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How Do You Break Up With a Friend?

Jul21

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Hi Amy -

Advice Smackdown ArchivesI’ve just been agonizing about this lately, and you always have the most level-headed advice, so I’m hoping you might have an opinion for me. My best friend from college (we graduated 12 years ago) and I remained really close for all these years since graduation. She has always been my best friend in the world, and I love her dearly. Then four years ago we had a shift in our relationship where I felt like we weren’t connecting anymore. It was one sided though – I felt like I never said the right things or did the right things, and I felt like she was keeping me at arms length most of the time. Worse, I felt like she was lying to me all the time about making plans or canceling plans (which was frequent). While we had always been close, she was never the type to talk about our friendship. If I brought this up to her, she would just deny or get insulted somehow, and so I never did. I just ignored it and pretended like nothing had happened and hoped it would go away.

Four years later I’m tired of that. The final straw was making tentative plans for our families to rent a beach house together for a weekend (we live three hours away from each other, and my husband and young child have been to visit her and her husband and child at least three times. The three of them have never come to stay with us), and after her long-winded multi-excuse-laden B.S. email canceling, I finally decided I don’t want to do it anymore. So I just said to forget about it, and haven’t been in touch since. She must have picked up that I’m upset about on this and has called, sent emails, tried to contact me more since this incident than she has in four years. She hasn’t said anything like “are you mad about canceling?” but I know if I just carry on now that nothing will change.

Should I try to discuss this with her? I know it wouldn’t make a difference, and it seems so heartbreaking to just say “I don’t want to be friends anymore”. Should I just continue my ignore stance? I’m at a loss here. I thought my just falling off the earth would be what she has wanted, because it clearly seems like she isn’t interested in being friends with me anymore, but she just won’t seem to let me go either….

Thanks for your help…:)

Okay, so you’re sending two very distinct, conflicting messages here. Message one is that you are agonizing over this decision and feeling a bit guilty and hurt about the loss of this friend. Message two is that you absolutely don’t want to actually do anything about that loss, because you “know” it won’t make a difference. I know I haven’t been there through the decade-long ups and downs of being friends with this flaky person, but truly: I think she deserves to hear what’s really wrong.

Imagine she’s a long-term boyfriend you’re breaking up with — even if you were really truly thoroughly DONE with the relationship, you STILL wouldn’t just…stop calling and emailing him. You’d tell him you were breaking up with him, and you’d probably tell him why. This long-term friendship deserves the same courtesy, no matter how one-sided you’ve found it to be. You ARE right about one thing, though, that if she really did want an “out” of the friendship she’d probably be taking the one you’ve offered her. But she’s not. That suggests that she either 1) has no idea how you’re feeling, or 2) has a sense that she messed up and feels guilty about it.

So I would take a deep breath and let go of the fatalistic thinking like “she’s never wanted to talk about the friendship,” or “she’ll just deny everything and get insulted,” or “talking to her won’t change anything.” Maybe you’re right, but from this side of the computer screen I feel like you’re being a bit proactively unfair to her. You’ve been harboring hurt feelings and unfair visit/plans checks/balances for YEARS now, but admit that you never, ever talked to her honestly about any of it. I have no idea if her behavior is just clueless or cruel…but I do know for sure that she’s not a mind reader, and ignoring her completely in response to feeling ignored in the past is a bit two-wrongs-not-making-things-right, y’know?

The next time she emails, tell her you guys need to Talk. I would definitely vote for doing in on the phone, or in person. And talk to her. One last time, one last chance. Tell her that you’ve been feeling that the friendship is growing more and more one-sided, that you’re tired and hurt of the constant canceling, because it makes you feel like maybe she never took the plans seriously to begin with. A commenter on the “talking to a friend about PDA” column a few weeks ago mentioned the BEST strategy for talking to someone who might be offended and argumentative: the “I” statements. Don’t frame her offenses in terms of stuff SHE DID. Talk about YOU and YOUR feelings and YOUR reactions to that stuff instead. She can argue about her reasons and justifications for canceling or being busy all she wants, but she can’t really argue with how her actions made you feel.

Will getting all this stuff hashed out suddenly cause the floodgates to open and the state of your friendship to return to its former glory as she promises to change and actually does change? Eh. I guess it could. Or you could be completely right about the “she isn’t going to change” thing, or maybe she will get mad and you’ll basically be in the same spot, only without her trying to reach out to you anymore. Zero-sum. BUT here’s the real problem: as hard as confrontations are, I can safely say that YOU aren’t going to feel better about letting this particular friendship go without one.

About the author

Amalah

http://www.amalah.com
Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy's daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it's pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to amyadvice@gmail.com.

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.


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8 Responses to “How Do You Break Up With a Friend?”

  1. Nancy Jul 21 at 3:53 pm Reply Reply

    I’m that friend. Well, not *this* particular friend, but a similar one. I love my long time friend (we’ve known each other over 30 years!) but we’ve grown apart – or at least feel like we have. I’ve changed, she’s changed, our lives have changed. It’s not that I do not want to still be friends with her or see her on occasion, it’s just that I don’t feel as close to her as I once did. And that’s a really hard thing to tell someone. And might be the reason your friend is being distant. (Not knowing her, I can’t tell you for sure!) Cutting off all communication or just not replying to calls and emails won’t help with that. Being open with her about how YOU feel might. I’m guessing by the fact that she’s calling you now means she does feel guilty (I have been guilted by my long time friend) and that she doesn’t actually want to cut off the friendship with you. That’s a good sign. But you may have to accept that your friendship has changed and maybe isn’t as close as it once was, no matter how much you want it to be. Talk to her, give her a chance to understand your feelings and explain hers, and then decide how you want to proceed. Not talking will do no good for either of you.

