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Breaking Up with Friends: Can You Empathize?

Breaking up with a close friend can be as painful as divorcing

"Living Single" readers know that I love the topic of friendship. Friends can be so important in the lives of single people - and people of every other marital status as well. So as soon as I heard that Irene Levine will soon be starting a new blog about friendship here at Psychology Today, I asked if she would do a Q and A with me so I could introduce her to the Living Single readership and learn more about her thoughts on friendship.

I've never met Irene in person, but my first contact with her came when she asked me to write about friendship in the lives of single people for her Fractured Friendship blog (here and here). We both blog at the Huffington Post as well as here. Irene is a journalist, psychologist, and professor at the New York University School of Medicine. She also has a new book coming out which I am very eager to read - Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend.

1. Bella: Want to tell us how you got interested in friendship?
Irene: I was always curious about how my friendships compared to those of other women. I had drifted apart from several close friends over the years, women whom I thought would always be present in my life. I wasn't really clear about why this happened---or if it happened to other women. As a psychologist, journalist, and woman, I jumped on the opportunity to learn more about these complicated relationships. What better way to dig into the topic than starting a dialogue with women from all ages and all walks of life!

2. Bella: Why write a book on friendship breakups, rather than, say, friendships that thrive?
Irene: The media (and our mothers) tend to romanticize female friendships so there are an abundance of novels and movies about perfect friendships. People tend to shy away from talking about girlfriend breakups, especially when one woman has been dumped. This isn't surprising because women are often judged by their ability to make and keep friends.

When a once-close friendship goes awry, there's no one to talk to. Men attribute breakups to stereotypical female cattiness. Your mother may imply that you have a character flaw. And you can't pour your heart out to the one person you would ordinarily want to talk to---your once-BFF.

3. Bella: I've noticed that theme of problems in friendships seems to be getting more and more attention. I have a hunch about that - I think that the challenges in our friendships are becoming more important because our friendships are becoming more important. Maybe with family sizes shrinking, people living single for more years of their adult lives, and people exercising more choice about the people they want to spend time with, we are now investing more in our friendships than we once were. Greater emotional investment brings more potential for hurt feelings and other difficulties. If our friendships have become more important - emotionally, practically, and maybe in other ways, too - then our friendship problems are more important, too. What do you think?
Irene: I agree with you, Bella. Female friendships are getting more attention although these relationships have always been important. This year alone, there has been a spate of novels and non-fiction books focused on friendships.

Women's lives are less insular than they were 50 years ago: We're more mobile, better educated, and more likely to work outside the home. As a result, our friendships are more fluid and more finely nuanced. The best friend we made in elementary school---who got married and remained in her hometown---may not understand the challenges and perks of having a girlfriend who is single with a high-powered job in the city or of having a friend who is a stay-at-home mom living with another woman.

It's natural that as two friends follow different trajectories, their friendship may fall out of sync. Yet we are hesitant to let go of old friendships, no matter how toxic or uncomfortable they become.

4. Bella: What do you think is the biggest misunderstanding we have about friendship?
Irene: We are brought up to believe that our close friendships will last forever. Yet the large majority of friendships, even the best of them, fall apart. There are more women who wish they had a friendship circle like The Girls from Ames than there are those who actually have them.

Like any relationship, friendships aren't perfect but there are ways to nurture them and enhance the odds that they'll last. Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend provides tools for women to assess their friendships and determine whether they're worth keeping. In addition, it provides tips for women to ensure they're the type of friend someone else would want to keep.

5. Bella: Do you think there are things we should do, either individually or as a society, to give greater recognition to the importance of friendships in our lives?
Irene: There are many things we can do to elevate the significance of our friendships. Because these relationships are totally voluntary, without any legal or blood ties, women tend to take their friendships for granted. Yet being a good friend requires setting priorities and putting time into the relationship. While modern technology has enhanced communication across the miles and various time zones, it isn't a substitute for a leisurely, intimate, in-person conversation between two friends.

Women need to find ways, during every phase of their life, to nurture their friendships.

6. Bella: I know that you've talked to more than 1500 people for your book. Did you find that there are some people who do not have any close friends and don't want any? I ask because I always think it is important to acknowledge the power of individual differences - what may be true for lots of people isn't always true for all people.
Irene: I surveyed more than 1500 women and interviewed a much smaller subset for the book. Across the board, I found that most women covet close friendships. They want to have best friends and be someone else's best friend.

Of course, for every generalization we make about female friendships, there are exceptions to the rule. There are individual differences in the way people are hard-wired and in their experiences as well. Some women are innately more sociable and more comfortable sharing intimacies with female friends than are others. Also, some women have had a series of betrayals by female friends and prefer to bond with men; they no longer trust other women.

7. Bella: Anything else you'd like to add?
Irene: I'm glad to have this opportunity to talk about the importance of female friendships. In some ways, friendships often play an even more important role in the lives of women who are single, divorced or widowed.

Breaking up with a close friend can be as painful as divorcing or separating from a lover. Yet ending relationships that no longer work provides the time and space for new beginnings.

Bella: Thanks so much for sharing your insights. I'll look forward to reading your new book and your Psych Today blog. (It will probably be called "The Friendship Doctor.") Readers who want to learn more about Dr. Irene S. Levine can click here.

[To read other Living Single posts, click here. Also, there is a section on Friendship in my new collection, Single with Attitude. You can order that in paperback here or here, or the Kindle version here.]