My first friendship breakup happened when I was in Grade 2. I realized my best friend had been asking more of me than she ever gave back; she was also very judgmental. Even though we were only about seven years old, I knew she had to be cut. When I was that age, it seemed easy to cut people out of my life. Today, 15 years later, I'm realizing how difficult it is to break up with a good friend. Now, in my last year of university, I've broken up with another close friend. It still bothers me thinking about how close we were. A friendship breakup is a special kind of painful.
Your boyfriend might not know your real bang count—but a close friend will. Friends are special like that, and I would argue breaking up with a friend is just as traumatizing as ending a romantic relationship. The modern friendship breakup tends to consist of splitting friend groups, while also dealing with the absence of them in your life; you either block them on social media or creepily stalk them in hopes their life has gone to shit (it hasn't); now, you've also got to avoid the places they frequent. Basically, things can get messy easily. So I reached out to some relationship therapists, to figure out if there's a drama-free way of breaking up with your bestie.
Step One: Acknowledge Something's Up
You can't really ever know when's a good time to end a friendship. Maybe you don't talk as much or as deeply or find yourself seeking excuses to avoid meeting down at the pub. But the signs are pretty universal.
"I think probably the most common factor would be lack of fit, on whatever level. It might be around values or priorities or goals or interests," Jenny Glozman, a Toronto therapist, told me. But beyond that, she says that different expectations, an absence of trust and a lack of communication are reasons that she expects friendships to fail, including that feeling of giving more than you get back. (How many rounds do you owe me?)
Allan Studd, another therapist based out of the upper Ottawa Valley, has learned that individual mental health affects friendships. "Things like depression would very easily come into play," he said. "Depression, stress, anxiety, all of those things play out within a relationship and can cause a great deal of stress on a relationship."
The bigger issue underlying all of this is that when we reach our 20s, we change and learn about ourselves. Somewhere between a quarter life crisis, starting careers, and getting in serious romantic relationships (or not) we are probably going to have to kill bad friendships along the way.
Step Two: Know When It's Over
Everyone who has watched any sort of high school dramedy on the CW understands the power of the kiss off last words. In reality, most high schoolers will send an abrupt note and by the time they get to university, they have moved on to ghosting. When I've wanted to end it with friends, I've always wanted that perfect clean break—but apparently that's one of the worst ways to do it, according to the therapists.
"When you just don't talk to the other person and try to put them out of your mind it often creates this almost continual negative bond between the two of you," said Glozman. "You will hold on to all this anger and resentment and it never really fades."
"I would suggest always that you do it face to face and that you do it honestly," Studd told me. "Honesty means saying to a person 'This isn't working for me, or we don't seem to have much in common anymore.'"
Another less dramatic way that friendships end is that they drift. This is a more neutral separation for which both parties tend to be responsible: changing interests, moving away, etc. "The closer the friend the more effort you should put in (as long as it is safe to do so)," said Ellis Nicolson over email. Nicolson is a psychotherapist and marriage and family therapist. "Being transparent likely won't hurt the other person."
So even though you'll likely be inclined to ghost, consider the fact the experts say it's healthier to do literally the opposite.
Step Three: Drink, Cry, Grieve
Shitty wine, unfulfilling sex, and a new haircut are generally young adult go-to's after a normal breakup. But after a friendship breakup, you think about all the real talks, embarrassing stories and pictures they own, and the inside jokes you can't use anymore. The worst is thinking of your mutual friends. You're stuck wondering, 'Are my other friends on their side and do they think this whole thing is stupid?' For understanding the post-emotional effects of a friend breakup, I was continually referred to the five stages of grief: denial, bargaining, sadness/depression, anger, and acceptance.
"I often see them as some kind of a spiral, the bounce from one to another to another to another and you basically kind of cycle through all of them at different points in time until you start experiencing the acceptance stage more and more," says Glozman.
In these first stages are when we start to feel all sorts of negative emotions towards the other person. This is around the time we start to blame the other party for absolutely everything imaginable. They did this to me. I did nothing wrong, how dare they? And even though it is (admittedly, and thoroughly) satisfying to some degree to blame the other party, Glozman reminds me that it's important to think about your role in a breakup.
"That's the part that you can actually learn. That's the part that you can actually control going forward," she told me.
"It's always a two way street. I always tell my couples that it's 50-50 … I tell [my couples] that each partner has 100 percent responsibility for their part in the relationship," said Studd. "I would go at it in terms of therapy in the same way that I would for a couple"
In other words, both you and I probably fucked up along the way, and we shouldn't just be sad all day.
Step Four: Seeing Them Again
Now comes the awkward part: you will see each other again at some point. It could be at a party, at school or at work—it could be at the grocery store, whatever, you get the point. They will seem like they are everywhere at some point.
"We need to act in a way that would honour ourselves, whatever that may be. For some, it is taking the high road, for others it may be an attempt to resolve unresolved issues, and for others, it is distance," said Nicolson.
That said, my best personal advice is to spend time planning out what to say, CW style. This is your chance to show that you're good! You almost didn't even recognize them! You haven't lost sleep thinking about them, listening to their favourite music, and crying! If they ask about that shirt they left behind say you're sorry and that you might have donated it by accident—you've become a really good person without them. The therapists would probably disagree with me on this.
"What's the purpose of the plan? What's the goal of it? Those kind of 'revenge plots,' if you will—those are certainly more detrimental than if your goal is basically to think of a safety plan," said Glozman. "I think that can be helpful to have that in the back of your mind because it makes sure that you're not as afraid of the interaction anymore because you have a plan for it."
Step Five: Moving On
Mending relationships have never really been a priority of mine, but all the therapists I spoke to think it's almost always a real possibility.
"A lot of things can be dealt with within the context of the relationship," said Glozman. "There are ways for healing, it's just a lot of work. We need to have a lot of willingness to sit with another person's feelings and… we're not always willing to do that."
"Be transparent about your needs. If the other person doesn't respond to your needs then it's time to move on," added Nicolson.
Most importantly, the therapists said to talk with someone, or find a therapist (hmmm, $$) if you really need to vent. "People always think it has to be very severe or very extreme and culturally speaking I don't think we conceptualize friendships ending on that level. But you're absolutely right, it can be just as traumatic as any other relationship ending, it's just that we don't talk about it in that way and therefore we kind of discourage people from seeking help for it."
If things are truly unsalvageable, at least take some steps that you would take with any loss in your life—eat some ice cream, sleep in, watch some Netflix, try to exercise or do something productive. Be a little selfish and do something for yourself.
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