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There’s No Such Thing As An Easy Breakup Between Friends

Published: August 10, 2011 | Last Updated: April 16, 2024 By | 19 Replies Continue Reading
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In an article entitled — “IT’S NOT U, IT’S ME 🙁” — in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Benoit Denizet-Lewis describes a one-day crash course called “Healthy Breakups,” held last month in Boston. Sponsored by the Boston Public Health Commission in collaboration with Northeastern University.

The conference was intended to help teen participants learn how to break up nicely — as opposed to nastily, angrily, or unthinkingly — after a relationship has run its course. The writer quotes one organizer as saying: “No one talks to young people about this aspect of relationships.”

Why now?

With the rapid growth of social media, many adults are concerned about how easy it has become for someone to defriend, or to be defriended, with the click of a key on a computer or smartphone — regardless of the lasting emotional pain, it may cause for the person being dumped.

But the truth is there is no such thing as an easy breakup. Handling a breakup is exceedingly difficult for everyone, irrespective of age. And if kids are looking to their parents for advice, or as role models for how to unfriend or defriend with
grace, they may be disappointed.

During World War II, many soldiers received “Dear John” letters from their girlfriends back home, who couldn’t wait any longer and didn’t want to go into a lengthy explanation about why they had to end their relationships.

Neil Sedaka’s signature song some decades later, “Breaking Up is Hard to Do,” sky-rocketed to the top of the charts
because in addition to its punchy tune, the theme was so relatable then — as it still is now.

After surveying more than 1500 women from the ages of 17-70 for my book, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, I realized why there is no such thing as an easy breakup and most breakups are intrinsically so messy.

Why An Easy Breakup Isn’t Easy

1) Breakups carry a great deal of social stigma because our society often judges people, especially women, by their ability to make and keep friends.

So when a relationship ends, people tend to see it as a character flaw: Someone betrayed or let the other person down. In reality, this is rarely the case.

People change and no two lives follow the same trajectory. So why don’t we leave room for the possibility that many breakups are no-fault occurrences and that some friendships simply have expiration dates?

2) Sometimes a relationship works for one person and not the other.

If you’re the person who has been blissfully engaged in a friendship with someone you thought would be your best friend forever, there’s no easy remedy for not feeling like you’ve been dumped when you’re suddenly cut loose summarily, often without any warning.

One-sided breakups are especially hard to execute, discuss and accept.

3) We all have a natural reluctance to let go of something we know (even if it isn’t particularly good) rather than risk the uncertainty of something new.

Many women I surveyed were afraid to let go of toxic friendships because they felt like everyone else is already paired up, like the animals on Noah’s ark. Whether young or older, they felt it was too late to meet new friends.

This is a strong disincentive to healthy endings and healthy beginnings.

4) As compared to marriages, there are no social rituals to fall back upon that are associated with breaking up with friends.

Not to trivialize the pain and complexities of divorce, but at least there are some rules. Close friends usually encircle the person who is going through a divorce.

But when someone loses a friend, people are reluctant to talk about what happened. Both the dumped and the dumper
suffer in silence, feeling either shame or blame, respectively.

5) Unfortunately, any breakup has consequences that extend beyond the two people directly involved in the breakup.

Very often, most friendships involve connections with other family members and friends. In the case of friends in the workplace, the breakup spills over to colleagues and co-workers. When a friendship ends, it may make other collateral relationships more tenuous.

The Bottom Line:

There is no such thing as an easy breakup between friends.

In addition, there are no simple rules for breaking up with a friend —except to do so in a way that is graceful and kind.

Courses like the one in Boston remind us of that and, therefore, are a step in the right direction.

To read stories of friendship breakups and crowd-sourced solutions, visit the forums on The Friendship Blog

Also on The Friendship Blog:

How To Break Up With A Friend: The Rules

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Comments (19)

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  1. Carol says:

    I had a lot of friends, but then I had s nervous breakdown. At first people were very supportive. I went into residential care far from home and 5 different people or couples brought food or took out my disabled husband each week. This was totally their own initiative; I didn’t suggest it. But after I returned home literally all of them dropped us. Two wrote letters saying they “just had too much on their plate” (they hadn’t had too much on their plates before I went to residential care) and the others just did the ignoring phone calls, etc.
    It has been two years since all this happened and unfortunately my illness has not resolved. I take friendship very seriously and it still eats at me that I’ve lost all those friends.

  2. Anonymous says:

    I am not trying to second-guess you bur, FWIW, I do not attend weddings of people I “know” I will never see again. The costs of transportation, attire, babysitting and gift(s) add up. And a weekend day or evening is too valuable to waste on people I know will be strangers, again, to me.
    I wish them well in my heart, send a nice card and small gift and move on.
    Just my 2-cents.

