How to break up with a friend

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In addition to warding off flu, bladder infections and the death penalty (don’t ask), one of the very sound pieces of advice my mother used to give me was in regards to toxic friendships.

“Don’t let people steal your energy”, she used to say. “Don’t even let the echoes of them take anything away from you. When it’s time to walk away, be strong enough to do it.”

My mother believed that, as with romantic relationships, some friendships had a time limit on them. It was nobody’s fault; it’s just the way things are. But unlike love affairs (or perhaps a little too much like some of them), people tend to hold onto friendships out of the ill advised view that they are meant to last forever.

Indeed, without the burden of romance and domestic obligation, it is easy to make them last forever. Unfortunately, we forget all too often that friendships require just as much nourishment as those relationships in which we spend significantly more time together (naked). Sometimes, the end of a friendship comes about organically.

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Without realising it, you begin to see each other less and less. Your former co-dependence gives way to weekly lunches and then the occasional burst of texts. One day, you realise that your previously devoted friendship has been reduced to circular conversations about how you really need to catch up.

Together, you decide on a time and declare that you can’t wait. Almost immediately, a small lump of dread begins to form in your stomach. When you finally meet, the two of you speak in voices that are slightly too loud and too high-pitched, each sentence punctuated by an upswing that frames everything as an overly enthusiastic question.

After a suitable length of time in which there have been one too many awkward pauses, you both make your excuses while passionately promising to do it again soon. And then you leave, relieved that it’s over and yet indescribably sad that this person with whom you shared so many laughs, tears and formative times seems to be a stranger - a figment from a dream you can’t quite remember but will never quite forget. These are the friendships whose loss we cannot chart, for we were in the middle of it before we realised it had even begun.

But then there are the more damaging relationships - the toxic friendships, as my mother called them. The friendships that turn you into worse people, not better. They are the ones that damage your self-esteem or betray your trust. Perhaps most upsetting are the ones which manage to turn you into the supporting player in someone else’s life, rather than the protagonist in your own. We know how to break up with partners when the bad times have begun to outweigh the good - but how do we effectively break up with friends?

Sure, you could just stop seeing them. Unlike romantic partnerships, there’s no obligation to check in with a friend every day. But avoiding closure to them means you deny it also to yourself.

Leaving a friendship with no explanation gives you no opportunity to ‘speak your truth’ to a person who has potentially harmed you and certainly diminished you in some way. All you’re doing is opening yourself up to what my mother warned against - those same people continuing to steal precious energy from you and turning it into a toxic sludge. Trust me - there have been many friendships I’ve walked away from without explanation that have continued to plague me.

The process of breaking up with a friend is really no different from breaking up with a partner. Outline the problems and detail why the relationship is no longer working for you. Accept whatever blame you may also have in the situation, but don’t let it change what you know in your heart to be the best course of action.

While you won’t be able to use that trusted old chestnut sprung on so many thwarted lovers (“I hope we can still be friends…”), you WILL be able to acknowledge and honour the good times while being adult enough to admit to each other that the time has come to move on.

Not all friendships are meant to last forever - but if you can use the opportunity of ending them to also put to rest long held resentments and grievances, both of you stand a chance of emerging from them unscathed, wiser and yet still grateful for the memories that enriched your life rather than suffocated it.

There is no dignity in running around corners to hide from former friends or waiting for the opportunity of their name to be brought up so you can air (again) all the unresolved dirty laundry from your time together. And that’s the other piece of advice my sage mother used to offer. “If you’re going to break up with someone, do it with integrity”, she said. “One day you may run into them on the street. And when that day comes, be certain that you can both look at each other, smile and understand that it was a parting well made.”

 

Clementine Ford will appear in All About Women festival at the Sydney Opera House on 30 March 2014. See booking details here.

35 comments

  • Look Clem ... if it's over between us just say it.

    I can take it.

    I think.

    Commenter
    Farr
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    March 14, 2014, 8:34AM
    • I've broken up with two friends. One was a toxic friend, the other was too, in a different way.
      As you get older and more sure of who you are and where your value system sits among that of your peer group it's a matter of investing time with friends who you actually value and get enjoyment from.
      As soon as you don't want to/can't be bothered/walk away loathing the interaction it's time to call it quits. Life is too short to spend time with people you don't like. I can count the amount of true friends I have on one hand, and I am happy about that, because I'm not desperate to be liked by all and fill my life with acquaintances.

      Commenter
      choosy
      Location
      melbourne
      Date and time
      March 14, 2014, 8:52AM
      • Reason, season, lifetime.

