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Why Friendship Breakups Hurt, No Matter How Old You Are

Feb 08, 2023

Why Friendship Breakups Hurt, No Matter How Old You Are

When I was single, I went through some pretty humiliating romantic breakups (the less said about the one that occurred during a showing of Batman Returns, the better). But none of them hurt like what happened between me and my friend  Claire. 

I met Claire my sophomore year of college, and immediately, we were attached at the hip. We shared clothes, secrets and the extremely mistaken belief that smoking cigarettes outside the dining commons made us look mysterious and French. Even after Claire dropped out during our senior year, we stayed close, emailing, phoning, visiting, and planning a glorious future where we would be roommates.  

And then, one day, a few years later, Claire’s voicemailbox was full. My texts and emails went unreturned. At first, I thought she’d died, been kidnapped, or developed full-blown amnesia. But when I heard about her wedding, which I hadn’t been invited to, I understood: Claire no longer wanted me in her life. The boys who dumped me may have hurt me, but Claire is the only person who ever broke my heart. 

Friendship breakups are normal (and agonizing)

At the time, I thought I was the only person on earth who had been dumped by a friend — and that I must have been a pretty terrible person to get dropped that way. But according to therapist Nicole Richardson, friendship breakups are common. They’re usually about life changes rather than anyone being the villain, and they can occur at any time in our lives, not just during the heady, confusing years of our teens and twenties.  

In fact, while friendship breakups might be more dramatic when we’re young, friendship breakups later in life can be far more painful. In midlife, our circles tend to be smaller and more close-knit; when a friend leaves that smaller circle, Richardson says, “we feel that loss super, super deeply. It's almost impossible to experience a loss like that and not really question yourself a lot.” 

Why do adult friendships end? 

Like romantic relationships, friendship can fizzle due to any number of factors. But Richardson says that the most common reasons tend to be lives that head in different directions. This is especially true in midlife, when our paths can radically diverge. For example, a longtime friendship can become complicated when one of you is getting a divorce and the other is celebrating the birth of a third child.  It may be harder for the two of you to find things in common or the time and patience to support each other.  
Not that people with completely different lives can’t be best friends — but if, say, you’re laser-focused on a high-flying business career, and your bestie is more into being a full-time parent and homeschooling, it can be tougher to hold a friendship together. These kinds of differences “aren't insurmountable,” says Richardson, “but they become bigger and bigger walls to climb over time.” 

Friendships can also end over more obvious issues, including bullying, mistreatment, or letting someone down during a difficult personal moment. However, that doesn’t necessarily make the breakup easier.  
“It's similar to dating and it's so painful when it doesn't work,” says Richardson. Humans are evolutionarily pack animals who depend on groups for a feeling of safety, she notes, “and if we get kicked out of the pack, it feels like death.” 

What should you do if you feel like it’s time to end a friendship? 

Maybe your BFF let you down spectacularly when you really needed her. Or maybe you just feel like you’re going through the motions when you see each other instead of genuinely connecting. You don’t necessarily have to have the friendship version of “the talk” with them; instead, says Richardson, you might think about “recasting” them into a smaller role in your life.  

She recommends thinking about our friendships as a series of circles: the #1 circle contains the people who would drop everything if you needed them. If someone no longer feels right in that circle, you can move them out to the #2 circle out, or even the #3.  

“Maybe this person really adds something to my life, but they can't be counted on like a [person in the #1 circle]. And so I've got to turn them into a two or a three, and I've got to figure out what that means for me,” says Richardson. 

But if a conversation seems called for, she recommends first thinking about what you want from the relationship with your friend — more emotional support, clearer communication, or even something as simple as acknowledgement of the fact that money is tight in your family right now and you don’t have the spare cash to join her on the luxury vacations she keeps inviting you on. Then, you can approach her with a clear idea about, what’s been feeling off about the relationship lately and try to communicate and get on the same page about what’s happening. 

What if you pour your heart out about how bad you feel about the friendship lately…and your friend has no idea what you’re talking about? Ooof. That’s a moment to see if she can be moved to a different circle in your life, says Richardson; a time to ask yourself, “Can I sustain this? Can I keep you in my life or does it hurt too much?” 

What should you do if you were the friend who was dumped? 

And what if you were the one on the receiving end of the “we need to see other people (platonically)” speech?  “The first step is to feel and to acknowledge the pain,” says Hope Kelaher, therapist and author of Here to Make Friends: How to Make Friends as an Adult. “The sooner you start to feel your feelings, the easier it will be to move through them.”  

It’s key to have someone to talk to — you might want to choose a therapist or friend who doesn’t know the rest of your circle, since your usual crew might have feelings about the breakup or may want to “stay out of it.”  

You can also reflect on what you can learn from the breakup, which might include any feedback your friend gave you about why she was ending things. This doesn’t mean any and every thing she said about you is true, especially if there was nastiness or name-calling — but thinking about why things ended the way they did may provide some useful self-knowledge. And if you’re ruminating about what went wrong, Kelaher suggests writing out a list of any ways the relationship wasn’t working for you, too — i.e. you could tell you were a low priority for her, or she always blew off your problems but went in deep about her own. This perspective can help reframe some of the negative thoughts you may be experiencing,” says Kelaher.  
Just like you would in a romantic breakup, make sure to take time for fun and self-care to keep your spirits up. And remember: according to Kelaher, “not all friendships are meant to be forever — we all evolve and need different types of relationships at different times.” 

And no matter how old you are, you can always make new friends. You just might have to put in more work than you did in college. “You're going to find a new best friend, but it's not going to be next week,” says Richardson." You have to be willing to be patient and cultivate the relationship. 

So here’s what happened with my friend Claire. Over a decade after we last spoke, I heard through a mutual friend that she was in town and wanted to see me. Over the course of our evening at a quiet bar, I learned that Claire’s life at the time had been a lot more complex than I’d known. Despite my feelings of closeness, she had been going through difficult things that I had no idea about; I was too young and self-absorbed to be the support that she needed then. Yeah, she’d ghosted me, but it felt good to get closure on why it happened. When I said goodbye to her, we weren’t best friends again. But the crack in my heart got a little smaller. 


By Gabrielle Moss 

Gabrielle Moss is the editor at Stripes. She's the author of Paperback Crush: The Totally Radical History of '80s and '90s Teen Fiction. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Slate, GQ, Buzzfeed, Marie Claire and elsewhere.