If we’re honest, part of what makes romantic relationships so exciting is the prospect of their ending.
Yet, despite this potential outcome, we actively (sometimes obsessively) seek them out. We agree that the potentially gut-wrenching heartbreak is worth the risk, and we understand the rules of engagement: we are working towards co-creating the specific partnership we’re looking for, and if we can’t, we go our separate ways and try again with someone new.
While we have a solid grid for romantic heartbreak, mention a friendship breakup and many of us will draw an uneasy blank. Research shows us that up to 70% of close friendships, and 52% of our social networks dissolve after 7 years, yet when we consider friendships, we rarely think of them as finite. Our collective paradigm is that they are meant to last indefinitely because the idea of friendship is extremely broad and nebulous; we use the word “friend” to describe everyone from a coworker to our best friend since we were in kindergarten. Despite their common occurrence, we rarely see friendship breakups portrayed in the media, nor do we often talk about it playing out in real life.
I was recently confronted with this reality when I made a TikTok video about how to break up with a friend, and it went viral. While I expected, and welcomed, some people to disagree with me, the angry and hateful commentary was… surprising.
But one of the many things I’ve learned through working with people in clinical settings for over 15 years is that reactions of intense anger can often indicate deep levels of pain.
This collective pain point became obvious in many of the comments and response videos, as people shared their hurtful and confusing experiences as both the instigator of a friend breakup and the one being broken up with. Many agreed that it was even more difficult and awkward than the end of a romantic relationship. This makes sense; because friendships don’t come with the strings or expectations that keep us tied to a partner (such as marriage, having kids, owning a dog, or a house), they are not well defined. If relationships are not well defined, it’s harder to express needs, leaving room for ruptures in trust, disappointment, and a build-up of resentment. This lack of communication can leave people in cycles of disconnection, wondering what they did wrong.
What also became clear is that there is a lot of shame and demonizing around ending a friendship. We simply don’t have the same compassion or sense of empathy when it happens to someone, despite the profound sense of pain and loss, given that friendships can last a long time and be more intimate than our partnerships. When it happens, we can spiral into shame, interpreting it as a personal failure – that we’re a “bad friend” – because we couldn’t, or wouldn’t, maintain something that was expected to last forever. We worry about judgment from others, especially those in the same friendship circle. This shame causes us to hide our struggles and our sadness.
While we have rituals and formulas for processing the loss of a romantic breakup, when it comes to the end of friendships, we are left unmoored in our grief. Certain friendships can feel like threads in the fabric of our lives, anchor points to our memories, and can become synonymous with our identities at certain junctures. When we lose them, it can feel like we lose a part of ourselves. Dr. Kenneth Doka calls this experience “disenfranchised grief,” which “cannot be openly acknowledged, socially mourned or publicly supported.” (Other examples are the loss of someone who is not blood-related, the loss of a limb, a job, or perinatal losses.)
So, in my coming articles, I will be unpacking all things friendship – especially friendship breakups. Because we need to normalize that friendships sometimes end. We need to not vilify those who go through a friendship breakup. Not to make it commonplace or casual, but to allow us to usher in what we so desperately crave in the pain: hope, compassion, and a roadmap for healing.