A friend recently asked me for advice regarding a breakup. I am accustomed to fielding such relationship questions, however, I was surprised by her inquiry because I didn’t realize that she had a significant other. What was even more surprising was that the breakup she wanted advice about was not with a romantic partner, but with a friend.
Because our social circle seems to naturally evolve as we go through transitions in our lives (e.g., new schools, new homes, new jobs, etc.) many of us don’t think about the process of breaking up with friends. Her predicament, however, got me thinking about what happens when we need to let go of a friend during a relatively stable time in our lives. The decision to end the friendship may be because we realize that we have grown apart, no longer have time to devote to one another, or no longer value the connection.
So how do we go about breaking things off? Can we end a friendship, or are we obligated to hold on to friends just because we have had them in our lives for a certain period of time? If we decide to end the friendship, can we “ghost” the other person, or do we owe our friend a more formal ending?
While a breakdown in some aspect of a relationship usually leads to the termination of a romantic pairing, friendships “…may dissolve without either party experiencing any overt dissatisfaction.”1 This lack of a clear ‘reason’ can often make ending a friendship a bit more complicated than when ending a romantic tie. As a result, the process by which friendships deteriorate must be studied independently from other types of relationships.
Why Friends Break-Up
In one study, conducted over two decades ago, 155 undergraduates between the ages of 17-22 listed their friendships from their high school years on and wrote an essay detailing the demise of a same sex friendship from any point during that time. From the essays, four different ‘friendship’ termination patterns emerged:
- Physical separation – moving to a new house or city. Many participants described the difficulties they faced in maintaining long-distance relationships.
- New friends – in many instances old friends were replaced by new ones. While some people reported feeling jealous or rejected, in most situations, it was an amicable split.
- Dislike – participants reported that their friends revealed or did something that they did not approve of – e.g., ideological differences, such as religion, or behaviors, such as drug abuse.
- Dating or marriage – people reported that their friendships ended when they, or their friends, got involved in romantic relationships.1
A more recent analysis, involving the deterioration of workplace friendships used in-depth interviews of 25 full-time employees from a variety of occupational fields. This study revealed five main themes:
- Personality – the person could not accept a newly displayed personality or behavior trait by their friend such as selfishness or flirtatiousness
- Distracting life events– when the friend’s personal life began to interfere with his/her job performance
- Conflicting expectations – when the friends have different beliefs as to how to behave toward one another. This usually occurs when there is a superior/subordinate workplace relationship.
- Promotion– when one person becomes the other’s superior, and the nature of the relationship changes
- Betrayal– a loss of trust between the pair2
Consequences associated with ending a workplace friendship included emotional stress, reduced ability to perform tasks, and turnover.2
How Friends Break-Up
So now that we know that losing friends is a natural part of life, how can we end these relationships smoothly? Although there’s limited empirical work on the topic, many “how to” articles have gone viral on social media. The two main approaches to ending a relationship that are most often discussed are the slow fade, which is similar to ghosting, and the formal breakup.
- Slow Fade – With the slow fade, the person is being eased in to the end of the friendship. This seems to be used when both members of the dyad feel the same way about ending the relationship.
- Formal Break-up – A formal breakup, on the other hand, is more likely to happen when one person wants to end the friendship and the other individual appears to be completely unaware of it. This can often lead to a very awkward and uncomfortable conversation.
One popular press book3 argues that a gut feeling will likely dictate which approach you should go with. If you decide to go with the more direct conversation option, it is best to plan out what you are going to say and to be clear about your expectations. If you repeatedly tell your friend that you’re busy, rather than confronting the situation head on, your friend may assume that at some point in the future, you may be able to make time for him/her. If you keep things vague and open-ended, by saying that you just need some space, you may create confusion about boundaries. Instead, you need to express what it is you need and why. Of course, it is important to remember to temper your language and consider the other person’s feelings as this individual was once a good friend of yours.
What did my friend do? She opted to confront the issue head on. She explained to her friend, via email, that she did not feel that their friendship was moving in a positive direction and that she didn’t feel she could invest any more time and energy into it. She noted that while she valued the friendship they had, it was best that they now go their separate ways. While this may seem harsh to some, and definitely a difficult message to express, it was a smart approach. My friend maturely articulated what was going on instead of leaving her friend hanging. She was able to provide a formal ending and an explanation, giving her friend a sense of closure.
So what’s the moral of this story? If you are re-evaluating some of the friendships in your life, it isn’t only important to think about who you want to/may need to end things with, but also how you will approach this sensitive situation.
1Rose, S. M. (1984). How friendships end: Patterns among young adults. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 1(3), 267-277.
2Sias, P. M., Heath, R. G., Perry, T., Silva, D., & Fix, B. (2004). Narratives of workplace friendship deterioration. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 21(3), 321-340.
3Bonior, A. (2011). The friendship fix: The complete guide to choosing, losing, and keeping up with your friends. New York: St. Martin’s Press.
Dr. Marisa Cohen
Marisa, along with a colleague at St. Francis College, founded the Self-Awareness and Bonding Lab (SABL) in Fall 2014. Research has focused on the development of relationships throughout the life span, including factors influencing mate choice and peoples’ perceptions of what makes relationships survive and thrive. Her specific focus is on how various relationship configurations impact the satisfaction derived from them.