Over the years, I've separated from many friends—a few I left and a few who left me—some clean breaks, some painful. Here's what I learned.
Breaking up with a friend is one of the hardest things to do. . . and it's even harder if it's your best friend. Not only because our friendships are sometimes closer and more intimate than our romantic ones, but also because friendships follow fewer rules. While a romance often follows set expectations (first-date rules, monogamy commitments, bended knees, divorce agreements) friendships are usually unique in some manner and likely less scripted.
And because we hold our friends so close yet don't have any social guidelines for cutting off that intimacy, it's important to do it as cleanly and as pain-free as you can. By "clean" and "pain-free," I mean that the break should be as intentional and surgical as possible. To avoid pain, avoid messy uncertainty, mixed messages, and false hopes that draw things out and play tug-of-war with everyone's emotions.
But most of all, it's your job to take care of yourself. Yes, you did care for this person (and likely still do) so you'll want to give that friendship an honorable end to its misery, but your ultimate priority is you.
What NOT to Do:
- Don't pick a fight because you're too chicken to break up like a grownup.
- Don't just stop calling them back, disappear, or "ghost" them. It's harder for everyone to move on when there's no proper end.
- Don't do it via text (unless you back it up with a phone call or meeting).
- Don't blame it all on them. Take responsibility for your own stuff.
- Don't break up with them if you're not sure you're done with the relationship. Don't do the break-up-to-make-up dance.
Why Would You Want to Break Up With a Friend?
Because the relationship is one-sided.
If you are always the one who initiates, invites, reaches out, includes, and makes plans, then the entire relationship is your job. You might start to feel that it's just thankless work and not worth it. When you are always the one who plans, pays, drives, and hosts everything you do together as friends, it can get exhausting. Even worse when you do all the work of maintaining a connection but they only complain, make unreasonable demands, keep you waiting, or fail to show up at all. When you start feeling like your only role is as a patron, supporting character, or sidekick, it may be time to move on.
Because you give more than you get.
For a friendship to work, you each need to have something to offer. It doesn't have to be the same exact thing (I scratch your back and you scratch mine) but it does have to feel balanced (I make dinner and you bring desert, or you make me laugh and I make you feel appreciated). When you're putting in time, energy, and even money into the relationship but not getting much back, it may be time to invest elsewhere.
Because they cause drama, trauma, and upset.
Some people live in perpetual high-stakes drama. I don't mean someone who's had a string of bad luck, but rather someone who seems to constantly pick fights, wage wars, make poor choices, and make life harder than it has to be. They teeter on the edge of disaster and keep expecting you to save them—or worse, try to pull you down with them.
Because they make you feel bad about yourself.
A friendship is supposed to be about mutual appreciation, but some "friends" don't hold up their end of the bargain. If a "friend" is acting more like an enemy by insulting you, cutting you down, criticizing your decisions, belittling your accomplishments, competing with or trying to one-up you, or failing to value your friendship, and if spending time with them inevitably makes you feel bad about yourself, it might be time to reclassify them as something other than a "friend."
Because they have a negative effect on your life and livelihood.
If a friend pressures you to do dumb or dangerous things, make bad decisions, endanger yourself or others, or take uncomfortable risks, then the friendship is just a bad idea.
Because they weren't there when you really needed them.
Sometimes it takes a tragedy to realize that your friends aren't really there for you. An illness, a break-up or a divorce, or a financial setback might show you who's really got your back (and who doesn't).
Because you just can't see eye to eye on important issues.
Of course we don't expect our friends to agree with us on everything, but there are certain deal-breaking topics you just can't overlook. Racism, politics, and issues that involve human rights may all prove to be irreconcilable differences that you just can't move beyond.
Because you no longer have anything in common.