  3. Anonymous says:

    I have been searching the internet for a reason why my college friend(s) hurt me the way they did. This site is great because it makes me realize that all the way around, our friendships were fleeting and did have “an expiration date”. Knowing all that, it still doesn’t erase the pain I experience. You talk about the silence and being dismissed and it takes me back to the times when I did reach out and I was ignored, abandoned and forgotten. Now I have a wedding to go to of a mutual acquaintance and all of these women will be in the wedding party. It will be hard, especially at this occasion, to keep it together but I will support the new union, make small talk and know in my head this is the last time I will probably see any of them. I’m trying to be positive but maybe this will be my way of putting an end to a very painful chapter of my life but like you, I know I will never completely heal.

  4. Anonymous says:

    I wanted to point out something that I relate to alot in Liz’s post. Her description of how her former friends distanced her: “Other friends that I’ve lost have basically done the old distancing (not returning phone calls in a timely manner, being busy, not easy to talk to, etc.).”

    That was how the friendship with my former “BFFs” started ending. I had a small clique of 2 other friends and myself. Then about 2-3 years later I re-connected with one of them whom I had dumped earlier. I had still remained in touch with the other friend. We tried to be “friends” again. Only this time she was more communicative and willing to talk. And she did apologize for not being a good friend, that is neglecting the friendship and putting in more effort to maintain it. So we started talking about the past and I found out that, she never really regarded me as a friend at all since the beginning . She didn’t really say that exactly nor do I think she consciously understood what she felt, but a sentence struck me as particularly telling. She said that we (the clique) formed a group together because we were the “rejects” (i.e. nerds) of the class and also because we didn’t want to be alone. That really pissed me off, because firstly, I had never thought or felt the same way, and it told me that I was a friend only because she didn’t have a choice.

    I then thought about how she and the other friend had interacted with me in the past, and all I could recall was that I was always the one trying to organize socials meetings for the clique outside of school. We never shared anything personal or were confidants, other than school work and things of common interest. Even now, the other friend was always too busy to meet up with.

    So I dumped her again, this time along with the other friend. And I can genuinely say now that I don’t have any friends right now. Yes, I have acquaintances and associates, people she would call “friends” because she has a very loose definition of what a friend is. It taught me a great lesson, there are no such thing as friends in this world.

    I don’t know if the way I dumped them was bad or not, and I probably had hurt them to some degree. You guys would probably not approve of the methods that I used to break up with my “friend”, via a text message the first time and over facebook on the second. But that was that. I was sick and tired of having my emotions and friendship toyed with like it was some great big joke that didn’t really matter or require nurturing or effort at all. As though, just because it was a “friendship” and not a romantic relationship, somehow it didn’t require any attention from all parties for it to be maintained.

  5. ginger says:

    For me, one of the most important points is this…”As compared to marriages, there are no social rituals to fall back upon that are associated with breaking up with friends.” How true! There are no rules when it comes to breakups with friends and it’s not well accepted in society. We all know that friendship breakups happen, but I’ve found that many friends don’t want to discuss what happened. It’s considered taboo. How unfortunate. In my experience, friendship breakups are more painful than romantic breakups. Thank goodness for this site; it brings to the forefront the reality of friendship breakups. Thank you, Irene.

  6. kris says:

    There are many valid reasons to break up with a friend, just like a romantic relationship. But a key issue is: HOW you breakup. This is true with romance too, you want to not damage your own, or the other person’s, self-esteem if at all possible.

    With romance, our society allows partners the space to break up with some formal ending, a time for sorting it out, going to couples counseling, mediation, or at least having the finality and clarity of a divorce (however painful that may be).

    But with friendships there is no such ritual, so many just end with silence, one person feeling dismissed with no explanation. Nothing destroiys self-esteem like feeling suddenly invisible, abandoned, blocked out, forgotten.

    This happened to me with a college roommate, a friend of 30 years. It left a painful, unsolveable enigma, which will never heal.

  7. lacole says:

    Butterflygirl2….I agree with you, being secure means you are able to own up to faults and hurts. Being secure enough in yourself that you can admit that. How these people live their lives just seems so exhausting to me..always being on guard, never really owning up to who you truly are and never being comfortable to let your hair down and let those that care about you see it all..the good, bad and the ugly…I have done well in moving on and agree that staying busy is the best. I think in the past I spent so much time and energy on my exbff, that I have really had to refill my time with other things…I joined the gym and really just doing what I want, when I want to, rather then feel strapped to this friendship with someone who expected me to drop everything for her…I feel free, relief….its wonderful to be honest. Sometimes while its quiet or Im alone, I will think of her and sometimes feels sad…sad that the friendship is over, sad that I wish I handled the ending differently, etc…but I know it was for the best, just feeling like I do now, I know it was.

