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How to Handle a Friendship Breakup

Navigating a friendship breakup with compassion and kindness.

Key points

  • People struggle to know how to respectfully end a friendship.
  • It is important to carefully consider your reasons for ending a friendship and to plan how you will communicate your decision.
  • It is important to respect your own feelings and to allow yourself to grieve.
antoniodiaz/Shutterstock
Source: antoniodiaz/Shutterstock

The modern-day trope of friendships would have us believe that friendships are forever. Sometimes friendships are forever, and other times, they end—just as we change and move jobs and end relationships with intimate partners. The friendship breakup is an especially difficult one to navigate. We have no templates for it.

Most adults will likely know how to end an intimate relationship or how to resign from a job with grace and dignity intact. These are culturally enshrined rites of passage. With friendships, we have the till-death-do-us-part end (i.e., no end at all) or the screaming match, the cold shoulder, and split friendship groups. There are no templates around ending friendships in a healthy, well-articulated, and respectful manner.

With the end of an intimate relationship, people come flocking to us to provide support, and we often turn to our friends for care and debriefing. We all know what the word "breakup" means and how to respond to it with care, patience, and chocolate. When a friendship ends, it is more a fraying rope than a sudden snap, and we are left wondering why it ended, how to end it, and how to process the end.

Why end a friendship?

Friendships end for a range of reasons—we change and realize we are looking for different things from our companions, they change, someone moves away, someone is mean to someone, people become busy and de-prioritize the friendship, or people are on different pages about what the friendship means (think: one person wants to be best friends and see the other person daily, while the second person has less time and prefers to maintain a broader social group). It is probably easy when both parties drift, or one person moves away—friendships will naturally change and loosen to allow the new distance.

Sometimes, though, someone hurts someone else, or you realize that you genuinely have nothing in common with a person anymore and want to end the friendship instead of lingering in an awkward holding pattern—where the other person still wants to be friends, and you find yourself needing to say no often. In this instance, it may be kinder in the long term and less awkward to put a full-stop at the end of the friendship.

Some questions to ask yourself before you end a friendship.

Do you need to end the friendship at this point, or can you titrate the intensity of the friendship?

Is this a knee-jerk reaction to hurt feelings or a decision that has been brewing for a while? If it is a response to hurt feelings, then it is likely to be far more helpful to say something honest to your friend instead of withdrawing by ending the friendship.

What factors have caused or led to the space that the friendship is in? It may not be helpful to share this with the other person, but it is essential for your own growth and learning to understand the trajectory of the friendship.

Do you want the friendship to end, or just for something to change within it?

How would you like to feel when the friendship ends? What do you need to say to them? What is best kept to yourself? What are you trying to make space for in your life?

How to end a friendship.

Breaking up with a friend can be tricky. Here are a few steps to make it easier.

1. Consider.

Consider the questions I noted above, as well as whether you need to say something to the other person. If there is a mutual drift or withdrawal, then it is likely enough (and sometimes kinder) to allow this to happen instead of having a serious conversation. However, if one person is still holding on tight, then you will need to think carefully about what you would like to say and when.

If you want something within the friendship to change, then say so, much as you would to a partner (“Hey, I have noticed that you don’t text me back for days sometimes, and I feel hurt; can we talk about this?”). Otherwise, consider carefully how much you want to say about your decision (now is not the time to bring up the litany of wrongs someone has done to you unless you want to leave the friendship looking and feeling like a real jerk) and how to say it. If there was an especially big or hurtful incident that has led to the end, this is probably an appropriate time to share it.

Consider your part in the end, and be prepared to own it. Relationships of all kinds always take two people. Write your spiel down. Practice saying it to yourself. Having this conversation will be nerve-wracking. We can do hard things.

2. Share and thank them.

Talk to the other person. Use the format that seems most suitable and respectful: face-to-face, phone, text, or letter. Give the person space to respond if they need.

State clearly that you have valued the friendship (assuming this is true, that is) but that you cannot continue your contact any longer. It can be helpful to provide some brief reasons why—especially if the friendship was a long one. People can often become defensive or angry, and it can be helpful to place yourself in their shoes if this occurs and think about how you might have felt in their position. Equally, however, abuse, aggression, or coercion are never OK, no matter how distraught someone might be.

Be clear about the things they have given you that you value and thank them for these. Consider how you would like to act if you see them again (especially important if there are mutual friends involved).

3. Grieve.

Be sad. Even if you did choose to end the friendship (or have had it done to you), it is a loss no less sad than the loss of any other key relationship. Allow yourself some time to process and feel the sadness or anger. Express it to neutral people (not mutual friends). Write, draw, journal. Seek support.

Don’t use social media to keep tabs on your friend, and give yourself a period of no contact before you try to see them in a neutral space (such as with mutual friends). Remember that your friend brought you much that was valuable and that sometimes people can be in our lives for seasons—instead of for a lifetime.

Facebook image: antoniodiaz/Shutterstock

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