Sometimes, you think you have lots in common with a person, but it turns out you don't. Other times, friends just grow in different directions: professionally, financially, politically, socially, or spiritually, your personalities no longer jive. Life decisions—where to live, if or whom to marry, to have kids or not—take you in different directions. Maybe it was actually a relationship of convenience all along, only you never realized. There's nothing left to talk about.
How to Break Up With a Friend
- Take the time and space you need to figure things out before you do anything. Start by pulling back: Return all the books you borrowed, cancel the standing lunch dates, rearrange your schedule to avoid meeting. Stop texting, calling, and making plans. If they ask what's up, tell them you just need some time. Meanwhile, talk to people who understand, journal, or get therapy. Do whatever you need to do to make sure it feels right not to have them in your life.
- Choose the method(s) of delivery. Decide whether to do it in person or in writing. You might send a succinct, well-worded email followed up by a quick face-to-face meeting. If you send a text, please quickly follow it up with a phone call or a meeting because we all know how crappy it is to get broken up with via text. It's not easy to break up with someone to their face, but it will be important for your personal evolution in the long run.
- Be direct, succinct, and honest about your feelings. Keep it short and sweet. Remember to use "I" statements instead of blaming them for everything. Don't talk about what they could have done differently or how they could make things right if the relationship is beyond fixing. Don't chicken out last minute by giving false hope. It may be smartest to stick to a carefully worded script. See examples of what to say below.
- Tell them you don't want to pursue a friendship with them anymore. Yes, you must be very clear. These words need to be said explicitly, not implied or hinted.
- Honor the friendship (in the past tense). Acknowledge the importance of the relationship and take a moment to remember the good times and things you really appreciated about this person.
- Give them a chance to respond. Listen to their response, but don't dwell on it, get drawn into an argument, or engage in a protracted discussion. This is not time for tit-for-tat. If they send a long email, don't engage, if they want to pick a fight, don't engage. Acknowledge their perspective, then get out asap.
- Follow through. After this, cut off contact. If you happen to see them somewhere, say hello cordially but leave as soon as possible.
Examples of What to Say When You Break Up With a Friend
"I fully appreciate the good times we had in the past, but I realize I need more now."
"You and I always had a lot of laughs, but now I need to fill my life with people who fully understand, appreciate, and support me."
"Communication has become too difficult, and I don't want to try any more."
"The positives of our relationship are outweighed by the negatives."
"I don't feel emotionally safe or supported in our relationship."
"I need to stop hanging out with you because I end up doing things I regret and I'm trying to make a change in my life."
"You don't have what I need in a friend, and I don't have what you need, and this is not going to change."
"You were a great friend to me once, but we have grown in different directions."
"I want to surround myself with people who understand the path I'm on today."
"I don't feel the same way about you anymore."
"When we first met, we had so much in common, but our lives have taken different turns."
"The things we have in common get smaller and our difference just keep getting bigger."
"I am much clearer now about what I need from a relationship now, and I realize that you and I will never fulfill each other's needs."
Dos and Don'ts:
- Be as brief and direct as possible. It helps to have a script to follow.
- Don't list "what-ifs" or things they could have done differently. This will only give them false hope.
- Don't get into specifics. This is not the time for hashing things out.
- Use "I" statements. Instead of only pointing fingers, own your own stuff.
- Explain your reasons. Sometimes it helps to explain what your needs are rather than complaining about what you didn't get from the relationship.
- Make it about your needs rather than their faults or shortcomings. Instead of blaming them and triggering a defense, focus on what you need.
- Break up. Explicitly state that you are done pursuing this friendship.
- Acknowledge feelings. Give them a chance to react (but don't react to their reaction). Honor the good times you had and express regret for what could have been.
- End on a positive note. Express gratitude for their friendship. Say something kind.
What If I Just Can't Break Up?
If you're still reading, you're probably still just not sure what to do. Maybe you've been putting this break-up off for way too long. Maybe you just can't swallow the idea that you have to confront your ex-friend in person. Perhaps you're hounded by feelings of guilt. It's possible that, deep down, you might even be scared.