        Your mother sounds like a very wise woman.

        For me I had a difficult "break up" with my best girl friend (not girlfriend) who I'd known since we were about 8. So in many ways she was my first real friend. It was the type of friendship where we would sleepover each other's houses every weekend - and this continued well into high school right up until we graduated.

        Then after high school we even stayed close friends for a good few years.

        Then she met her homophobic boyfriend (now husband) who would literally sit with his arms folded and face a completely different direction when the three of us would catch up (apparently 1:1) catch ups could no longer happen.

        So I refused to attend her wedding.

        Now we are no longer friends and she can't seem to understand why I could be so cruel as to not attend her wedding.

        Well as I explained it was both of your wedding and clearly he didn't want me there so I think I saved us all an incredible amount of grief.

        I do still long for the "old days" sometimes and we are still 'facebook friends' with the occasional comment or like, but things will never go back to what they were and I've found peace with that.

        Commenter
        Adrian
        Location
        Sydney
        Date and time
        March 14, 2014, 9:01AM
        • Is that really you Clem?

          Completely agree. We have a simple rule of thumb as we age. Why bother with friends (so-called) that suck parts of your life out, when there is barely enough time to see those that you do appreciate. No nastiness involved, simply let the friendship slowly drift away

          Commenter
          $keptic
          Location
          Melbourne
          Date and time
          March 14, 2014, 9:28AM
          • I had a friendship that could fit into the toxic category (the woman who has to organise everyone's life). Apart from totally programming my entire weekends and evenings, I wasn't allowed an opinion on anything. I wasn't even allowed enough space & time to do my housework. When I was packing for an overseas trip, she even went as far to tell me what underwear and tampons I had to pack. After a couple of years, I'm afraid I took the coward's way out and cut her off without explanation (refused to answer my phone & door etc until she eventually got the hint). I know it probably left her hurt and confused, but nothing else seemed to get through to her. I don't think she is an evil or bad person, just impossible to be with.

            What was particularly frustrating to me, when I was in her clutches, was the realisation that I had not sought out her friendship, but had inherited her through another friend - someone I got on reasonably well with, though wasn't overly close to. She seemed to suddenly cultivate a big circle, and when our mutual friend seemed to have bonded with someone else (ie me), eased her way out of the group. In retrospect,I now know it was her way of ridding herself of the toxic friend.

            Commenter
            Meg
            Date and time
            March 14, 2014, 9:33AM
            • They say that if you lend someone twenty dollars and never see them again, to consider it a bargain.

              I'm trying to convince myself that it's actually a bigger bargain when you lent them a considerably larger sum that you could ill afford. Silly, trusting fool that I am, I believed her when she said she'd pay me back.

              Either way, I'm glad she's out of my life.

              Commenter
              Red Pony
              Date and time
              March 14, 2014, 10:50AM
              • Hi Clementine, what a font of wisdom your mother is.

                Commenter
                Ken
                Location
                SA
                Date and time
                March 14, 2014, 10:59AM
                • Your mum does sound very wise. I am currently in the process of trying to extract myself from a friendship. Former best friend that was quote close with me and my ex and could not handle the way in which I moved on from that relationship and made life awful during the break up period which was already a really difficult time for me. She has also always been quite aloof and unfriendly to my new partner (now husband) who has never deserved her cold shoulder. I feel sad as she was once the closest friend I had but I can no longer put energy into a friendship that she has no interest in nurturing. Only problem – we are both part of a wider circle of girlfriends so unless I dump them all (which I wouldn’t do) she will always be in my life in some way.

                  Commenter
                  Greta
                  Location
                  Sydney
                  Date and time
                  March 14, 2014, 11:33AM
                  • Have you thought of asking why she doesn't approve of the way you moved on? Maybe talk about why friendship is dying?

                    Commenter
                    david
                    Date and time
                    March 14, 2014, 11:37PM
                • I have a friend who myself and my husband have decided to distance ourselves from. After supporting our friend and her husband through her pregnancy, helping them set up the nursery a month before bub was due and being supportive friends, we were promptly flicked to the side after her bub's birth. People who didn't support them through the pregnancy suddenly became their best buddies and boy, did we feel used. Stupidly, we supported her through some issues she was experiencing at work which was a complete waste of time. Needless to say, we've had enough and haven't spoken to our now former friends for two months. It's tempting to get in contact again, but so far, we have resisted the urge.

                  Commenter
                  X
                  Location
                  Melb
                  Date and time
                  March 14, 2014, 11:44AM

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