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.
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.