For answers to those deeper questions, I consulted three experts:
- Simone and Malcolm Collins, co-authors of The Pragmatist's Guide to Relationships
- Stephanie D. McKenzie, relationship coach
- Jessica Speer, the author of BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships (July 2021).
If you want deeper answers, read on.
Do You Really Have to End a Bad Relationship?
According to Simone and Malcolm Collins, co-authors of The Pragmatist's Guide to Relationships, you do.
"The most important part of ending a bad long-term relationship—be it platonic or romantic—is actually ending it. Too often we get so hung up on the 'wrong ways' to end a friendship or relationship (with a text message, for example) that we stay. But no matter how toxic a breakup is, breaking up is always better than not breaking up when the relationship is bad.
Here's an important concept to consider when contemplating a breakup: Imagine standing on a hill [the bad relationship] and looking at a mountain [a better future]. There is no path you can take without first going down. This is what a bad friendship or relationship almost always looks like—but to move up, you must first travel down."
What If You're Scared of a Confrontation?
You may have great reasons for being scared. Maybe...
- you are bad with words. Maybe you just need a script. In this case—when you can't trust yourself to say the right words—you might consider writing a breakup note instead.
- you're blocked by feelings of guilt and nostalgia. If the memories of good times are too vivid, maybe you're just not ready to say goodbye yet.
- intuition. Maybe there's something you really should be scared about, in which case it might be okay to text a breakup or even ghost them completely.
What if I just can't do it to their face?
If you just can't bring yourself do it in person, Jessica Speer, the author of BFF or NRF (Not Really Friends)? A Girls Guide to Happy Friendships (July 2021), recommends a slow fade:
You may decide to take a "slow fade" approach and spend less and less time with this friend. A slow fade works best when both parties recognize what is happening and are ready for the change. If not, it is best to be direct and make a clean break.
A slow fade is when you slowly cut a person out of your life. . . and they pretend not to notice. It's a somewhat mutual decision not to pursue a friendship any more, and not to talk about it.
Can I just disappear and ghost them?
According to Stephanie D. McKenzie, a relationship coach, sometimes a break up might not require any definitive action on your part, especially if you are afraid of a confrontation.
A long text message or email announcing the demise of this connection may only create a dramatic exchange, so evaluate your reasons before proceeding. Sometimes the best thing is to simply become less accessible. If their issue is being entitled to your time or your money, they will more than likely seek out another ear or wallet to satiate their needs. Keep in mind that not all endings are eternal and you may find yourself reconnecting at a later date, when you're both better and more balanced. So always consider using a scalpel and not a machete if a cut must be made.
Don't Play "Villain vs. Victim"
In most cases, friendships fall apart because of mutual mistakes or differences. It takes two to tango, but it also takes two to fight, and usually, a relationship ends for complicated mutual reasons.
But still, it can be easy to cast yourself on the role as "good guy" and assign them the role as "villain." That belief can certainly makes things easier when you decide to end the friendship, but it's not entirely true. It might be helpful for you to frame the story this way, but it's probably an oversimplification. It's important for you to acknowledge how you participated in how things fell apart.
Not only is it important to "own" your own mistakes, but it's also important not to vilify theirs. Remember that there were once things you really, really liked about this person, and those good qualities might still exist. They are not a bad person, they just didn't turn out to be the ideal friend for you.
It's so hard to end things properly... but it's even harder to keep suffering in a dead-end relationship. Because no matter what we do or say, some relationships are just not worth holding onto. Relationships die. Sometimes they detonate like bombs, but more often they dry up and shrink like withered plants.
In the end, it helps to remind yourself that breaking up with a friend who's no longer a friend is not a bad thing. If the friendship is not nurturing you, leaving it behind will give you the space and time you need to grow in more positive directions.
Not only that, but cutting old ties will make room for you to make more friends, ones whose goals and values align with yours.