How do you break up with someone who isn’t a romantic partner?
It’s a question that seems to be coming up time and time again at the moment, both in client sessions and in conversation with friends.
Over and over again I’ve heard people talk about how to end relationships in a culture where no one really talks about that.
We talk about ending romantic relationships, and although that’s still not easy, we’re regularly told that if one those relationships aren’t right for us then walking away is exactly what we should do. And at least, no matter how tough it feels, we have a bit more of a template to follow – “it’s not me it’s you”, “I just can’t do this anymore”, “I think we should just be friends”…
Hold on, what was that last one? That’s right, we even talk about friendship as if it’s some sort of consolation prize.
Yet I don’t know about you, but my friendships have always been some of THE most important relationships in my life… which is why leaving them behind can be so bloody difficult.
And I know I’m not alone in thinking that. Someone recently told me: “If this was a boyfriend I would definitely walk away. It’s become become toxic and draining and I know it’s no good for me… But you just can’t do that with a friend.”
But hold on, can’t you?
It happens, and that’s OK
In a world that is increasingly focused on our wellness, and on looking after our energy levels, we’re regularly reminded of the value in sorting through our lives and letting go of what no longer fits us in order to open up to new experiences and situations.
And hey, if we were to get very Marie Kondo about this, what’s more likely to spark joy in us than a good friendship? But equally, is there anything than can sap your energies more than spending time trying to have fun with someone you just no longer fit with?
That’s not a criticism of course; although society would like us to believe that all of our relationships will last happily forever, the truth is that friendships break down for all sorts of reasons. But from the times people grow apart and relationships that run their course to the times you do have an unforgivably colossal row or witness something in a person that breaks your trust in your relationship and who they are; the important thing to remember is that you don’t have to stay in any relationship that doesn’t feel right or good for you.
So what do we do?
After all, when we feel a friendship is coming to an end, so many of us will go through one of a number of stages:
Trying desperately to cling on to the past by continuing to make plans and draw out conversations, even when they leave us feeling more fraught than friendly, and ever less full of the positive energy your relationship used to revolve around – something I’ve done more than a handful of times in the past.
Ghosting the person by just ignoring every message they send, as was the case with a friend of mine when her best friend of 15 years just seemed to vanish.
Or maybe even worse, doing perfunctory friend duties so no one can accuse us of being the one to walk away, while knowing that our hearts aren’t in the increasingly irregular “hi, how are you?” messages or the promises that “no really, we’ll meet up soon” without any actual intention to make plans.
But all of those things can take an awful lot of energy. I don’t know about you, but for me even ghosting someone (yup, I’ve been there – not a proud moment to look back on) feels energetically heavy and so intensely guilt-inducing!
And of course, no matter how effective those tactics above might be in convincing ourselves that we’re handling things well, over time they’re all likely to lead to less than pleasant outcomes.
The more we cling on to someone, the more frustrated we get when our relationship with them doesn’t work out; when we ghost a person we never come out of the situation feeling good; and that “I’ve tried to stay in touch” line only works for so long before you’re recognised as someone who quite obviously just doesn’t care.
Not only is that sad and disrespectful to the relationship you shared in times gone by, it might just also ruin the chances of that friendship being recovered in future. Especially during the times when nothing negative has happened but things have simply run their course.
After all, just as much as people drift apart and go their separate ways, in my experience friendships can also drift and grow back together much more regularly than romantic partnerships do. So isn’t it better to make the kind of clean break that leaves fewer scars and a better potential for picking back up in future?
Making a clean break
Remember years ago when everyone laughed at Gwyneth Paltrow and Chris Martin talking about their “conscious uncoupling”?
But hold on a second, because I think they were really onto something.
Many years ago I hung around with a group of girls I’d been friends with for years. When we changed schools one girl found herself grouped differently, having none of her classes with the rest of us.
Of course we all made new friends over time, but she was the first one to really form meaningful relationships outside of our group… So meaningful that it became really apparent she enjoyed her time with her new friends much more than her old ones.
Of course we still hung out together, but every time I’d notice how much more uncomfortable all of us seemed.
Eventually one day I wrote a letter, saying that if she wanted to stop hanging out with us and be closer friends with these new girls that was OK – no hard feelings or fall outs, we understood. I didn’t plan to send it to her, it felt mean to say that to someone. But one of the other girls read it and insisted on passing it on.
At first she was upset, as was I. But then the more we talked the more we realised this was a positive; we were being grown-ups – or as grown up as we could be – and recognising that our close friendship had run its course, rather than taking it to a point where we were all so uncomfortable with one another that our relationship exploded in some sort of giant drama.
To this day I still interact with that woman on social media… actually far more than I do with any of the others who I drifted from much less consciously years later.
Because that’s the point of this; by being as conscious and mature as it’s possible to be we can hopefully avoid the drama and just move forward with our lives as two people who once shared something really wonderful together.
That’s not to say it won’t hurt… When a close friendship of mine came to an end a few years back I swear it hurt more than any romantic break up I’d ever experienced. And again, we’re rarely told that it’s OK to be broken hearted or grieving over the end of a platonic relationship, so let me take this opportunity to remind you that it’s not only OK to feel that way, it’s damn well understandable!!
Conscious unfriending 101
So where do we start with all of this? How do we step back from a friendship without the rows, guilt or meanness that can make these situations feel so damned acrimonious?
It starts with being conscious about what we want – actively stepping back from those situations and relationships that don’t feel right for us rather than continuing to make plans that we dread in the run up and then barely enjoy when we’re there.
From there it’s about working through the shit we’re carrying around this relationship; examining for yourself why it doesn’t feel right anymore so we can truly understand the situation and why we need to step away.
That’s not an easy thing to do, but it is healthy – both for ourselves not carrying all of that baggage around even further with us, and for the other people that we no longer need to build into monsters in our minds rather than think fairly about the ways in which we’ve just, peacefully and naturally, grown apart from one another.
Maybe that reflection will help you realise that’s all you ever needed in the first place, or maybe not. Maybe you’ll choose to share your thoughts, feelings and findings with the other person in a conversation or letter, or maybe that will cause more harm than good so you’ll decide instead to just move away peacefully. The next steps are your choice, but be sure to do them consciously and knowing what’s right for your own boundaries.
Whatever the situation though never be afraid to say that you need some space, that you’re backing away from a particular regular date or that you’re taking a little time out from one part of life. Again, if that’s what you need and what feels right for you then it’s never a bad thing to do. And when someone doesn’t respect the boundary you’ve asserted then do the only thing you can… reassert it.
One of my best friendships has only ever become stronger since we both agreed to tell one another when we couldn’t be fully present for each other. “I hear you. Right now I don’t have the mental energy to reply, but know that I love you and I’ll get back to you when I’m able.” is a really beautiful and powerful approach which lets us know we love the other person without overburdening ourselves.
And if someone chooses to ghost us or pull away from our relationship with them? Then of course we can reach out and tell them we miss them. But from there it’s important that we do something a little different too…
Respect their boundaries, take a breath and give yourself time and space to heal, then move along; knowing as you do that friendships aren’t always constant, and they don’t necessarily last forever, but that doesn’t have to make your memories of them any less special.
If you’re struggling with the loss of a friendship – or with the changes happening in any relationship, remember that Soul-Centered Counselling offers a safe and supportive space to work through whatever is going on in your life. Find out more here.