A few years ago, one of my best friends from college broke up with me. “I think it might be healthier if we took a step back from constantly talking to each other,” she wrote in an email. “Maybe one day we’ll see eye to eye, but for now this feels unhealthy.”
The breakup wasn’t out of the blue. We lived in different cities and mostly spoke via Gchat, and in the last few months we had started bickering a lot. There were a number of reasons for the uptick in arguments, but the main one, really, was that at the time, I was depressed, she was coming out of a period of depression, and our differing emotional states made me toxic to her. I didn’t grasp that the unrelenting negativity manifesting from my depression was hurting her, and I sent her a defensive email in response. But looking back on it now, I get why she needed to take space and I respect her for asking for it, even if I still miss her sometimes.
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It’s tough to dump an old friend. “There is a reluctance to end longer term friendships, especially those formed in childhood,” says Jennifer Verdolin, an animal behaviour expert and adjunct professor at Duke University. “Social animals, which we are, need and depend on social needs that extend beyond the immediate family. When you forge them, and they’re strong and they’re long, there’s a difficulty in letting them go.”
Some of that is because it takes a long time to build that kind of friendship, and since it’s harder to make friends as you get older, you might not be able replace your ex-buddy. And some of it is because when you say goodbye to someone, you say goodbye to a part of yourself, and it’s difficult to bury the version of you who used to love this person, even if you know you need the space.
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Still, friendships change as we age, and sometimes you find yourself in one that’s no longer serving either one or both of you. When that happens, you need to evaluate whether or not it’s time to cut the cord. Here’s how to do it. But first:
Pinpoint why you want to end the friendship
There are a number of reasons a friendship might go sour. An obvious one is when you find one friend is pulling far more of the relationship’s weight than the other. “Some warning signs would be persistent imbalances in terms of who is always having needs and who is always meeting those needs,” says Peg O’Connor, a Professor of Philosophy at Gustavus Adolphus College who blogs for Psychology Today.
Though friendships aren’t always 50/50, particularly during short periods when one friend needs more support than the other, “when there’s a persistent balance, when it’s always pretty much ‘70 per cent my friend’s needs, 30 per cent mine,’ then that’s a problem,” she said. Basically, if you find yourself being used in a friendship, it’s time to get out.
Sometimes, the soured relationship is due to more insidious behaviour, like lying or backstabbing. And sometimes, the friendship just doesn’t make you the kind of person you want to be — politically, behaviorally, or otherwise.
“What happens when you are putting to the side your needs or your wants, or you’re compromising your values or you’re going against your own beliefs?” O’Connor says. “That is fundamentally going to harm your moral character and at the end of the day, what you have is your moral character and you are responsible for it.”
So, if your friend is turning you into a mean gossip, or bringing you down, or stealing your boyfriends, or is just generally taking more out of you than you can handle, it might be worth cutting the cord. If so:
It’s fine to let new or distant friendships naturally fade out, but if you’re dumping a good friend, you owe them some warning and an explanation. “We’re uncomfortable with cutting out people from our lives, and sometimes that leads to not communicating at all, and completely ghosting,” Verdolin says. “Then, we have this weird inconsistency that creates a lot of stress and tension for both parties.”
Instead of disappearing, ask them to meet you for coffee, or call them on the phone, or, if you must, send them an email. The latter is least preferable, since it doesn’t give the dump-ee the opportunity to hear your cadence or to respond, but if it makes it easier for you to say what you need to, feel free to do your thing. Do note that if you are planning to do the break up in writing, don’t send anything angry or rash, and maybe give yourself an extra day to read it over with fresh eyes.
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“See if they are feeling something similar to what you’re feeling and if it seems like this is completely out of the blue to them, well, that’s good indication that you haven’t been on the same page,” O’Connor says. “Then you might have to say, ‘You know what? I need some space.’”
Be clear about why you need space, cite specific examples if you must, and be sure not to place a lot of blame on them, even if you believe strongly that you are the wronged party. Telling someone “I don’t want to be friends with you because you are bad and needy,” will only put them on the defensive; instead, make it clear that the relationship is broken, and not specifically them. Something like, “I feel that I am not being heard enough in this friendship, and that makes it hard for me to feel comfortable sharing with you” might work better.
“You’ve got to be clear,” O’Connor says. “You’ve got to be clean. You’ve got to be honest in it. You can’t be a wiener dog.”
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Treat it like a breakup
When you end any relationship, you need to set boundaries. That goes for a friendship as much as a romantic relationship. “Sometimes the mistake we make is this grey space, where we are either not certain what we’re going to do, or we feel feelings like guilt or something that prevents us from clean breaks,” Verdolin says.
That doesn’t mean you need to commit to killing the friendship forever; instead, considering severing it completely in the short term to give yourself and your friend space and time to self-reflect. “Say, ‘Let’s take six months, in those six months we won’t talk, and then we’ll regroup and decide what we want to do,’” Verdolin says.
In that time — or, in the long term, if you plan on cutting off the friendship without an X-month caveat—do not communicate with them. Do not text them, call them, post things on social media that are designed to elicit a response, smoke signal them, or stand outside their window blasting a Peter Gabriel song, and if they do any of that to you, remind them gently but firmly that you asked for your space.
If you have mutual friends and run into them at group events, be respectful when you see them, but make it clear you’re not reopening the friendship door, lest you both start falling back into toxic patterns.
“We create so much more stress for ourselves by having a lack of clarity,” Verdolin says. “If I am not going to be your friend, I don’t want to be involved in your life at all, not even peripherally.”
If you think there’s a possibility your now ex-friend won’t respect your need for space, it might be a good idea to block their number so they can’t text or call you. You can also block them over email or G-chat, or make yourself “invisible” to them on online chat programs.
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Mute them on social media
Speaking of peripheral friendship, a great way to extend the amount of time it takes to get over a friend breakup is to regularly watch their Instagram stories. As Verdolin puts it, “Social media makes it really difficult to get good endings of relationships of all kinds.” Like with a romantic breakup, when you end a friendship, you don’t want to know who your friend is hanging out with or what they’re doing all the time or be fed more of the terrible political ramblings that prompted you to end the relationship in the first place.
Unfollow or mute them on Twitter, mute them or unfriend them on Facebook, and mute them or unfollow them on Instagram. It may feel extreme to remove them from your life so completely, but it gives you way more room to move on.
Allow yourself to grieve
It is a real loss to end a friendship. No matter how draining the relationship may have been at its worst, when you let a friend go, you lose a whole part of you. And so, though it will certainly feel empowering to drop something that started to feel toxic, it will also make you sad.
That is fine and normal, and you should let yourself feel the sadness, instead of writing it off. It’s unfortunate that society gives a lot of attention and weight to the end of romantic relationships and not nearly enough to the ends of friendships, but the latter can be equally painful.
“Ending relationships is very hard,” Verdolin says. “Depending on the previous strength of that friendship, we go through a grief process.”
Some ways to move through that grief process include journaling, immersing yourself in activities and hobbies you love or used to love, and finding new social groups that fit you better than whatever relationship you had with your now ex-friend.
“We all have friends for a reason or for a season and then when the season or the reason changes you can move on and drift apart and there’s really no harm, no foul,” O’Connor says. And if your ended friendship was strong enough to start with—and the breakup mutually respectful and clean—it is always possible you can reconcile when both parties are ready.