  2. Lisa M Jul 21 at 4:58 pm Reply Reply

    I could also make the argument that maybe she cares, but doesn’t know how to make a long-distance best-friendship work. If that is the case, it’s ok to scale back the friendship to something more realistic (for your distance and time). Maybe her husband didn’t like the idea of beach trip, and she was trying to find a way to suggest a girls-only trip. Or maybe the excuses were real and she assumed as a friend that you’d take that at face value.

    Obviously, I’m just guessing and I may be completely off the target. From personal experience, I know that my best friend and I don’t have nearly enough time for each other right now due to little kids, jobs, and other family. And I know that while our husbands can talk and get along, they don’t click the way that we do, and a family beach trip for us, almost guaranteed, will never be in the works. But I can look beyond that and know that we are still close, and that when we do get together, we still can pick up and talk for hours the way we always have. I have doubted that in the past, and then finally released the idea that just because we are so close, that our families had to be as well. I’ve learned just to accept that we make it work, and know that sometimes it’s easier than others. And I’m really looking forward to when neither one of us is pregnant or nursing!!

    Sorry, I can see that I’m reading a lot into what you’ve written, but I just wanted to show that there are alternatives to cutting her out of your life. And even if you can’t be best friends, surely you have enough history to still keep in touch, right? Because she reached back out to you, and asked about your feelings, it just seems like she cares. And you are, understandably, hurt, because you feel like she doesn’t care enough.

  3. Rachel Jul 21 at 9:28 pm Reply Reply

    I agree with what Amalah said about this being similar to a long-term boyfriend and having the why-this-isn’t-working talk. Since you say that she is calling, emailing, etc trying to ask you what’s wrong, it sounds like she does care about your friendship. And maybe the fact that you’ve been ignoring her and are upset was kind of a wake-up call to her. To me, it sounds like she’s more clueless than mean, and perhaps she just didn’t realize how much it hurt you that you were the one coming to see her and trying to keep the friendship alive.

    Good luck and let us know how it goes. :)

  4. Renee Jul 22 at 11:00 am Reply Reply

    I’ve been in a very similar situation and I handled it completely different.  My college best friend and I were very close and  they we went through a similar shift.  She became very needy and dependent on me.  She wanted to talk to me every night on the phone for 45 minutes to and hour.  But everything I did and said was wrong or not good enough for her and she would tell me how I could be a better friend.  Ouch!  She canceled plans with me while I was driving the 3 hour trip to her place and made up lame excises why I was no longer welcome.  She became mean and manipulative. I tried reasoning with her, but it didn’t work.  She just started slandering me on fb and to other mutual friends.  I decided to cut her out.  I blocked email, fb and her phone number.  It was the best decision I’ve ever made.  One year later and I am so much happier, like a weight has been lifted off of my shoulders.  Perhaps my situation with my friend was more extreme, but I am just putting it out there–maybe cutting people out is the best decision.

  5. B Jul 22 at 1:13 pm Reply Reply

    This was my best friend and me only I was the “flakey” one–always late, having a hard time keeping the name of her boyfriends straight, having trouble scheduling things. We ended up having a big talk about it when she didn’t invite me to her birthday party and I finally emailed and said that I felt really hurt and what was up because I hadn’t realized my being late or any of that was a problem. We had a long talk and figured some things out.
    She also laughed a year later when I got diagnosed with ADHD and I told her that one of the criteria my therapist asked about was whether i had trouble maintaining friendships and whether my issues were affecting my social life and I’d blurted out “I almost lost my best friend!”

  6. Lisa Jul 23 at 10:57 am Reply Reply

    Yep, yep, it’s worthy of getting this out in the open. Is it possible that your friend, or your friend’s husband has issues with your husband? or the husband has issues wit you? Since she sounds like a “casper milk toast” in the direct approach, maybe she doesn’t want to tell you this?

  7. Tracy Jul 28 at 10:36 am Reply Reply

    I’m not sure I agree with the long-term boyfriend analogy, simply because you either are a boyfriend or you are not. There should not be any in-between. Okay, I know there often IS, but I don’t think think “friends with benefits” is a good idea so I’m going to pretend it doesn’t exist. :-)

    However… there are many different levels of “friend.” Okay, so she’s not BFF material any more. That doesn’t mean you have to completely break up with her. Let her be an email pal. Don’t try to make real-life plans with her, just demote her to one of those friends on the periphery. Maybe things will change and she’ll work her way back up to the top. Maybe not. But that doesn’t mean you have to dump her altogether. Just don’t try to make actual plans, and if she tries it, say “I don’t think getting together right now is a good idea; it never seems to work out.” And see what happens. You may find she’s a perfectly lovely email friend, or you may decide to fade away.

  8. Agonizing one Jul 28 at 1:49 pm Reply Reply

    Its me again…thanks everyone, and thanks Amalah. I guess the reason I wrote was because Im feeling guilty about not bringing this up with her and doing something to “save” the friendship. I definitely didnt mean “ignore her” to be so black and white, and I was thinking more along the lines of what Tracy says above….I respond to her emails or calls, and I emailed her on her birthday. But I emailed a few lines, and I didnt call – that kind of thing. I dont know why its so hard for me to have “the conversation” with her, I guess because I feel like friendship shouldnt be this hard. Long-term boyfriends, yes, you only get one at a time so you should be expected to have to work at it. But I can have many friends or even best friends, and I think Im at a point in my life (married, one young child, one on the way) where I dont want to be around people we clearly dont treat me right. Just thinking about this makes me really want to reach out to the people that do treat me right, and try to be a better friend….

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