Stability matters when it comes to the quality of our friendships. The best friendships are those that stand the test of time and are characterized by security and comfort, instead of conflict or turbulence. It’s the reason so much of my work as a therapist and friendship researcher has focused on helping others meet new people and maintain their existing friendships.
But the reality is, not all friendships will last. Changes in relationships and social networks are normal. Expected, even. If you’re one for quotes: People come into our lives for a reason or season. So how do you know when that season has come and gone and it’s time to let go? And, even more confusing, how do you actually go about ending a friendship?
Unlike romantic relationships where it’s typically pretty clear (Read: text messages or post-it notes are not an acceptable way to end a relationship), the same cannot be said for friendships. Here are some tips that might make navigating this friendship challenge a little easier.
When is it time to end a friendship?
There’s been a serious betrayal
Deciding to remain friends after a serious betrayal is a personal decision. One that likely depends on the severity of the betrayal, your friend’s commitment to change or make amends, your willingness to forgive, and the history you have together. That said, there are some betrayals and transgressions there’s just no getting over. When the foundation of a friendship is broken and beyond repair, like when your trust has been ruptured or you feel chronically used or underappreciated, it might be time to reevaluate your relationship and willingness to remain friends.
There’s unrelenting conflict
There are ups and downs in any close relationship. Even the healthiest friendships aren’t totally immune. And while conflict itself isn’t necessarily a reason to end a friendship, it can become something more serious when the same issue comes up repeatedly and you no longer enjoy spending time together. Minor conflicts can turn into more serious betrayals when you’ve expressed why something is important to you and your friend continues to act in a way that violates your need, preference, or request. In these cases, the real issue is no longer the original conflict, but a feeling of being chronically disrespected or underappreciated.
You’re in different places
It’s not always a big blow-up or betrayal that leads to the end of a friendship. As we age and evolve, so too do our friends. And we can sometimes end up in very different places where we no longer feel connected.
You might feel like you have less in common than you used to and that your interests, values, or schedules just don’t match up as well as they did when you initially became friends. One of you might also become less invested in your friendship than the other. But healthy friendships are reciprocal. And in order for a friendship to work, both friends need to be equally invested and motivated to see it continue. Once someone has “checked out,” it can really take away from the benefits we’re actually getting from that friendship and make it much less likely that the friendship will survive.
Of course, being in different places doesn’t automatically mean you need to end your friendship; there are absolutely ways to maintain a friendship when you’re in different life stages. But every now and then it’s important to evaluate how your friendship is evolving and if you’re both still committed.
How to actually end a friendship
There is no blueprint or rulebook for ending a friendship. It all depends on you, your relationship, and the reason for the break-up.
Ghosting is the ultimate form of rejection. But distancing is something very different and can be a good place to start when thinking about ending a friendship. Not calling or texting as often, or finding ways to gradually withdraw your effort, energy, and involvement, can give both of you a chance to get used to the change in your friendship without making it overwhelmingly personal or uncomfortable. It’s also a way to let your friendship run its course organically.
Change the terms
Sometimes, a small change in the terms of your relationship can help you keep your friendship while establishing some boundaries and protecting yourself. Deciding to see your friend in a group setting but not one-on-one, only doing certain activities together or speaking about certain topics, or moving your friendship to more of an “online” format can preserve some of the healthy aspects of your relationship while creating a distance that works for both of you.
When it comes to ending romantic relationships, we expect people to be upfront and direct. We want clarity. We want closure. This isn’t necessarily true for friendships. At least not always. And yet sometimes, the most straightforward option is the one that brings us the most clarity and comfort.
Instead of making it personal or blaming your friend, focus on the reasons why the dynamic of your friendship just isn’t working anymore. Rather than saying “You aren’t trustworthy,” highlight that trust and reliability are important to you and that, right now, you’re not ready to start re-establishing that trust. The message ends up being the same, but one of these is significantly easier to stomach and makes it more likely you’ll end your friendship on better terms.
It can also help to be clear on what you actually mean when you say you want to distance yourself or end your friendship. It’s not always obvious what these things actually mean or look like in real life or practical terms. Do you want to cut off all communication? Are you open to communicating through text messages and social media? Or are you happy to keep in touch and just don’t want to get together as often? Whatever your version or vision is of your friendship break-up, make sure you are clear, both with yourself and your friend, to avoid miscommunications or misunderstandings.
Leave it open
Just like you might never have expected to grow apart, you might be surprised at your desire to reconnect. That’s why it can help to keep your options open, either by being direct (e.g., explicitly sharing that you never know what the future holds) or by staying connected (e.g., on social media) and checking in with each other from time to time on meaningful occasions, like birthdays, anniversaries, or big life events. Of course, you don’t want to give someone false hope or mixed messages if you are clear in your mind that your decision to end your friendship is a permanent one. But there’s usually no harm done by leaving the door open for a future relationship, as long and both of you understand the current status of your friendship.