I lost my first few friends to the usual stuff. There was Liam, age five, whose house I stayed at on Friday evenings. That friendship ended when we moved to somewhere too far away for shared playdates and pre-school. Same goes for Will (age seven), Shaun with the shifty eye (age 11) and Lewis (also 11). When you’re so young you depend on your parents, some friendships just end because your fam or theirs suddenly relocates.
The interesting stuff (i.e break-ups that aren’t simply a by-product of moving school or house) happen when you’re older. I don’t think I am a friendship ending maverick, but my teenage and young adult years were rife with fractured friendships, many of them hurting as much if not more than the end of a teenage relationship.
I haven’t spoken to the many of the boys I went to sixth form college with, even though we have happy drunken memories of bunking the train to the nearest house party most weekends. Same goes for a couple of uni mates. These were people whose presence seemed omnipresent during some of the most formative, difficult years of my life. It seemed like they would always be around.
But teenage boys (and girls) usually bond over a few small shared interests and as we grow and become the kind of adults none of us really wanted to be – i.e working – friendships fall to the wayside. Politics and class – two things I should have noticed when most of my teenage friends were decking themselves out in the nicest clothes, or the fact they had a loft conversion we could hot box – get in the way. Friendships that seemed forever intertwined can start to unravel.
Tastes change too. I used to like having a kickabout in the park, as a kid, but I’m not into football anymore. The same friends who shared bottles of Strongbow on the outside benches of a local gig venue are still listening to metal, and still growing their hair long – but I’m not. These things alone shouldn’t change a friendship, but it does mean many quietly fall to the wayside. As time passes they just become a memory you can look back on in a Facebook photo album and processing the fall out from that can be painful.
“I lost my dad when I was really young and I’ve lost friends and family members – and I’m not comparing the process with mourning someone who dies – but I would say you go through a mourning period when you lose a friend,” says James*, 32, who fell out with his best friend of nearly two and a half decades last year.
Like many friendships, relations between James and his pal slowly fizzled out. “I asked to do stuff with him, he didn’t reply, and it was obvious it wasn’t going to go anywhere from then. It was really sad. When you know someone that long it can be a bit shocking,” he tells me. “You start to think about what was the key moment where it went wrong. What fault was I responsible for? You start to really second guess yourself.”
If, like in James’s case, there’s no real closure on why the friendship ended, it can lead to a process Psychologist and Friendship Expert Dr Marisa D. Franco calls “ambiguous loss”, which leaves people ruminating and unable to move on. She tells me that “If [neither party] has an opportunity to share their side and get closure, then you risk triggering "'ambiguous loss' – which is a loss that's hard to grieve and process because of ambiguities about its ending.”
But not all friendships end by trailing off into ambiguity. Like marriages and relationships, many can end after a blowout incident or one misstep too many, with clear reasoning on why it happened. John*, 28, fell out with a university friend after they fell out while working on a project together. “There were messages flying back and forth – it was an argument, really. It escalated very quickly and got to the point where there was no way of resolving everything and we had no further communication.”
“I’ve not spoken directly to the guy – and I don’t really plan to. There’s nothing to say. But at the same time I know that at some point there will be an occasion with that group of people together and there will need to be a chat.”
John’s friendship ended because it didn’t seem right to carry on – too much had happened between both parties for the issue to truly be resolved. But compared to a romantic relationship, there’s less sense of a conclusion – a final call, or conversation, where everything can be covered. Why do we approach ending a friendship differently to the end of a relationship? Why don’t we “dump” friends?
Franco says that friendships tend to be a relationship of things left unsaid. “Whereas in our romantic relationship, we discuss things that irk us, in our friendships, we often try to sweep things under the rugs,” she says.
Though we’re often open with our friends about our romantic partners, we can often be less honest about our feelings toward the friend in the same way. And so, Franco says, “without open conversation to clean out our relationship baggage, friendships are more vulnerable to the accumulation of tiny tears leading to more explosive disagreements when these tears finally boil onto the surface”. That’s how these friendships end with a bang, or fizzle out. Often, they aren’t afforded the same respect as romantic relationships. Which is strange, considering how important friendships are.
John likens the end of a friendship to a romantic relationship, in that it’s difficult to avoid the person. “It’s a strange one to move on from. In this digital age, there are so many different ways you become connected – whether images in an iPhone library, or emails, or texts. You search for something on your phone and a message might pop up from ten years ago.” James tells me “There’s a bit of pain there. You’ve known that person longer than all your other friends combined.”
But there are of course plenty of valid reasons why a friendship might end. No one has to be friends with anyone, least of all if anyone is unhappy about it. So how do you responsibly tell your pal that it’s not working out? The response varies, depending on your relationship. “If you want to end a relationship with a friendly acquaintance, then text is fine, but if you want to end a close friendship, then reach out via phone call and/or in person,” says Franco. It’s important to share your side of the story, and allow them to share theirs. This avoids any ambiguous loss, making the process a little easier to take.
Also, you might want to leave the door open for the future. Things do change with time and that person may reappear in your life again. Franco tells me that “how we breakup with our friends is significant because, as research finds, it affects our likelihood of reconnecting in the future. If we try to just avoid our friends or neglect the friendship, then we're less likely to reconnect. If we honestly communicate how we feel, then the likelihood that we will reconnect increases.”
Nothing in life is certain. While I’ve had some friends disappear, others have popped up – reappearing on trains and bars, where we’ve reconnected. Like a relationship, if it’s meant to be, it’s meant to be. Time will make sure of that. I cherish the friends I have, and I look forward to reconnecting with the others – if and when it’s right.