Breaking Up (With Friends) Is Hard To Do

Romantic partners are not the only ones who find themselves ending a relationship. Friend breakups are real--not just something we experienced in junior high--and they can really hurt.

January 8, 2016
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There are countless songs, books, TV shows, and movies about couples breaking up (Taylor Swift seems to have made a career off this topic). We’re all familiar with the tears, the fighting, the drama–and perhaps most of all the emotional pain–from seeing these scenarios portrayed in the media and perhaps experiencing them ourselves.

But romantic partners are not the only ones who find themselves ending a relationship.

In my years as a clinical therapist, I’ve had a lot of women come into my office heartbroken over the loss of a female friendship. Friend breakups are real–not just something we experienced in junior high–and they can really, really hurt. It happens a lot, but we don’t talk about it very much. Here are a few ways to deal with and get over a breakup with a close friend.

One of the first things to do is determine whether the relationship break is a drift or a rift.

As you can probably guess, a drift is when two people naturally grow apart, as can happen over time. This often has to do with a difference in expectations (for example, one person may think a relationship will last for years to come, while the other may consider it a convenient relationship for the time being). A rift, however, indicates that there has been a rupture, a problem, or perhaps even a falling-out that needs to be examined further. With a relationship drift, you’ll probably choose a path of acceptance, whereas a relationship rift more likely requires a path of repair, or at least of clarification.

If you find yourself on the receiving end of a friendship breakup, I encourage you to examine your expectations. I’d ask you to consider the same question that I’ve asked so many of my clients throughout the years: When have you felt this way before?

Your tender feelings may indicate an underlying insecurity and that perhaps you were using the friendship to meet a need or fill a void. For example, women who’ve lost their mother might feel a greater need for female friendship. Or maybe you had only brothers and are wanting your friend to be the sister you never had. Examining what the friendship really meant to you is a great way to learn about yourself and what your specific needs are. It’s also an important step in healing from the breakup.

As painful as it is, the ending of a friendship can be an opportunity to develop and practice empathy.

You may be very hurt by someone, but I invite you to consider what might be going on with her that has caused her to act a certain way. Is there some hardship in her life that would explain why she’s pulled away from you? Perhaps she’s having problems in her marriage, in her family life, or in her career that are taking priority. There’s almost always something deeper that precipitates this kind of shift, and whether your friend is in the wrong for her part in ending the relationship or not, you can still be empathetic to challenges that she may be experiencing.

Something good to do in the aftermath of a friendship breakup is to figure out what you can learn. There is always, always something valuable to learn, and pain, unfortunately, is often the best teacher. What lesson(s) can you take from this experience?

It may be that you contributed to the breakup in a way and need to do better in a certain area. It may be that you need to readjust your expectations. Or it may even be that you would like to emulate (or not emulate) some characteristic or trait of the other person. A young woman I know had a very painful friend breakup a few years ago. When she tried to reach out for clarification about what had happened, her attempts were strongly rebuffed; she was told in no uncertain terms that her friend refused to see or speak to her again. The original sadness of the breakup resurfaced, and it took her a very long time to recover from this loss. Although she didn’t get the closure she was hoping for, my friend was still able to examine her expectations and recommit herself to always being open to communicating with others. She never wanted to cut anyone off, as had sadly been done to her. There’s always something we can learn from these situations to make us stronger in our future relationships.

Finally, if a friendship is over for good, figure out what it is that you need for closure.

You’re understandably very sad that the relationship isn’t what it used to be, so it’s a grief process of letting go. Maybe what you really need is a good cry. You might write your feelings in a letter that you may or may not send. Journaling, therapy, talking to your spouse or partner–or maybe a parting conversation with the other person–can help you move on. Life is about hellos and goodbyes, and you can learn to let go in a healthy way.

Friendship breakups aren’t fun. They can unearth a lot of insecurities, but they can also teach us about ourselves, our expectations, our weaknesses, and our needs. When you go through one, use what you learned from it to make you a better friend in your next relationship.

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