How To End A Toxic Friendship — Without Losing Your Friend

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best friends

It's silly to stop being friends with someone because they've fallen short of your expectations.

By Tatiana Boncompagni

The sun was hot and high in the sky as I dropped a clump of berries into the bucket between my feet. I was picking black currants with my mother-in-law on her farm in upstate New York. My back ached, my hands itched and I was irritated—but not because of the working conditions.

I was angry with my best friend, Sarah (we'll call her that), for refusing to take my side in a dispute. It all started when another friend in our circle had publicly embarrassed me with a damaging remark about a novel I'd written. I'd rather not delve into the details (why repeat the same insult?), but I will say that this friend's comments hurt my professional reputation—and my pride.

Sarah's rejection came as another blow.

I'd expected her to be as infuriated as I was, to call our mutual friend and demand an apology. Instead, she didn't want to get involved. "Where's her loyalty?" I griped to my mother-in-law, my hands turning a ghoulish shade of red as they stripped a branch of its berries.

Sarah and I had met five years earlier, right after the birth of my daughter. She was a publicist for a beauty brand, and her job required her to meet with writers like me. We bonded immediately when we discovered we'd been at the same wedding a year earlier, and she invited me as her plus-one to a formal dinner. I stuffed my postnatal body into the most forgiving frock in my closet, blew the cobwebs off my Chanel eye shadow quad and met Sarah in the back of a black town car outside my apartment building. It was 3 a.m. before I stumbled home, buzzed on Champagne and the thrill of new friendship.

Sarah was tall, glamorous and generous in every way. She wanted to connect me to everyone she knew in town and made me laugh harder than anyone I'd ever known. She'd flirt shamelessly with men, overorder in restaurants (and insist on picking up the check) and get us into nightclubs I'd only read about in magazines.

But my favorite part was when we'd come home late at night (or sometimes early in the morning) and sit on my kitchen counter, eating smoked salmon off of waxed paper with our fingers and talking until our eyes grew heavy and we had nothing left to say.

Sarah and I spoke every day—the way best friends do—about the stuff that was important (her job woes, my family dramas) and stuff that wasn't (haircolor, weekend plans).

When my new novel received a glowing review, she was my first call. And when I found myself in the middle of a miscarriage, buckled over in pain, my husband unreachable, it was Sarah's number I dialed. She stayed on the phone with me until I made it to the hospital and into my husband's arms.

I relied on her. I loved her.

And then she betrayed me—or at least that's what it felt like.

In hindsight, there had been other, smallish infractions that had primed me for a breaking point: last-minute cancelations accompanied by what sounded to me like dubious excuses, telephone conversations that revolved around Sarah's life, not mine. I'd been enumerating these grievances to my mother-in-law as we worked our way down a row of bushes. "So, what are you going to do?" she asked.

Despite my frayed feelings, my instinct was to forgive Sarah.

Growing up, I'd been exposed to enough religion and pop psychology to believe that "to forgive is divine," and that dwelling on the past can only bring misery. Plus I'd had a mother who stewed over every slight—perceived and real. She'd bounce from one friend to another, never forming deep connections, too consumed with bitterness to take any real joy from the good things in her life. I didn't want to repeat her mistakes.

In my early 20s, I'd actively tried to cultivate forgiveness. I discovered yoga and the power of letting go. I spent a lot of time in Savasana contemplating rivers that carried away the aches of old wounds and the stings of fresh rejections. I put my hands together in namaste and concentrated on the splinter-thin space between my palms and the energy I held there.

I reminded myself to always live like this. Loving. Open. Not bitter.

In the years since, I'd become really good at not holding grudges. But was I any happier for it? That day in the black currant field, with the July sun slicing through my white cotton shirt, I wasn't sure. For the first time in as long as I could remember, I didn't feel like practicing forgiveness. I was ready to sever something.

"You know what I do when someone disappoints me?" my mother-in-law asked from two bushes over. I shook my head, thinking she was going to affirm my impulse to cut Sarah off like a gangrenous limb. "I put them on a different shelf," she said.

She explained that it was silly to stop being friends with someone you like—maybe even love—because they've fallen short of your expectations.

Who needs the drama of a breakup when you can simply slide someone into a different category: inner circle to social circle, lover to friend? You didn't need to junk the whole relationship. Give it new boundaries, she said. Salvage what's good.

I saw that she was presenting me with a third way, one that appealed to my desire to stay levelheaded and composed in an emotionally charged situation. It also gave me a measure of control. By moving Sarah to another shelf, I was redefining her role in my life. Piety and passive acceptance be damned: This felt better.

In the following months, distancing myself from Sarah felt a lot like breaking a bad habit. I longed to unload my daily anxieties and celebrate good news with her. For my husband's 40th, I threw an intimate dinner, and it took all my power not to invite her. I felt incredibly guilty for avoiding her, even though Sarah was doing the same thing on her end: canceling on a string of lunches, no longer sharing details about her love life.

It was easier to apply my new shelving system to other people who couldn't always be trusted.

There was the acquaintance whose competitive streak kept me from celebrating my new job; the workmate who assigned my ideas to other writers. Having shelves on which to sort these relationships gave me a powerful mental image and a useful coping mechanism.

Eventually, I got used to Sarah's new place in my life, too. We remain friendly: We like each other's posts on Facebook and have dinner about three times a year. The menu usually consists of sushi and guarded conversation about things of little consequence: exercise classes, vacation plans.

The last time I saw her, we took our kids to a burger joint near my apartment. It was a far cry from our nights on the town in minis and strappy heels. That evening, we both wore jeans, loose-fitting tops and stress on our faces. My eldest son was in a mood, and I wasn't hungry.

Sarah stopped talking about a birthday party she was planning for her son and asked me—earnestly—what was wrong. I wanted to tell her everything: that I was struggling to find balance between work and taking care of my family; that I was worried about my son's recent acting out and had no idea how to help him. She was trying to be there for me. But I held back.

In bed that night, I stared at the ceiling and let myself feel nostalgic for what Sarah and I once had. I've made other wonderful friendships since then—including a new best friend who always has my back, no matter what—but I still miss Sarah. A part of me hopes that one day she'll find her way back into my inner circle.

And maybe that's the real reason to maintain that second shelf. I'll always know where to find her—no further than arm's reach.

This article was originally published at Self. Reprinted with permission from the author.


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