How To Break Up With Your Friends
When I was growing up, the best thing in the world was a PlayStation game called Syphon Filter 2. The problem was I didn’t have it. But my friend did and would let me borrow it, which was great. I liked this friend and we hung out a lot, but he never quite knew when it was time to go home. A Saturday afternoon gaming together was fun. Saturday night and all day Sunday too was a bit much. In the end, we went to secondary school the following year and the friendship naturally faded as we drifted apart. Today when I’m reminded of Syphon Filter 2, I think of him and hope he’s doing well.
Had I actively had to cut him out of my life, I’m not sure I could have done it. Most of the time we drift apart from friends and, while that’s sometimes sad, it ends up being fine. The question of actively “breaking up” with friends is a complex one. Even if it’s painful, it’s much easier when you’re young. Changes such as new schools or going from being a grunge kid to one of the rave gang mean you fall out with someone without having to say anything about it.
As adults, it’s trickier, but sometimes necessary. There are times when we wish we could step back from that friend who asks a little too much without offering much in return. Or that friend who always lets you down. Or the one who makes you wince with his off-colour jokes and can’t quite seem to read the room. So, how do we break up with our friends?
Ben, a tattooist in his thirties, believes that life is too short for exhausting friendships and has taken active steps to whittle down his friendship group. “I became aware that I was doing all the legwork in a certain friendship, so I decided to test this person by not contacting them to see if they would reach out to me,” he says. “They didn’t.” Contact between the two fell off and when they did make plans, the other person would flake at the last moment. After that, Ben let the friendship die out.
For Ben, the loss of his friend was a painful experience, but ultimately he felt vindicated in his decision. “I was already beginning to question their lifestyle choices and their values not aligning with mine, but at the same time I felt harsh and judgemental for thinking those things,” he says. “I’ve learnt that friendship can’t be one-sided. I now look for friendships based on how much effort the other person makes, instead of just mutually shared interests.”
The ebb and flow of friendships is natural. “Friendships and people come into our lives at times where they serve both of us,” says Ms Am Golhar, an expert in human behaviour and psychometrics. “And that’s life, but as we age, so do our values. Dynamics change and you spend more time with people whose values are like your own.”
“As we age, so do our values. Dynamics change and you spend more time with people whose values are like your own”
Jemal, a writer in his thirties, had a vital reason for cutting out a friend who frequently engaged him in racist arguments. “I met my friend when I was at university and we quickly bonded over films and video games,” he says. “After graduating, we moved apart and would speak only every now and then. We began having arguments about racism. For reference, I’m a gay black man. He’s a straight white man and would often equate what he and I go through as similar. It was the beginning of a slippery slope of realising we had hugely different stances on a number of serious issues. But as he wasn’t part of my daily life, I didn’t think he was worth cutting out.”
Eventually, Jemal realised his friend’s negative impact on his life was just too important to ignore. “I tried to explain on a few occasions that, although he sees these topics as interesting ‘debates’, they can be incredibly emotionally taxing and have real-life consequences for people like me. He didn’t understand this. Last year, I decided to write him a message saying that being friends with him is too difficult, adding that since he likes to argue so much, he can do it with himself. Then I blocked his number. Friends can have disagreements and different beliefs, but when it comes to political and human rights issues, a line has to be drawn. I’m all the better for removing him from my life.”
Like Jemal, Zoe, a social media manager in her twenties, decided that taking charge of a deteriorating friendship called for decisive action and moved out of her shared house without informing her passive-aggressive housemates. “They started being nasty to me because I didn’t want to go out drinking all the time,” she says. “Then it progressed to nastier behaviour. They’d eat my food from the fridge and send shitty messages in the house group chat. I decided to move out. One day, when no one was home, I just put my stuff in my friend’s car and left.”
With the benefit of hindsight, Zoe thinks she should have sat down and talked to her flatmates about how she felt. “I think I definitely need to be better at confrontation and I should have stuck up for myself more at the time,” she says. “I wish I’d said something.”
“If a negative friendship is permanently affecting your life, then it’s time to have a loving and compassionate conversation”
Relationship therapist Ms Prashansha Sharma believes there’s nothing wrong with putting your needs first to protect your wellbeing, but agrees that, if possible, being open about how you feel is the best policy. “If a negative friendship is permanently affecting your life, then it’s time to have a loving and compassionate conversation,” she says. “There is nothing respectful about ignoring a friend. Will telling them how you feel hurt them? Possibly, but it won’t hurt them as much as if you keep lying to them, ignoring or ghosting them and making them wonder why you are behaving so weirdly.”
Louise, a PR exec in her thirties, experienced this when she was dumped by her friends without any real explanation. “I got the odd passive comment about going to the gym being weird, and was once confronted by them saying if I didn’t come out clubbing with them every week we wouldn’t be friends,” she says. “I addressed one friend who would actively make comments about me to make others laugh, but made me feel quite stupid and gaslighted me. Nothing came of the conversation. She put the ball in my court and I haven’t reached out since because I decided it wasn’t worth it if she wasn’t willing to see my side. I still don’t know why they ditched me, though.”
Not every friendship ends on terms good enough that you’d want to sit down and talk things over. Sometimes friendships end in arguments and sometimes they fizzle out on their own, but if we do agree to sit down over a beer, how should we word our break up?
“To end a friendship, I would just state that you are grateful for the relationship you’ve had with whomever that was, but at this stage in your life you are on different paths and you wish them the best with no hard feelings,” says Golhar. “We should not focus on abuse or blaming the person, however things might have ended.” In other words, say what you need to say, then walk away. “There is no need for drama,” says Golhar. “Focus on peace and let everyone live their life.”
It might be tough to explain all of this to someone who has been close to you, but Sharma emphasises that you shouldn’t feel guilty about telling the truth about how you feel. “You shouldn’t have to live life constantly thinking about what excuse to give or how to avoid them,” she says. “You have one life and you deserve to live it surrounded with friends you love and enjoy being around.”
The decision to break up or not comes down to how much a person brings to your life and how much they take from it. If the balance is wrong, it’s time to let the friendship go. Expediting the process can be a painful, often necessary task, but, ultimately, a rewarding one.
Illustration by Mr Frank Moth