very different styles. Fair enough: Truth told, truth accepted— no tears. We are still figuring out how to be honest and good friends. Case in point: Marissa showed up to a pool party with a surfer-girl sweatshirt she’d bought en route for a camping trip. I made a face and we both laughed. “I hate it,” I told her. “I knew you would,” Marissa said. “That’s why I bought it.” And then we ordered margaritas.