  8. lacole says:

    Hi…I do agree, I would rather say nothing then appear like the wouded party. At times in the past we have gone back and forth abit on the phone about what may have occured and I have always held back abit…I wish this last time I had really told her (in as much as a respectful way as possible)….I would have only seized the opportunity had it presented itself, I would not call her or send her an email or letter after the fact. As much as I would love for her to know how awful she was now, it would only appear that I was still reeling months later and I wouldnt want her to have that power…totally agreed!

  9. Anonymoustoo says:

    I have experienced a few breakups. In every instance I have never confronted my ex BFFs for several reasons. I don’t like to appear to be the wounded party, even though I do feel hurt by their actions. I just can’t give them that power. Although they probably think they never did anything to hurt me and I was just being sensitive. I had never have an open conversation since the other parties just pretended everything was fine superficially or gave me the silent treatment. I guess I always bow out at a point when I realized things wouldn’t change. The pattern of behavior and disrespect that led to the breakup point. Still learning to forgive and move on. That will be closure.

  10. Butterflygirl2 says:

    If the lessons I’ve learned from fruitless rehashing of a friendship gone wrong can be helpful to someone else–then I guess it wasn’t entirely fruitless. :). I know what it’s like to try to solve a Rubik’s cube of a friendship puzzle when the last piece is missing and it’s locked up inside another person’s head.

  11. Irene says:

    What an empowering message~

    Thank you!


  12. Butterflygirl2 says:

    for posting the article. I had read it a long time ago and I see now it was one strike against you and then bad reports from others as well. Three strikes against me works too! ;0 I like Beck’s approach to problem solving in relationships. I find her articles very useful.

  13. EagleWings says:

    Butterflygirl wrote,

    I read an interesting article by Martha Beck on “Oprah” that talks about having a three strikes rule about bad treatment. She said that when someone has done three obviously unkind things to you that is a sign of something majorly negative going on with that person and a sign that it’s time to reconsider the relationships

    That article seems familiar, maybe I’ve read it before, or it’s just deja vu.

    I did a web search for it, and I looked at it again just a moment ago ((When to Hold a Grudge)) – link should open in new browser window.

    I had a boss who sounds kind of like the toxic personality type listed under “Gas Lighter.”

    She would abuse you and play mind games after the fact. She would harass you, but then make it sound like you were the abuser, or as though the abuse never happened (she would deny that certain events ever took place, which made you question your own sanity).

    My sister sounds pretty much like the “The Hyde Transformers” personality type (a category that is mentioned on ((this page)))

    Being around someone who is a “Hyde Transformer” is very scary, especially when your own personality is 180 degrees opposite (very sweet, soft spoken, try to avoid conflict, try to be sensitive to others’ feelings, etc).

    Edit: my ex fiance sounds like one of the “planarians” mentioned on the first page. He was not receptive about my problems or emotional needs at all.

  14. Butterflygirl2 says:

    I was recently reading a book by a psychologist who posed the theory that there are two ways of interacting with people in the world–to rank or to link. Rankers are evaluating people as to whether they are above or below them–and are usually trying to be on top. Linkers–are people who try to connect on the same level with the person they are interacting with. Sometimes we rank and sometimes we link depending on the situation–work versus social etc. However, she went on to say that those who routinely link instead of rank have healthier, happier relationships because they want to connect rather than control. So keep your eyes peeled and arms open for the Linkers! 😉

  15. Butterflygirl2 says:

    Hi lacole–

    In the case of my former friend, I know that it is very hard for her to accept that she has done something hurtful because her husband (then boyfriend) told me years ago–before they were even married “Jill”(not her name) never apologizes. So even with the man she was going to marry she would not/could not say “I’m sorry”. I think that for some people it’s just too hard to admit they have flaws–so they have many elaborate defense mechanisms that they pull out to manipulate the other person into thinking the issue is with them. It’s almost as if admitting they made a mistake will literally destroy them so it may be almost impossible to break through and have them really hear you. Especially, if they have enough people in their lives to fill in the space that you used to occupy. The loss may catch up to them someday or it may not.

    I know another women in her 60’s now who has NEVER, EVER in her life admitted that she made a mistake in a friendship or relationship. I think her ego is just too fragile and the idea that she isn’t perfect is more than she can deal with–which is the opposite of what she projects. Don’t be fooled into thinking that someone who appears super confident and in control doesn’t have insecurities. The sign of a truly secure person is someone who knows their strengths but is also working on their weaknesses.

    If you honestly feel you’ve done what you can with regards to your friend, perhaps it’s time to focus on things that you know will make you feel more positive and energized whether it’s hiking, biking, reading, learning new skills–music, cooking, gardening–whatever engages you and distracts you. Little by little, you’ll start to feel like yourself again. I know from my own experience that the more time I spend thinking about a bad thing or bad situation with a person the worse I feel. For me the rumination rarely solves anything, but it keeps me from moving forward and taking care of my own life–which, by the way, is what former friend’s are doing.

