When we think about breakups, most of us picture the typical romantic comedy where the recently single protagonist ends up crying in bed with a pint full of Ben & Jerry’s; a simple but effective protocol for dealing with heartbreak. When it comes to friendship breakups, it isn’t quite so clear-cut.
Most of us don’t expect friendships to have an expiration date, and unlike romantic relationships, friendships aren’t so clearly defined. In romantic relationships, we typically know where we stand. Titles like dating, boyfriend/girlfriend, engaged, and married make it very clear how serious the relationship is and where we see it going. Not only do friendships lack these defining titles, but when friendships end, there’s no apparent breakup like in romantic relationships. With a significant other, there’s typically a conversation preceding the breakup that can help both parties obtain closure. There is typically no equivalent conversation with friendships, which can lead to confusion, hurt, and even shame.
When we’re not given a reason for the breakup, we assume we must have done something wrong or that there is something fundamentally wrong within us. Many of us don’t expect friendships to end, so when they do, the grief and shame we feel are unexpected. These feelings, along with sadness, anger, loneliness, and anxiety, are all normal.
Despite the focus on romantic relationships in society, friendships are actually some of the most important relationships in our lives. One study found that, as we age, friendships can be a greater indicator of well-being than familial relationships. Another study called the Grant Study followed a group of male Harvard students over the course of their lives and similarly found that the greatest predictor of well-being in general, even more than money or accomplishment, was social support.
There have even been health benefits linked to friendship and social support. It’s been found that friendship and social integration can have an effect on heart rate variability, with positive social interaction leading to greater variability and considerably lowering the risk of heart disease. Friendships can greatly impact mental well-being too, with studies concluding that, while a depressed mood isn’t contagious, a healthy mood is. This means high-quality friendships can actually lower the risk of depression and improve overall mood.
If we’re going to talk about friendship breakups, we first have to understand friendship and how it changes throughout our lives. As children, friendships are typically formed easily and tend to revolve around play and having fun together. These friendships start to become more meaningful during adolescence as we begin to discover our identities and learn to be supportive in our relationships. Because so much is changing around us and our identities are still malleable, it isn’t uncommon to experience changes in friendship from childhood to adolescence.
It is in young adulthood that we begin to feel a little more secure in our identities and form bonds based primarily on shared values and interests. At this age, we also have a lot more time to devote to friendships, mainly because of a lack of responsibilities like marriage, career, or children. Going to college and being surrounded by your peers can especially facilitate this, but it can also create another period of change. With friends potentially moving to different locations for school or work, networks begin to expand. This often leads to some friendships being lost, as new life opportunities and friends in close proximity become more of a priority than those far away.
By the time we enter middle age, we’ve usually acquired more responsibility, whether that involves kids, a career, or otherwise. This can cause friendships to fall to the backburner. During this time, it’s most likely that friendships made are a result of already existing relationships, like coworkers or children’s friend’s parents, and making friends outside of these confines can be far more difficult.
In older age, though, the many responsibilities of middle age somewhat fade. Between retirement and children growing up, there is suddenly far more time for leisure and friendship than there once was. It’s not uncommon for old friendships to rekindle in older age for this reason. It’s also been found that towards the end of life, spending time with friends and family and experiencing happy moments becomes more of a priority.
Basically, throughout life, there are so many periods of change where friendships aren’t the top priority, but when all is said and done, lasting friendships end up being one of the most important factors in our happiness.
With friendships being so important, it’s critical that we know how to decipher when a friendship needs to end, or if it can be salvaged. Surveys show that the most common reasons friendships end can be sorted into four categories: selfishness, infrequent interaction, romantic involvement, and perceptions. While selfishness and infrequent interaction are pretty self-explanatory, romantic involvement and perceptions are not.
Romantic involvement basically indicates that one friend has a romantic interest in the other or in the friend’s partner, or both friends have a romantic interest in the same person. The perceptions category is a partner, family, or other friends disapproving of the friendship, as well as things like addiction, poor hygiene, or inconsistency. Some common signs that a friendship is ending or won’t last are one-sided communication, feelings of being replaced, only keeping up with each other through social media, feelings of anxiety or discomfort around the other person, not making future plans with each other or sticking to plans, not celebrating each other’s success, and only reaching out when something is needed from the other person.
When any of these factors arise, it’s essential to evaluate the friendship and gauge whether it’s worth saving. In order to do this, keep in mind that good friendships contain positivity, consistency, and vulnerability. Unhealthy relationships lack at least one of these. This doesn’t mean we should pull away if things aren’t perfect, but instead take stock of the positive-to-negative ratio in the relationship. Friendship is a give and take, so long as one person isn’t always doing the taking. It’s also important to evaluate your role in the dynamic and where you may be wrong or misunderstanding. Communication is key, so talking it out and seeing if things can be remedied is always a good step before initiating a friendship breakup.
As difficult as it is to endure a friendship ending, it can be just as difficult to maintain and make new friendships, especially as we get older. Though it seems like friendship is something that should come naturally to us, it is actually the opposite. From an evolutionary standpoint, it makes more sense for survival to prioritize avoiding an enemy over making a friend. This doesn’t mean that making new friends is impossible, though. One thing to remember when navigating friendships is that the two main keys to friendship are intimacy and reciprocation.
Intimacy primarily consists of being yourself and allowing yourself to be seen and understood by others, also known as vulnerability. Author and research professor Brené Brown’s TED Talks, Listening to Shame and The Power of Vulnerability, are a great place to start for more information on this.
More than liking someone’s post on social media, reciprocation refers to true give and take and being there for one another as much as possible. If you can make room for intimacy and reciprocity in your friendships, it’ll be that much easier to make and maintain them.
Just like it takes time to heal from romantic breakups, getting over friendship breakups is just as painful, if not more because we don’t always expect them. When going through a friendship breakup, taking time to grieve the relationship is important. It’s also the best time to decide which friendships aren’t worth keeping and which ones are worth the effort – or maybe even need more of your attention. One friendship breakup doesn’t mean you’re not worthy of other meaningful and healthy relationships.