How to break up with a friend

When it comes to overall well-being and life satisfaction, your friends matter more than you think. In a study of more than 100 factors for depression, social bonding was identified as the strongest protective factor. The news came as no shock to Danielle Bayard Jackson, friendship coach and author of the upcoming book, Fight for our friendships. But as anyone who’s made it through middle school can tell you, even the best of friendships are complicated.

“It’s tricky because everyone defines ‘friend’ differently and we’re all looking for different things in friendship,” Jackson explains. “We have different expectations, and we don’t sit down to talk about it like we would in romantic relationships. So we enter into the friendship assuming, ‘Well, we like each other and that’s enough to get us through,’ but there are so many mismatches in expectations.”

Though we sign “BFFs 4ver” in our high school yearbooks, friendships are also fluid, meaning we can flow in and out of them very easily and without defining the relationship, Jackson says. Although we typically enter romantic relationships with the understanding that conflict will arise, this awareness does not typically carry over into friendships, where people often see conflict as a sign that they are no longer compatible.

“We need to normalize conflict as part of a friendship, just as we do in literally every other relationship dynamic,” she continues. “With your boss and co-workers, you know you’re going to get bumps and bruises, but for some reason we have this fantasy about friendships that it’s supposed to be fun, relaxing, and easy. And if that’s not the case, we take that as a sign that the friendship is over.”

If you’re feeling some tension in your friendship and are wondering if it’s time to end it, Jackson first suggests that you approach the relationship from a place of curiosity, not accusation. For example, if a friend is consistently late, we can assume she doesn’t care, rather than entertaining the thought that something else might be going on.

“Because they’re our friends and we’re so close, we assume we know everything about them. A lot of us don’t give our friends a second guess,” she says. “How could things be different if you were curious? would you ask her any more questions? You could say, “Hey, I noticed that the last few times you’ve been late. What’s happening?'”

When approaching a friend, Jackson says, it’s also important to focus on the impact of their behavior rather than the behavior itself Spot the gap and highlight the implications so they’re less likely to contest it? And then we can work together to figure out how to move forward,” she says.

When all else fails, maybe it’s time for the dreaded breakup of friendships, which can sometimes be worse than romantic ones (I’m speaking from personal experience here). But that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be dramatic.

Your first option, and perhaps the most common, is what Jackson calls the Friendship Fade-Out. “That’s if you call a little less; they call a little less. We both invite a little less often and are less enthusiastic about the exchanges we have,” she explains. “There’s this mutual understanding that things have changed.”

While this sort of friendship breakup doesn’t require a long, drawn-out conversation (think almost every restaurant scene in the Real housewives franchise), if you’re not on the same page, it might be time to have The Talk.

“Once a person thinks that you’re both good but aren’t comfortable with that and don’t want to move forward in the same way, that requires a conversation only out of respect and dignity so that the person doesn’t get the wrong impression,” Jackson says.

Instead of focusing on your boyfriend’s perceived shortcomings, Jackson advises focusing on what you are looking for and need in the relationship. As for the actual conversation, she recommends choosing the medium that feels best for your relationship, whether that’s face-to-face, FaceTime, calling, or texting.

When it comes to what to say, Jackson suggests the following three-step formula:

  1. Show that you are making this decision consciously. To say, “Look, I’ve been thinking a lot lately…”
  1. Be responsive to your needs without blaming the other person: “…and I think I have to prioritize being in places where I feel a little more free to express myself without always thinking about what I want to share and if it’s going to be well received. And I haven’t experienced that in this dynamic as often as I would like.”
  1. Affirm your appreciation for the friendship and also your intention, whether you withdraw or move away from the friendship altogether: “You know I love you and I appreciate the time we had together, but going forward I won’t be able to show myself in this friendship in the same way.”

“Yeah, it’s really embarrassing. Yes, there is a chance that person is mad at you. Yes, there is a possibility that they misunderstand your motivation. All of that is true,” says Jackson. “But at least they have to respect that you said it clearly and with compassion. What they do with it is their choice.”

While it may be tempting to ghost your friend rather than confront conflict head-on, it only hurts both of you.

“It’s an act of generosity,” Jackson says of breaking up friendships. “You don’t have to be mean. But if you don’t want to do it anymore, be nice to yourself and detach yourself from spaces that are really difficult or in some cases toxic for you. It’s also a generous act for the other person because you don’t want them in a friendship where the other person dreads hanging out with them.

Given that friendships develop about every seven years, it’s only natural that some “friendship pruning” is likely to take place over time, Jackson says.

“When you’re wondering if that relationship is over and it feels like a lot of unnecessary work and unfulfilling, who said you have to accumulate every friend along the way for the rest of your life?” she says. “You only have so much time and energy. At some point you have to be strategic about how and who you show up with.”

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