Breaking Up with Friends
Letting go is hard, but it’s part of life.
In the last week, I’ve had two people tell me they’re breaking up with friends. I listened to them talk about the confusing thought process behind deciding whether or not to keep investing in a friendship. I told them I was sorry, and that I could relate to their pain.
Breaking up with friends is especially difficult when you’ve been friends with someone for a long time. Childhood friends, friends we’ve had for decades — it never seems right to let go of someone we share so much history with.
When I was a kid, I used to give and receive those “Best Friends Forever” necklaces and bracelets. You know, the ones with
on one side of the heart, and
on the other side?
The heart was split in two by a jagged center, in typical “broken heart” symbolism. We loved those charms back then. But now that I think of it, they were terrible tokens of friendship. Whoever thought of the idea either wasn’t thinking very clearly, or was really in tune with the reality of friendship. Maybe they were subtly preparing us kids for the painful reality of loss.
I’ve lost many friends over the years. So many of those broken heart charms turned to broken promises. I remember finding one once, as I was going through old things, and seeing what was left of that friendship. Seeing “ends” on one side of the broken heart struck me in a new way.
I’m not sure it ever gets easier to break up with a friend. Maybe when we were young, it felt like the end of the world because we were softer then, and more in tune with how life should be. Losing someone should never feel easy. But hopefully over time, we learn how to cope.
One of the most shocking losses for me happened when I was already in my 30’s. I had made a best friend in graduate school, during a time I didn’t think it was possible to still make a best friend. But she and I hit it off beautifully.
We bonded over our love of dancing and fun and inability to properly fit into a hyper-Christian environment. We had moments of true intimacy when we cried and talked honestly about our struggles. This friend loved me so much, she insisted I borrow her vehicle in the last few weeks of my time in the United States before I left for South Sudan.
I was tying up loose ends in Philadelphia, and wanted to spend as much time with her in New Jersey before I left. My 400 year-old car had died just months before, and she wanted me to have an easy transition. So I drove her car around, doing what I needed to do.
We celebrated good and hard in those last weeks. The last time I saw her, she hugged me super tight like she meant it and when I pulled away, she was crying. I told her she was going to make me cry and she said she was going to miss me. I asked if we could have regular chats or Skype calls and she said yes.
Within the first few months of living in South Sudan, it became clear to me I was the only one really trying. I would send her chats when I saw her online. I sent emails. I asked if we could Skype. Her communication became less, in frequency and substance.
Then she got engaged. I told her I would do my best to make it back for the wedding if she wanted me to be there. That’s when she stopped communicating altogether. I was devastated.
In hindsight, I remembered her saying she wasn’t good at keeping in touch with people. If she struggled to keep in touch with friends in the country where she lived, how much more with someone living overseas? Now, I can tell you maybe it was unrealistic for me to think we could maintain a friendship while separated by the Atlantic Ocean. But at the time, I was heartbroken.
This might be an extreme example. Keeping your friends when you move far away from home is a unique challenge. Sometimes you lose a friend who lives down the street, or around the corner, or 20 miles away in the suburbs.
How do you know if it’s time to break up with a friend?
I can’t answer that for you. Just like I couldn’t answer it for the people telling me about their friendships this week. Deciding whether or not to keep investing in a friendship is one of the most difficult things we can do in life.
Yes, if we want to have a friend, we need to be a friend. Cliché for a reason. But what happens when you start noticing you’ve been the only one “being a friend” for the past six months? Year? Here’s what I will tell myself the next time I’m considering whether or not I need to move on from a friendship.
If you discover that you are the only one putting in effort to maintain the friendship, it might be time to let go. A relationship requires two willing people. Reciprocity is key in any relationship.
Having a difficult conversation might be the first step. If the friendship means enough to you, it’s worth it to talk to your friend about what’s going on. Giving them a chance to see your perspective is important. Maybe they will realize they’ve been lazy or aloof. Maybe you will find out something about their life you were unaware of. Or maybe you will get the confirmation you need.
Ultimately, your heart knows. It hurts. Losing someone you love is the worst kind of pain, no matter what kind of relationship it is. Breaking up with a friend is just as painful, and sometimes more painful than breaking up with a romantic partner. But staying in a one-sided friendship is worse.
Frou Frou’s song Let Go often comes to mind when I’m thinking of letting go of something. Letting go is hard sometimes, but it’s part of life. And if you look hard enough, you’ll find there really is “beauty in the breakdown”.