There’s something rather gratifying about snubbing a friend after a cataclysmic fall-out, especially if they’ve let you down big-time. But is it ever right actually to divorce one? After all, it’s one thing to be on non-speakers for a few weeks, but quite another to sever ties for good.
Friendships are a rare source of stability in a world where commitment can be tricky. So it’s important to distinguish a genuine grievance from a misunderstanding, a friendship worth salvaging from one past its sell-by date.
There are good reasons to walk away: they’ve slept with your partner, or gossiped about your most intimate secrets, or not supported you at a crucial time, or not invited you to a key event. Or it may just be that a slow-burning build-up of bad feeling explodes in an outraged email.
Mark Vernon, who runs workshops on friendship and is the author of The Meaning of Friendship (Palgrave Macmillan), says: “There are good reasons to end a friendship. People change. They can become someone they weren’t when you first knew them. If the person you feel you are when you’re with them is not the person you want to be, that is a reason for breaking up the friendship. Of course you cut people slack, but a point comes when holding on to a friendship in the hope that it might be different is not to live in the now.”
As they move on through life people want to make more meaningful connections and commitments, to spend more time on friendship. Ironically, this often means cutting out the dead wood, giving up on people who have become boring, irritating, negative or needy. But how do you end a friendship without creating bad feeling?
Most of us take the wimp’s way out: not answering calls and emails, making excuses not to meet, hoping the relationship will fizzle out. Cowardly it may be, but the chances are that it will allow memories of the good times to survive. But sometimes honesty is the only option. If you’re upset you owe it to the friendship, and yourself, to come clean about why and listen to the response.
Mark Vernon says: “Some of the best friendships are those where people say tough things rather than treating each other with kid gloves. Usually you survive a tough comment but sometimes you don’t – and that’s not to say it wasn’t worth making. If it’s true it is also valuable, and in a strange way breaking up with someone and being honest about it might be a friendly gesture.”
It’s easy to underestimate how painful breaking up with a friend can be. For some people it’s as bad as ending a long-term relationship, yet we’re rarely prepared for the lasting impact it can have. “You don’t just lose the friend, you lose the part of yourself you were with that friend,” Vernon says. “Friendship is about knowing yourself in someone else. It’s the most meaningful relationship you can have.”
The consolation lies in moving forward to focus on friendships, old and new, which continue to be genuinely life-enhancing.
How to end a friendship
- Don’t act in the heat of the moment. Step back and think about your shared history and what you would miss if the friendship ends – not just the other person’s failings.
- Be realistic about how good a friend you’ve been, not only the other way round.
- Ask yourself whether your expectations of the friendship are too high.
- If you decide to end a friendship be kind as well as honest.
- A carefully thought-out letter or email is a good way to express what you’ve valued about the friendship, as well as what’s gone wrong.