When someone mentions a breakup, a lot of things come to mind: sexless heartache, staring down the bottom of a pint of Ben & Jerry’s, re-downloading dating apps, revamping your Instagram to indicate you’re single—all things associated with losing a lover. Less associated with this concept is the end of a friendship, but friendship breakups are very real, and can be just as painful and significant as ending romantic relationships.
It’s only natural that, as with lovers, some friendships have expiration dates—and that’s okay. Almost everyone has people they were once close with but no longer are. Sometimes, though, simply fading out a friend over time isn’t the approach that serves us best when it’s time for a friendship to end. We care (or, at least, used to care) for our friends—even those we no longer want in our lives, so some situations require more thoughtfulness—including, you know, actually talking to your friend about what’s going on.
Breaking up with a friend can seem, frankly, terrifying, but there are things you can do to make it less daunting—and ensure that ending a relationship is what’s best for you. Here’s some advice on how to figure it all out while keeping both your friend’s feelings and your own in mind, according to an expert.
How Do You Know if You Should End a Friendship?
Only you know the ins and outs of your relationship with a friend. Almost all relationships include conflict or at least disagreement, so it can be tough to know if the reason you’re thinking about ending your friendship can be changed or forgiven. You first need to establish exactly what is bothering you about a friendship. “The clearer of a sense that you can have about what’s upsetting you, the more clearly you can approach the other person and give them an opportunity to weigh in” before cutting things off for good, says Malika Bhowmik, a New York City–based mental health psychotherapist (LMHC). (There are, of course, scenarios where ending things swiftly without readdressing them is more than understandable: A friend who doesn’t ask you about yourself enough is not the same as one who’s low-key racist.)
The timing and frequency of your interactions is worth considering here, too. The cool thing about friendships is that they’re often more malleable than traditional romantic relationships. You can see someone a couple times a year, and another multiple times a week—both are your friends. In some cases, changing the form of or settings for your relationship may be all you need for this friendship to stop bothering you. For example, if you’re thinking of ending a friendship because you don’t want to babysit your friend who gets way too drunk every time you go out, see if you can start meeting them for lunch or coffee instead of hitting the club. According to Bhowmik, if you have feelings that you no longer want to be friends with someone almost every time you see them, it may just be time to do something about it.
All of that being said: You know your limits and your dealbreakers; respect them. You don’t have to “save” any relationship just because you’re trying to spare the other person’s feelings. Not wanting to spend time with someone is, on its own, a perfectly acceptable reason for deciding not to do that anymore.
How to Talk About a Friendship Before Deciding to End It
If the the person in question is someone you’ve been friends with for a long time or someone who has meant a lot to you, you may want to consider making a final effort before ditching the relationship entirely. (Although: You’re never obligated to stay friends with someone just because you’ve known them for a long time.) After all, there’s probably a reason you were friends with them to begin with.
Explaining what’s bothering you may seem scary if you’re wary of hurting other people, but it’s in fact a sign of kindness and respect. “Give them an opportunity to weigh in and see if what you thought was irreparable could be repaired,” says Bhowmik. While this process should recognize their feelings, it should also be beneficial to you. "If you want healing, then it does really seem important to create the opportunity for that,” she says, “And it can't happen unless you work up the courage to share with them that there's a lot going on inside of you, a lot of feelings that you have towards them."
Bhowmik says that, while people often reserve partnered therapy for family and romantic partners, there could be a lot to gain from seeing a therapist with your friend. (If, of course, your friendship feels worth the time and financial commitment that something like therapy necessitates.) But, sometimes, even if you’ve tried to save your friendship, it’s not going to work. At this point, it may be time to directly end the friendship.
Do You Actually Need to Officially End Your Friendship?
We’ve all had friends we’re no longer friends with because we “got busy” and “grew apart” (...or faded them out deliberately), but to actually sit your friend down requires more effort. If we can end a friendship without having this uncomfortable conversation, is that a better plan than talking about it right up front?
“It has to do with who you are,” says Bhowmik. “If you want to be able to say I did everything I could, then you can't really stand by that unless you gave them an opportunity to say something to you. It's far more often that people downgrade their relationships or put more space between themselves and a friend.”
Having the difficult conversation about ending your relationship with a friend may also help you set boundaries. Your friend isn’t exactly going to get the message that they need to quit texting you every weekend if you’re trying to passively phase them out. So please don’t fully ghost your friends out of nowhere—unless they did something so awful you really can’t bear to speak to them again—it’s going to confuse your friend, and probably hurt their feelings.
How Do I End a Friendship?
Now, for the part you’re dreading if you’ve made it this far: actually ending the friendship. If you’ve either exhausted your options trying to make this friendship work or decided that this relationship isn’t even worth that effort...it’s time to do the deed.
Reach out to your friend and ask to meet up to discuss some feelings you’re having about your friendship. You don’t want to blindside them with a conversation this heavy by insinuating that this will be a normal hangout, and you’ve had time to prepare for this conversation, they should too.
Once you’re sitting down with them, remember that now is not the time to bash your friend or go on a rant about how awful they’ve been. Instead, enter the conversation with respect and compassion. Bhowmik suggests you start off on a positive note:
Share, first, how much this person has meant to you and why it is so heartbreaking or difficult to have arrived at a decision where it doesn't make sense to sustain a friendship moving forward. It should be both parts a celebration of the friendship as it was, the connection that once was, the bond that had occurred and felt worth sustaining for whatever amount of time, and acknowledging that there've been ruptures or differences that could not be aligned or reconciled.
After sharing how much they’ve meant to you, you can say something like, “In the past few months, I’ve been so [stressed, hurt, bothered, etc… ] by [the thing that’s bothering you] in our friendship that it’s begun to outweigh the good parts, and it doesn’t feel sustainable to me anymore, or good for either of us.” If appropriate, take responsibility for your contributions to the deterioration of the friendship, and make sure that you’re not doing all the talking. Give them the chance to weigh in on how they feel and the ways that you may have hurt them, too—this should be a healing opportunity for them and you as much as is possible.
Communicate that, even if your friendship isn’t working, you still want the best for them and care for them (if true). “You may still care for them as a person and be able to see the good in them, but also feel that there is a difference you can’t see past,” says Bhowmik.
How to Deal With a Person’s Response to a Friendship Breakup
There are a number of ways your friend may react to this conversation. Perhaps they’re relieved, having wanted to end the friendship for a while. Maybe they’re hysterical or livid, or maybe just stoic. Put yourself in their shoes and understand that what they’re hearing isn’t easy. Let them feel their feelings and calmly, respectfully answer the questions they have.
They may, however, come at you with more than feelings, like demanding that you rethink this decision or promising to work towards improving your relationship. What you do next is up to you and depends just how fed up or frustrated you are. “It depends where you are on the spectrum of being decided or not,” says Bhowmik. “If there's room in your heart to take in their question or response, if there's a part of you that has desire to reconcile, then there are ways to do that productively, like seeing a therapist.”
If, however, you’re definitely over the idea of making this friendship work, do your best to stick to your word. Our gut reaction when we see a friend in distress is to try to fix whatever’s upsetting them. You have to come to terms with the fact that this conversation will be upsetting for both of you and push through it anyway. Listen to your friend and respond thoughtfully, but, ultimately, be firm in letting them know you don’t have it in you to keep trying in this relationship if that’s the case for you.
“Endings are hard no matter what,” Bhowmik says. "You can make them into arguments and more painful experiences, or you can take that ending as an opportunity to consolidate the good." Keep that in mind as you evaluate how to handle whatever friendship might be confusing you right now—and work toward something better for yourself and your relationships.