Why It Hurts so Much When a Friendship Ends

There are few among us who haven't had to deal with the heartache and anxiety that comes with a platonic breakup.

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04 April 2017, 1:30am

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This article originally appeared on VICE US.

It's expected that a romantic breakup will wreck you emotionally. Breakup albums are abundant to the point of cliché, and there's approximately a billion books and movies on the subject.

Little art has been made on the subject of losing friends, though. Which is surprising, given how frequently it happens. According to researchers in the Netherlands who studied the relationships of 604 people, over half of friendships expire after seven years.

And losing a friend sucks. Whether it's the result of a blowout fight, moving to a different area, or gradually falling out of touch, there are few among us who haven't had to deal with the heartache and anxiety that comes when a platonic relationship ends.

For a romantic breakup, a long period of emotional disarray is anticipated, but platonic breakups are often dismissed and quickly swept under the rug.

I talked to Irene Levine, psychologist and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend about why it sucks so bad to lose a friend, and what we can do to get over it.

VICE: Why don't people talk about friendships ending that often?
Irene Levine:
Pop culture mythologizes friendships, suggesting they should last forever. So women, especially, are often judged by their ability to make and keep friends and are embarrassed that others will see the end of a friendship as a personal failure. Men often stereotype and dismiss friendship breakups among women as catfighting. Breakups are trivialized because it's hard for outsiders to understand the depth of feelings involved in a close friendship.

Why are friendships important for people to have? What do we get out of these relationships?
Our friendships are nothing short of life affirming. They make us feel valued, understood and connected to something larger than ourselves. Our friends introduce us to new experiences and ways of being. Good friends are there to cheer our successes and console us when things go badly.

Unlike [familial relationships], these ties are totally volitional. These are people we choose to be with because the relationship is a mutually satisfying one.

What is different about the pain of losing a friendship versus losing a lover?
Outsiders to the friendship may not appreciate the significance of the loss or offer up much sympathy. When someone breaks up with a lover or divorces, everyone rallies around her with support. The same isn't true with friendship endings.

Why do you think that the older you get, the less friends you tend to have?
It's not age, per se, that makes it more difficult to find and have friends. It's more likely to be related to circumstances. For example, when we are in high school and college, we are thrown together with people at the same stage of life, in the same physical location, with similar interests, who are eager to befriend their peers.

After that, people branch out in different directions as they further their education or pursue careers and romantic relationships. This also may entail geographical moves that put the kibosh on (or dramatically alter) past friendships. When people are juggling responsibilities and paving a path for the future, it's less convenient and more difficult to carve out time for friends.

With age comes more responsibilities and many people view friendships as self-indulgent.

How do you think a relationship becomes toxic?
A friendship is toxic when it is one-sided, unsupportive, and undermining. It isn't necessarily the fault of one or both individuals but a toxic friendship is no longer reciprocal. It feels draining and unrewarding.

How do you know when it's appropriate to step back from a friendship?
The decision whether to—and how to—step back from a friendship should be considered carefully beforehand. Ending a friendship opens the door for collateral damage. Your friend may know secrets you don't want spilled. You may have friends in common who will be uncomfortable with the breakup. You may be co-workers and the demise of the friendship can potentially strain your working relationship. Your ex-friend may become angry and resentful.

If you were to bear the brunt of a platonic breakup, should you take this personally?
If you said or did something wrong, or didn't say or do something you should have, of course, not only should you take it personally, but you should apologize to the other person and learn from the experience.

In most circumstances, however, breakups are "no fault." Neither person has enough interest and motivation to sustain the friendship. Bear in mind that it may have more to do with the other person and his or her life than it has to do with you.

What are good coping mechanisms for going through a platonic breakup?
Remember that it takes time to get over any loss. Also, remember you're likely to romanticize the positive aspects of the friendship and gloss over the reasons the relationship ended. Try to fill your reclaimed hours catching up with other people and activities you've missed. Don't succumb to the myth that all friendships are forever. Most friendships end, even very good ones end over time. The ending of the friendship doesn't invalidate prior positive experiences. Use your learning to be a better friend and make better choices in the future.