How to Break Up with Friends

Fourteen years after the split, Suzanne Wilson Phillips still has some fond memories of her friend Melissa*. “She was really fun and bubbly,” says the mental-health counsellor. “On a Saturday night, she was the life of the party.”

But over the course of their five-year friendship, Wilson Phillips often felt neglected when her pal revelled in the spotlight. “Melissa never had my back,” says the 43-year-old. The tipping point came when Melissa tried to sabotage Wilson Phillips’s new romantic connection. “I decided we couldn’t be friends anymore.”

As Wilson Phillips learned, ending a friendship is a complex process, wrought with pitfalls and pain. Here’s how to get through – and over – it.

Step 1: Evaluate

Start by taking a measured look at the situation. When you’re with this person, do you feel like your best self? Can you honestly describe them in flattering terms? How committed are you to the friendship?

You’ll also want to consider the circumstances, especially if your friend has been depressed or suffered a loss or trauma. We owe our friends a lot, and standing by them during tough times is part of the deal. Dr Andrea Bonior, a psychologist and relationships expert, says the red flag is when “you look back and see a long-standing pattern”.

Step 2: Understand Your Reluctance

Why is a split so hard? There are many reasons. Friendships aren’t monogamous, Bonior explains, so it’s easy to enjoy your other buddies even when one particular person is dragging you down. That means less pressure to act.

“When the ball is rolling in a long-term friendship, it’s hard to stop,” says Bonior. “It’s part of the rhythm of our daily lives, and the inertia is powerful.” Because of this, we also tend to let our friends get away with bad behaviour.

Step 3: Flee or Face It?

Avoidance is a popular strategy. Wilson Phillips tried that at first: she dodged Melissa’s calls and stayed away from her typical haunts, hoping to escape a difficult confrontation. Sometimes that approach can be successful, according to Bonior. “The slow fade works if it’s mutual,” she says. After all, some friends just naturally drift apart.

But if the split comes as an unpleasant surprise to one of the parties, says psychotherapist Kimberly Moffit, “the friend is left wondering why they’re being avoided.”

In that case, a discussion is the respectful way to go. It also opens an avenue for making amends: “You’re giving your friend the opportunity to correct what’s wrong in the relationship,” says Moffit.

If you take a direct approach, Bonior suggests borrowing words from your romantic life: “Something like, ‘I know you’ve noticed I haven’t been able to spend time with you lately. I value our time as friends, but I can’t give what I used to.’”

Step 4: Grieve and Rebuild

“We may feel silly about having an emotional reaction,” says Bonior. “But even if you’ve initiated [the split], you can expect to feel sad about it. Let yourself mourn.” She advises consolidating your feelings in your mind, or in a journal, so you can sidestep the same patterns in the future.

Once you’ve got a handle on the emotional fallout, it’s time to expand your social circle. By putting your effort into meeting new people, you may just develop a deep, meaningful friendship to last a lifetime.

*Name has been changed.

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