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Do You Need to Break Up With a Friend?

People change, and friendships end, but the hurt is still very real.

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Compared with romantic breakups, or familial estrangement, the breakups of friendship get just a drop of attention. But after years of listening to people's most intimate stories of friendship—the good, the bad, and the toxic—I have learned that many of us can point to the breakup of a platonic friendship as a particularly significant and often painful moment in our lives. 

Just because our society doesn't give the dissolution of friendships much attention doesn't mean it doesn't deserve it. If you find yourself in the throes of a breakup with someone you never even kissed, here are five things to keep in mind:

  1. Grieving can be healthy. In the aftermath of a romantic breakup, everyone's willing to grant you permission to blast Alanis Morissette and eat ice cream right out of the carton, while wearing nothing but a Muppets t-shirt. But very few people seem to allow themselves this same consideration when a platonic relationship hits the skids. They should: Friend breakups can pack just as severe an emotional punch; occasionally, even more so. Don’t try to push the feelings aside, or think that you're silly for having them. You'll only postpone having to deal with the sting and risk the pain turning into something more complicated.
  2. An ending doesn’t erase the relationship. Part of the pain of a breakup is the idea that you have to completely rewrite the book of your shared history, due to the final chapter going so far south. This need not be the case. Just because your friendship ran its course doesn’t mean you won’t still carry aspects of that person with you. The positives of what you learned, what you experienced, and what your relationship meant to you in the good times—along with that hilarious story of the Jersey Shore road trip gone wrong—are yours for the keeping. Always.
  3. Fairness goes far. No matter who’s responsible for ending the friendship (and it's rarely black and white), you owe it to your history together to play fair. Yes, the Golden Rule still applies—perhaps more now than ever, as this ending might be your final interaction with the person for the rest of your lives. Treat the person with all the respect you can muster, if only to stay the course on the high road. Don't string someone along, don't stab them in the back, don't continue to drum up drama, and don't leave them with a ton of loose ends to clean up on their own. Karma can be a killer!
  4. Endings are natural. In this era of Facebook friend-hoarding, it’s not always politically correct to acknowledge, but it’s true: Most friendships have a shelf life. Just because you’re not destined to be toasting each other on your 80th birthdays doesn’t mean you friendship was lacking or fundamentally flawed. Friendships, at their essence, are the connections of two people at a given point in time. As lives change and people transition, friendships wax and wane. Don’t beat yourself up or feel overly guilty for a natural drifting apart—something that used to be much easier before the Internet came along.
  5. Don't scorch the Earth. Having said all this, you still never know what the future may bring. From being nursing-home roommates, to keeping mutual friends in common, to someday finding yourselves on the same grocery-shopping schedule, your ex-friend may continue to play a role in your life, indirectly, for decades. Don’t do anything that will come back to haunt (or nauseate) you if your paths should cross again, or you'll have to relive that distress all over again.

copyright Andrea Bonior, Ph.D. Adapted from The Friendship Fix: The Complete Guide to Choosing, Losing, and Keeping Up With Your Friends.

Andrea Bonior is a speaker and a licensed clinical psychologist, who talks to audiences large and small about relationships, work-life balance, emotions and motivation. She is a media commentator, professor, and author of the upcoming book Psychology: Essential Thinkers, Classic Theories, and How They Inform Your World, and The Friendship Fix and the Washington Post Express's longtime advice column Baggage Check.  Follow her on twitter @drandreabonior or Facebook.


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Photo credit: Joe Guldi