Why Friendship Breakups Can be Just as Hard as Romantic Ones
Not every bestie is forever.
Recently, a friend whom I considered to be one of my closest, most solid friends, “broke up” with me. I’m using quotation marks, but that literally is what it was, and exactly how it feels.
According to her, there was resentment and negative feelings building for a while, but she never said anything to me about it, so I had no idea. As far as I knew, we were cool.
In fact, I had helped her move in June, and was trying to reach out to spend time with her because I thought maybe I was neglecting the relationship. However, she kept putting me off, saying she was busy with work, and I decided to ask her about it, thinking, I’m probably imagining things.
I wasn’t imagining things.
I did not quite expect her response. What I got was a long and detailed account of qualities about me that bothered her. She also said she didn’t like all the “drama” about me. That hurt, especially since, as far as I knew, our friendship had been fairly drama-free. So all of this was coming out of the blue. She said she couldn’t “deal” with having me as a friend right now.
And it wasn’t even the first time. The first time I remember having a “friend break-up” was in 2008, just after the end of a very serious relationship, followed by a cross-country move to get space from my pain. And this friend, who I thought was someone who was there for me, to see me through, suddenly ended our friendship by email, again with scathing remarks as to my personal qualities that seemed to arrive entirely from Left Field.
It left me confused, bereft, questioning everything about myself and the rest of my friendships — did everyone secretly feel this badly about me? Was I, in fact, a terrible person? It didn’t help that my self esteem was already in the trash after my breakup. This just rubbed salt into my wounds. It took a long, long time to come to terms with that friendship ending, and a drastically shorter time to feel the same way about my more recent friendship breakup. But that doesn’t make it hurt any less.
From a fairly young age, we are sold on a romantic idea of friendships lasting “forever.” BFFs! Those half-heart necklaces that complete each other, saying “best” on one side, “friends” on the other. There was the little song my mom taught me, I think from Girl Scouts: Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold... We all know which one the gold is.
Your friends are meant to be there for you, through thick and thin. Lovers, partners, jobs may come and go, and your friends are supposed to be the ones you can lean on, that will bring you pizza and a box of tissues when you are sad. Or send you cute puppy pictures. Or go out dancing with you to distract you from anything that’s bothering you. Your friends have got your back.
They aren’t supposed to be the thing that’s bothering you. They aren’t supposed to be source of pain and heartache.
But the truth is, sometimes they are.
Yes, there definitely are wonderful friendships that last a lifetime. There are people I’ve known since childhood that I might not see very often, but who still think I am amazing and lovable. I have to keep reminding myself.
But not every person is meant to be in your life for the long haul. This is true about lovers and partners, and it’s true about some friendships. There are some people who are perfect friends for a certain period of life, and then not. People may grow apart, or the benefits of the friendship may be exhausted, and this may not actually be due to anyone’s fault. But maybe it’s hard to find a reason, when you think your friendships are supposed to be permanent.
Part of what makes these moments difficult for me in particular is because of how I was raised. I remember one moment specifically, when I was in high school. I had called a friend of mine, and she didn’t call me back right away. It had been a few days, and I was starting to get stressed out, wondering why she hadn’t returned my call. So I turned to my mother for reassurance, and she asked me, “Well, what did you do to make her not want to call you?”
Not exactly reassuring.
So it’s understandable that my first line of internal questioning is, what did *I* do wrong? And it takes me longer to get to: I wonder what’s going on with them?
Taking responsibility is not the same as shouldering all of the blame and assuming all of the fault.
It is hard to fight the urge to blame myself. But the truth is, people react because of what is going on with them, not because of what is going on with you, a majority of the time. And of course, the other truth is that you really can’t control what other people do; you can only control yourself. So it’s helpful to take responsibility in that way. But taking responsibility is not the same as shouldering all of the blame and assuming all of the fault.
