Even close relationships with friends can reach their shelf lives or expiration dates. A friendship that once felt satisfying and easy begins to feel awkward, boring, stressful, edgy, competitive, draining, or uncomfortable — or all of the above.
A previous post on Life Goes Strong discussed the telltale signs of a friendship drifting apart. But what if the other person doesn't see it that way? Then, the ball is in your court and you may need these practical tips on how to make the task of breaking up with a friend a little bit easier for both of you.
For my book, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, I interviewed more than 1500 women to find out about their friendships and breakups. These are some of the lessons learned about breaking up with a friend.
1) Be sure it's something you really want to do
Once you tell a friend you don't want to be friends any more, there's really no going back, at least to the same level of intimacy. From thereon in, it will always be awkward. Since you've invested a good part of yourself in this relationship, it's in your best interest to see if you can save the friendship and make it more satisfying. Remember that no relationship, even a marriage, is perfect.
If there's been a misunderstanding, a dialogue between you may clear things up. If you've done something wrong, apologize. If your friend did something wrong, ask for an apology. In some instances, some time apart – in the form of a friendship sabbatical – might give you both breathing room to eventually make up. But if the relationship has been a consistent source of distress, you have no other option but to end it.
2) Plan the breakup carefully
Once you've decided that your life will be better without this friend, you need to figure out when and how to end it. After all, this person was once your friend and there is little to be served by hurting her unnecessarily. The easiest breakups are between people who have already drifted apart. In these cases, inertia ends the friendship because neither person has enough interest or motivation to resurrect the dying friendship.
If the decision to end the friendship is one-sided, and you are the one who wants to get out of it, it's likely that the other person will feel hurt and angry. Since you are in control, you should do whatever you can to minimize those feelings. You can either tell white lies of some sort until the person gets the message, or be honest without being too blunt or accusatory. How you handle the breakup at this point will be based on the specific people and reasons for the breakup. If you express your frustrations, you also have to take ownership in the sense that it was YOU who could no longer tolerate the way things were going.
3) Determine the best way to deliver the message
It it's someone you see infrequently, you can choose between an email, note, phone call, or in-person delivery. The nice thing about an email or note is that the person doesn't have to respond immediately. Instead, she has time to reflect before she reacts impulsively. Although you may have been mulling and planning the great escape for some time, the other person may feel blindsided.
If it is someone with whom you work or whom you expect to see from time to time (e.g. a neighbor, someone in your club, etc.) – make up a time to speak. Do it at a mutually convenient time, with no one else around, and accept responsibility for making your decision. Don't cast all the blame on the other person. Friendships, even the best of them, sometimes end as two people's lives go in different directions.
4) Resist the temptation to involve other people
Most friends share mutual friends and acquaintances. You may be seeking support for your decision or to assuage your guilt but try not to involve others unnecessarily. If you were very close to the person you've broken up with, the changed relationship may be apparent to others. While you can own up and say you aren't friendly any more when asked, refrain from providing too many details about the rift. It will make everyone feel more comfortable.
5) Stay the course
Even if you are the initiator, breaking up always feels like a loss. You may feel lonely for a while if you are used to spending considerable time with your friend. Some people make the mistake of thinking that having a toxic friend is better than having no friend at all. There's also a natural tendency, too, to remember the nice parts of the friendship. Don't forget that you reached this tough decision carefully to make room in your life for more meaningful and satisfying friendships.
Prior posts on Life Goes Strong on making and keeping friendships: