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A Practical Guide To Breaking Up With Friends

Breaking up is hard to do

Ending friendships is not a part of our cultural narrative. If the covers of tabloids have taught us anything, it’s that ending a relationship is a really big deal. “SPLITSVILLE!” they scream. “IT’S OVER!” “WHAT REALLY WENT WRONG!” But friendships? Well, the phrase is “BFFs 4-Ever” not “BFFs 4 A Period of Time Until One of Us Turns Into a Total Bitch.” You rarely hear about a woman cutting her hair and hitting the gym, looking for a rebound, or losing herself in a pint of ice cream after a friendship ends. But… why is that? I may not have sex with my friends, but I’d like to think that any of their departures from my life would warrant as least as much analysis, emotional anguish, and angry hours in the gym as the douche canoes I’ve cried over in the past always got.

As I mentioned earlier this month, I think friendships are extremely important and don’t get nearly the attention they deserve. And if talking about making friends is rare, talking about ending friendships is even rarer still. I broke up with a friend last year and it was an extremely painful experience, made worse by the fact that I didn’t know how a friend breakup worked. I didn’t even know if that was what I was supposed to call it. (De-friending is already taken…chum dumping, perhaps?) Here is what I wish someone had told me about friend breakups.

1. Remember that a friendship is a relationship, and sometimes relationships end. While my friend breakup was pretty painful, the months leading up to it were even worse. I had thoughts about breaking up from time to time, but I always shook them off and dismissed the pain we were causing each other because I felt like it wasn’t that big of a deal if I stayed in a friendship that was essentially over. I would never let myself stay in a romantic relationship that was causing me so much stress, but for some reason, I stayed in a friendship that was. Unlike romantic relationships, which I talked about with my friends in great detail, I don’t really chat about my friendships with other friends. As a result, I didn’t get the, “Uh, so this doesn’t sound healthy,” response that I really needed to hear. But ultimately, I think I stuck it out because there was no sense of urgency. With romantic relationships, I’d always had a sense of, “I don’t want to waste my time on someone when I could be out there looking for something better.” But because we can have so many friends, I’d never considered that I could be wasting my time on a friendship.

But I’m wasting my time whenever I choose to stay in a situation that hurts me, whether it’s a romantic relationship or a job I hate. By acting like it was okay to settle on a friendship, I actually wasn’t giving enough credit to friendships. A friendship can be an extremely powerful relationship and to act like friends don’t have the power to hurt us so deeply that we have to walk away cheapens the relationship. I didn’t realize until after the fact that it was because this friendship was so important to me was exactly why it was okay—and necessary—to end it.

2. Break up with a friend like you’d break up with anyone else. Some people will suggest you can end a friendship by not talking to the friend anymore and just doing a fade-out. This, frankly, is some bullshit. Fade-outs are what I expect from the guys I met on Match.com and dated for a month. Our closest friends deserve better. I’m not saying you have to sit down every friend from whom you grew apart and list off the things about her you don’t like. But being short with someone, cutting her off, or just doing something like, say, not asking her to be a bridesmaid because you don’t like how she treats you—without telling her why you didn’t ask her to be your bridesmaid—is immature and hurtful. So be decent.

The night I broke up with my friend, I sent her an email. (I knew this was an okay thing to do in the context of our relationship, but everyone is different, so use your own judgment regarding how you communicate your message.) I struggled for what to say, but, ultimately, said what was true: I need to break up with our friendship. I kept it brief, knowing that to get into too much detail would likely do more harm than good, and because I suspected (correctly, it turns out) that we both knew exactly why this needed to happen. But had she not known, and had she asked me, I would have been honest. I would want someone to be honest with me, after all. I want to be a good friend so if I’m not doing a good job of it, I’d like someone to tell me what I need to work on. Nicely, of course.

3. Let yourself grieve. What made the whole experience even harder was the fact that I didn’t know how to express my hurt in terms that those around me would understand. Had I broke up with a boyfriend, I would have had no problem reaching for the ice cream/French fries/tequila. But instead I spent the night after my friend breakup feeling embarrassed about how sad I was. It was actually a feeling I knew well, back from my dating days, when I struggled with the fact that we only seem to give credit to Official Relationships per the Ministry of Facebook.

Before I met Eric, I did a lot of dating and a lot of “Is this dating?” I “hung out.” I was kinda into a guy who was kinda into me. These often felt like relationships because they taught me important lessons about, well, relating, and brought real disappointment when they ended. But they were still hard to talk about once they were over. I could never say, “I’m sad that I broke up with my boyfriend,” because, well, he wasn’t my boyfriend, so what right did I have to be sad? Whenever a relationship like this ended, I’d think, This went on for a while! This was something! I want credit for what we had and sympathy for this pain I’m feeling! I’d feel so sad, but also ashamed of being so upset over a guy who wasn’t officially anything to me. I never really knew how sad I was “supposed” to be or “allowed” to be, so I was too embarrassed to talk about how I felt, or to admit that getting over it was going to take time and effort. Grieving, like breakups, was for people in real relationships.

But with my friend breakup, it hit me: a “real” relationship is any relationship that involves relating, Facebook’s approval be damned. I put on my comfy clothes, snuggled on the couch with my dogs, and told my other friends the next day I was sad because I was going through a breakup. They responded with the same kind of love and support that they would have if I had broken up with a guy. Despite the fact that this isn’t something a lot of people talk about, I suspect it’s something that most people get as soon as you give it a name.

Like any breakup, I still missed her and struggled to remember why, exactly, I had done this. I only wanted to think about the good times. Eventually I got over it. Even after I did, I still thought about her a lot and wished for the best for her in every aspect of her life.

4. Know that there is such as being “just friends” after a friend breakup. One of the hardest parts about breaking up with a friend was that sense of “Where do we go from here? We can’t really be ‘just friends’…” But now I know that in some cases you can, actually, go from being best friends to “just friends.” My friend and I did exactly that. It didn’t happen overnight—we both needed time apart to work on the things about ourselves that were getting in the way of our friendship, and we broke up knowing that this might be it—but after several months of no contact, we found our way back to each other. Our friendship is different now, but it’s still a friendship. We send each other epically-long emails containing updates and details on the things we can talk about that we just can’t talk to anyone else about. It’s the best parts of our old friendship and none of the bad parts. Sometimes I wish we could take it further, that we could talk all the time like we used to, but I’d rather not push it and risk what we do have. Being “just friends” won’t always be an option, but it doesn’t hurt to put the idea out there if you can envision, say, an open shift in how much time you spend together or how much you confide in each other being a good solution for both of you.

Sending that email was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. I wrote it with tears streaming down my face; then I hit send and fled from the computer. But after I did it—and, of course, had the urge to call my friend, because that’s what we did whenever we were upset—I knew it was the right thing to do. The whole experience was one of the clearest “WELCOME TO ADULTHOOD!” moments I’ve had in my twenties. I also knew that I never could have done it without the good parts of our friendship, the parts that made me grow up and become the woman I am today.

Photo: Gabriel Harber

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