There's no clear-cut roadmap for navigating friend breakups, thanks in part to the long-standing view of friendships lasting forever (shoutout to the Spice Girls for that one). But like romantic relationships, friendships can also run their course.
“As we evolve through different phases of our lives, we may find that we are no longer compatible with certain people or that some interactions leave us feeling drained and depleted,” says psychiatrist Saumya Dave, MD. According to Dr. Dave, you may also come to realize that you were attracted to certain friends for reasons that don’t align with who you are now. (Maybe you loved partying with a certain friend when you were younger, but that’s not of interest to you anymore—and that’s all you have in common with that person.) She says people-pleasers often realize this as they go through therapy. “A platonic breakup may be necessary because both parties deserve to be in friendships where there is mutual respect and love,” she says.
The unique challenges of ending a friendship
However, it can be challenging to confront a friend—especially when it’s someone you’ve known for several years, or with whom you share a mutual social group.
Part of the problem, says Marisa G. Franco, PhD, a professor, speaker, and author of the forthcoming book Platonic, is that there isn’t a clear “script” for friendships (or ending them). “Since [friendships are] rigged with ambiguity, a lot of us are more likely to ghost and not address the issue,” she says.
Breaking up with friends is also downright challenging. ““Even though platonic relationships are known to have less pressure and fewer expectations, there is a high level of trust that has been built. Therefore, the ending of these relationships can be quite painful,” says Lee Phillips, LCSW, a psychotherapist and certified sex and couples therapist. Plus, friends may be offended. Many people tend to have one romantic partner but multiple friends, which can make our pals feel singled out when we do confront them. And if you “break up” with a friend who overlaps with other social circles you’re in, that could make things awkward in the long run.
Platonic breakups can also cause feelings of sadness, guilt, and even grief to arise. The latter, which Dr. Franco refers to as disenfranchised grief, “occurs when society doesn’t see our loss as legit because it isn’t significant” (i.e. losing a spouse or family member). However, we should expect a grieving process, even if we were on the initiating end. After all, you’re losing a relationship that was once significant to you, or took up lots of space in your life—that’s going to take some time to adjust.
Why it can be good to end a stagnant or toxic friendship
Just because breaking up is hard to do doesn’t mean it’s bad: Research shows that strong social relationships can mitigate health problems and extend longevity. This means we should be intentional about who we surround ourselves with, which, according to Dr. Dave, can help us achieve more meaning and fulfillment in life.
Breaking off toxic or unsatisfactory friendships can also help reduce our stress and anxiety. “You can focus on your own wants and desires again,” says Dr. Lee. “Even though these breakups can be painful, you can heal from them, and take the lessons and boundaries you learned by applying them to future friendships.”
Finally, platonic breakups, when done for the right reasons, are a sign of growth, says therapist Divya Robin, LMHC. This shows that we are more willing to prioritize our needs, and are less tolerant of situations that are detrimental to our mental health.
How to initiate a platonic friend breakup
In certain situations, friendships may drift apart naturally, but if your friend isn’t picking up on your sporadic texts or continues to push your boundaries, then it may be time for a breakup.
Yes, confronting a friend can be nerve-racking. But thankfully, we can initiate platonic breakups while being assertive and respectful towards the other person. Here’s how experts recommend handling that process:
1. Take time to gather your thoughts before a conversation
Robin emphasizes the importance of reflecting on how you feel around your friend—both when you are with them, and after you spend time together. By doing so, you can “understand mentally and emotionally if the relationship is serving you,” she says. This reflection may look like journaling out your feelings, or carving out alone time to take stock of what’s bothering you.
2. Set aside a time to chat
Dr. Franco says you should reach out to your friend in a loving way to facilitate a real conversation. “This might sound like, ‘Hey, our relationship has been on my mind and I wanted to chat a bit about it,’” she suggests. Giving your friend a heads-up can prepare them, so they aren’t taken aback when you share your truth.
3. Give them a reason, using “I” statements
“Explain where you are coming from with honesty and kindness,” says Dr. Dave. This means using “I” statements to discuss how the friendship has been affecting you, rather than placing blame on your friend. (For example: “I feel like we don’t have anything in common anymore.”)
4. Offer a ‘commemorative’ friendship
Finally, not all friendships have to end in animosity and hurt feelings. “We can offer a commemorative friendship,” Dr. Franco says. Basically, you may no longer actively be friends, but can still look back on that friendship with fondness. She recommends ending the conversation with an olive branch like: “Although this no longer works for me, I want to acknowledge how much you did for me.” This shows you see the friendship not as a waste of our time, but as a relationship that did offer value and joy.
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