    Chin up! There are lots of people in the world waiting to be met and turned into friends. 🙂

  16. lacole says:

    Hi..I like your post and is certainly speaks volumes with my own experience…my ex-bff never wanted to discuss anything, preferred to play the silent treatment or just over look the problem like it was never there…and your right…resentment only continued to build over time. You cant possibly have a friendship with anyone that either doesnt want to talk or never sees fault in there own actions. She actually said one day that she NEVER hurts her friends…now that is quite a statement to make…! Unrealistic to say the least. …she also was a big “deflector” of blame…somehow always managed to spin the issue so it became your problem and you were the one that messed up, not her…I dont know if this type of person truly knows how they are behaving or acting to be able to answer those questions that you ask…I dont think I had closure…I never siezed the opportunity to tell her exactly how I felt and how hurtful she had been…I regret that sometimes. I would like to think that she knows…but then again, why would she…she never hurts her friends.;)

  17. Butterflygirl2 says:

    One of the aspects of “breaking-up” that comes up so often is the desire for closure for those who feel they’ve been dumped. I can only speak from my own experience, of course, but in the case where I stopped communicating with my long-time friend it was only after several very disrespectful episodes and an attempt to talk to her about what I was feeling. I was very careful to not be accusatory or destructive but to talk about how I felt the friendship had turned one-sided. Because my feelings/concerns were dismissed, I had to honestly ask myself why I should continue to work on a friendship with someone who didn’t even really see or hear me or didn’t care how she made me feel. Sometimes people aren’t open to feedback but it can be necessary to clear the air for the friendship to continue or resentment will continue to build. To assume that a long-term friendship can just sail along smoothly without any disagreements or discussions is rather unrealistic. My ex-friend didn’t want to think she ever did anything wrong which just isn’t humanly possible. We all fail each other now and then but for me it’s the intention behind the action that matters. I sometimes wonder if people ask themselves, “Hmm, why am I acting this way towards this person? Why am I being cruel? Is it about her or is it about me? How would I feel if she did this to me?” Interesting questions.

    I wasn’t cruel to my former friend but I couldn’t be cruel to myself either by enduring her disrespect and indifference over and over as she showed no interest in modifying her behavior.

    I read an interesting article by Martha Beck on “Oprah” that talks about having a three strikes rule about bad treatment. She said that when someone has done three obviously unkind things to you that is a sign of something majorly negative going on with that person and a sign that it’s time to reconsider the relationships. Anyone can have a bad day or even days but when you start to see a pattern then it’s time to call foul.

  18. EagleWings says:

    All of the points raised are good ones, but I especially related to the third one:

    ‘We all have a natural reluctance to let go of something we know (even if it isn’t particularly good) rather than risk the uncertainty of something new’

    That’s one big reason why I hung on to unhealthy, disappointing, or unfulfilling platonic and romantic relationships as long as I did.

    Especially in the romance department.

    It’s very hard being single (and at my age, over 35) in a society that assumes everyone has a partner, is currently married, or has been at one time. Everywhere you look, it seems like everyone else has a spouse (or a boyfriend).

    Because of my loner personality and the fact I moved often as a kid, I think I began cutting myself some slack years ago for never having been successful at making and keeping female friends. I don’t beat myself up too much for that any more.

    Another thing that in recent times has made it easier for me to cut ties more quickly with toxic or disappointing people: losing my mother a few years ago.

    Something as life changing as that makes you re evaluate your life and how you’re living it, and changes what you are no longer willing to put up with.

    Fear of the unknown, not knowing if I could make a new friend (or boyfriend) if I broke up with the ones I currently had, was a very big factor with me, for many years.

  19. Liz says:

    Breaking up is so hard to do or have done to you. It is interesting to talk about, but only in hindsight can you really think it over, imo. One time when a now ex friend decided to dump me, she told me what I had done. There was no second chance, no possibility of one given (my terrible deed was to cause jealousy between her & her cousin unwittingly – the cousin didn’t want her to be better friends w/me than they were). I understood, but it was hard to take regardless as this was a best friend for 3 years. When this ex tried to re-friend me, I just couldn’t go back – as much as I’d have jumped on the opportunity 10 years ago.
    Other friends that I’ve lost have basically done the old distancing (not returning phone calls in a timely manner, being busy, not easy to talk to, etc.). Yet the loss of these friendships are not as bitter for me. Weird!! I’d love to know what exactly it was about me or my friendship that soured them – and yet it is so incredibly hurtful to be told that I might not want to know! The advice I’ve given to my kids about ending relationships with friends is to not gossip at all about the former friend, to make sure not to too quickly just dump them (maybe just scale back for a while), and to be kind about it. If they see the friend sitting alone at lunch, go sit with them once in a while.

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