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“Breaking Up” with Friends: Where’s the How-To Book?

How do you end a friendship? The rules are not clear, if indeed rules exist for this often fraught process for both perpetrator and recipient.

We have a vocabulary and a process around the ending of jobs, romances and marriages. We have outside help: couples counseling, divorce attorneys, the human resources office. There are how-to books, outplacement services, spiritual retreats and endless pundits — entire industries that support these endings. And of course, the “wisdom” of close friends, on whom we rely for their skills in amateur psychology and assurance in our lowest hour that it was definitely the other person’s fault.

Perhaps society and self-help gurus short shrift the importance of friendships ending because there’s generally less to lose. In other break-ups, the stakes are indisputably high — salaries, status, and purpose; home, kids, money and sex. Our sense of security is threatened, our self-worth in the gutter, our future seemingly in jeopardy. In most friendships, these things don’t apply, and if they do, you may be in the friendship for the wrong reasons.

Certainly, there are times when it’s clear a friendship should end, when there are egregious transgressions — a friend “steals” a boyfriend; money lent and not paid back (life lesson #1). Or the less sinister “co-opting” of a friend — someone you brought into a group of friends who becomes more popular than you, or used you for career advancement. Or we simply grow apart because of divergent interests, opposing political views, or personal growth that leaves the other behind. Sometimes, we can’t stand a friend’s significant other, or their friends.

How do most of us feel about discussing problems in a friendship? It’s awkward, it’s not done, we don’t know where to start. The way many approach the uncomfortable task can be cowardly, if not a little cruel. In fact, we don’t always end friendships in any real sense. We often take the path of least resistance, hoping the friendship will peter out due to lack of care and feeding. We unfriend, unfollow or block. We stop calling. We don’t call back. Or we wait a long time to call back, or call when we hope we’ll get their voice mail. We’re always “busy” when they ask to meet up. Or we go ahead and make plans, but cancel. We hope they’ll just drift away, get the hint. It’s textbook passive-aggressive, and it hurts.

So, how could we approach this under-examined part of life in a more humane way? First of all, let’s head it off at the pass: be more discerning in choosing friends. Some people dive in head first, becoming fast friends before they really know someone, just as some do in romantic relationships. Understand what you like about them, what you have in common, the values you share. It doesn’t mean you can only be friends with those just like you — but a right-wing/left-wing divide isn’t always surmountable, for example, especially these days.

When there are issues, but you’d still like to be friends, have a conversation. If someone is constantly late, bring it up calmly and kindly after the first few times, rather than blowing up after the 10th (my specialty). If you can’t stand someone’s new boyfriend, try to see your friend on her own. If you feel like someone “stole” a friend, check your ego and realize that grown-ups can be friends with whomever they like. If you had a blow-up about something, maybe take a time out for you both to evaluate the friendship and see if you’d like to continue it.

But if you’re really done with the friendship, maybe you should try just ‘ripping off the Band-Aid’. Don’t accuse, but tell her how how you feel — hurt by some on-going behavior, at odds with his beliefs or values, or that you’ve simply grown apart. Really, not that different from the reasons for the break-up of a relationship.

I have a friend who started being at constant loggerheads with a long-term friend, so she simply said “Enough. Let’s just break-up”. And so they did.

And lastly, don’t imagine that your friend’s world will be shattered; if you’re not wild about the friendship, they likely aren’t either. Just try to be kind. Breaking up may be hard to do, but you don’t have to be hard.

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