Family, Heartbreak

Friendship Breakups: Exploring A Different Type Of Heartache

friends breaking up

Way back in Girl Scouts, I learned the song, "Make new friends, but keep the old; One is silver and the other gold." These lyrics, made relevant again when Diane Keaton recited them for her long-time pal Woody Allen at this year’s Golden Globes, seemed to cover it all. Welcome new people into your life, but don't let the old ones slip away—simple enough.

True, as kids we were probably more focused on selling Thin Mints and Samoas than questioning the intricacies of platonic love, but what my scout leader failed to even hint at was the possibility that these bonds could evolve into something, well, not so golden.

That's where I find myself today: reevaluating an old friendship that's soured over the years. I met my friend—we’ll call her Sarah—when I was in my early 20s and new to NYC. Back then we ran all over town, stretching our meager post-grad salaries at street fairs and happy hours, and generally having a great time. But now that we’re both in our 30s, the air between us has become strained. Feelings are easily hurt and we're less willing to be vulnerable around each other.

Sometimes I come home from hanging out with Sarah and feel exhausted. I'm hyper aware of small jabs (or at least what I perceive as jabs), and I feel the need to constantly shield myself. I'm not sure exactly how we got here. There's no dramatic story to tell about her stealing my boyfriend or me tossing a cocktail in her face after a drunken argument. I suppose it was a series of small disappointments that have added up over the past 10 years (I know, totally boring).

So here I am wondering, do I end things with Sarah? Is it possible to break up with a friend?

For all the advice we hear about breakups of the romantic variety, friendship usually gets the shaft. Maybe it's assumed that we'll all be great Girl Scouts and just stick to the song. When we do shine a spotlight on adult friendship, it usually doesn't play out in a meaningful way. Rather than inspiring stories, words of wisdom or stories of the nuanced phenomenon of breaking it off with a friend, we get all-out spectacle. Just look at the Real Housewives of…any city, really. Bickering besties fuel nearly all the drama on those shows, whether it's NeNe vs. Kim, Bethenny vs. Jill, or Teresa vs. everyone. Are we to only explore female friendships that end in a fury of weave pulling and insult slinging? 

This may explain my male coworker's reaction when I asked his advice about my potential friend breakup. "Drama!!" he replied. I tried to explain that it wasn't about drama; It was about being genuine in my relationships and surrounding myself with only people I truly enjoy. "Look," he said, "I have three good friends and they've been my friends since I was 10 years old. Once you're my friend, you're my friend for life."

While impressed by his tight-knit inner circle, I knew his friend philosophy was unrealistic for my life. And there's a difference between male and female friendships in general. Experts say that men often have fewer friends than women, and when they hit their 30s, guys tend to cling to friendships they forged back in high school and college. Should women be exploited as drama queens and catfight instigators just because our friendships are a bit more dynamic? 

I decided to reach out to other women and ask if they'd ever had a friend breakup. They all did. An attorney told me she had to dump a friend who had become too negative. She had enough stress to deal with in the court room; she didn't need a Debbie Downer girlfriend too. Another woman said she split with her old college drinking buddy. As they became adults and life required more than lemon drop shots four times a week, the pair realized they really didn't have much in common. A third woman explained that her ex-friend had gotten into drugs and had become deceitful. More than a few disagreements, this former pal had committed full-fledged friendship felonies and Melissa cut her off cold turkey.  

One woman I spoke to—a professional in her mid-30s who we'll call Lisa—let me in on what it really feels like to break up with a friend. Lisa confessed that she still misses a close friend—who we'll call Emma—that she broke up with four years ago. They'd been confidantes since childhood, and it seemed nothing would tear them apart. In their 20s, there were weddings, showers, birthday parties—even the birth of a baby. While Lisa made Emma's occasions a priority, Emma never seemed able to clear her schedule for Lisa's important events. To add insult to injury, Emma always offered to make it up to Lisa—on her own terms. "If I'm having a big party to celebrate my 30th birthday, come to my party, even if it's just for an hour," says Lisa. "After a while, celebrating my occasions only when it's convenient for you becomes exceedingly selfish and offensive. Who needs a friend who just takes and never gives?"  

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But Lisa didn't break up with Emma abruptly. Instead, she used the phase-out method: not the most noble way to go, admits Lisa. "I took the path of least resistance. She was so busy and self-involved that she didn't seem to notice I had less time for her." Once they had totally grown apart, Lisa says, she did feel heartbreak, but not exactly like one would for a romantic relationship. "I still get nostalgic for the good parts of our friendship, and it's awful to lose someone you've shared so much with. But I have to admit it's not as painful as a romantic breakup. You're not blinded by attraction or longing. It's easier to see the situation clearly and move on," she says. 

Finally, I chatted with a very wise woman in her 60s. (Ok fine, she's my mom.) In her experience, she's grown closer or further apart from certain friends depending on her evolving life stages. When she got married and became a mother, ties to old college friends shifted. Now retired and with five full-grown children, she finds herself once again reevaluating friendships.

It turns out there's an official term for this sort of wrangling in of friends. Socioemotional selectivity theory is the idea that as we get older and realize that our time is finite, we're less interested in quantity of friends and more interested in spending quality time with a select group. In less sensitive terms, we trim the fat. This selectivity can often be spurred by major life events, like having a baby or turning 30.

That's not to say that my friend Sarah won't make the cut. Rather, I think we've hit a point in our lives where we're having an off moment. Based on our needs now, we may choose to focus on other friendships. But who knows, maybe down the line we’ll rekindle that old ease we once had. In the book Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, sociologist Dr. Lillian Rubin says, “Friendship is a non-event—a relationship that becomes, that grows, develops, waxes, wanes, and too often, perhaps, ends, all without ceremony or ritual to mark its existence.” Now, I understand that’s not as catchy in a song. I’ll give the Girl Scouts a pass.