Initially, when my recent former friend sent her (first) long diatribe about all of the problems she had with me, I felt horrified, and deeply apologetic. She was willing to talk about it, and so was I. But over a series of messages, that willingness broke down on both sides. And ultimately, I realized that someone who was harboring such deep criticisms of me, who was avoiding me, and from whom I was made to feel like I had to beg and plead with for friendship and forgiveness — that person really wasn’t being my friend.
It made me imagine a friend who was a bit kinder, a bit gentler, a bit more understanding, and perhaps better at communicating things sooner. And it made me reach out to some other people in my life, and realize that those people do exist in my life. Her view is her view, but what she sees — what any one person sees — does not compose the entirety of who I am.
Perhaps you have heard the phrase “rejection is protection.” I fully believe in this. Normally, I think of it in terms of romantic attachments, but it can be applied to friendships as well. The essential idea of it is that someone removing themselves voluntarily from your life may hurt in the short-term, but it is very likely protecting you from some further harm in the future that you can’t see or know about from where you are at the moment.
Here is a video on how that tends to work in romantic relationships.
And I recently came across another idea that resonated with me: rejection is projection. Here is a good TEDx talk on that by Daryll Stinson. And so, that got me out of my head and my hurt feelings a little bit, to wonder about, were these friends of mine actually criticizing me, or were they seeing parts of themselves in me — parts that they didn’t like?
We all do it. The things that tend to bother us the most about other people are, generally speaking, the parts of ourselves that we either dislike or reject, or both. It’s the old, “When you point one finger, there are three pointing back toward you.” Or, more simply: you spot it, you got it. (This can go for good qualities, too!) People are basically projection machines.
The thing is, most people don’t realize they are projecting (I am guilty of this, too). We truly believe that what we see in the other is “them” and not “us.” That’s not to say that any critique a person has of you, or of me, is unfounded. It’s just to say that those qualities wouldn’t bother the other person if it didn’t somehow lean on insecurities they already have. And that is NOT your fault.
Back in 2008, I didn’t have the same life experience that I have now. I stressed and cried, and lost sleep over that friendship. I would have done anything to “fix” it, but it wasn’t a thing that needed fixing.
And so, this year, when it happened, I bounced back much more quickly. At first, I took it personally. But after exchanging a few messages, I realized that, it really wasn’t about me. And I may never know what it was really about. I can only guess at what was going on under the surface for her, while I try and take what I can of what she said to me and make some adjustments —so that I can better express myself, and avoid future confusion.
And I gave myself permission to grieve.
I am writing all of this because I am sure I’m not the only one. Perhaps you, too, have grown apart from someone or had a falling-out.
And it’s okay. Not all friendships are meant to be permanent.
I think it’s helpful to acknowledge this as a reality. It is time to dis-attach ourselves from the myth that friendships are designed to last “forever.” Because while it’s wonderful to have long-term friends we can count on, we set ourselves up for disappointment if we believe that our “best friend” at one time must remain our best friend always. Change and growth are natural, and these friendships both signify our growth and assist us on our way. Including the painful parts.
Expectations are the enemy of happiness. We simply don’t know what will happen until time has passed — the same as with dating relationships.
Expectations are the enemy of happiness.
If this has happened to you, at any time in your life, you, too, can give yourself permission to grieve the loss. I highly recommend it. Because that’s what it is— a loss. And denying those feelings only tends to prolong them. So, ugly cry. Listen to sad music. Exercise. Do all the things.
And once those cloudy feelings pass, you may realize that, whether a partner or a friend, a person who removes themselves from your life has truly done you a favor.
Once you move through the feelings, you will be more open to new friendships right around the corner. You can take the moment to reevaluate what’s truly important to you in your life, and you may find the opportunity to reconnect with people who already love and support you, without effort.
That is love. That is friendship.
Sometimes we know what a thing is by seeing what it isn’t.
Taylor is a writer, linguist, and sometimes dancer, living & thinking various thoughts in Chicago