We’ve all been there: Ending a friendship hurts—sometimes, even worse than a romantic breakup…
A lot changed for people during Covid-19 pandemic—values and relationships shifted, and in many cases, people don’t want to spend their time the ways they used to, or with the people they once considered among their closest.
If your priorities are different than they were a few years back, you might be wondering whether you’re actually navigating this change like an adult.
The truth is, it was easier to manage these experiences as children, when school and playgrounds offered built-in ways to create new friendships and bounce back from lost ones.
One 2016 study in the Journal of Development Psychology suggested that half of childhood friendships don’t last a year, and there usually aren’t too many hard feelings about it. But as we age into the teen years, separating from a friend can feel more emotionally fraught…while adult friendship splits can have the equivalent impact of splitting with a partner, according to psychologists.
Here’s how to know when it’s time for a friendship breakup:
The effort shifts
If you notice that you’re the only one putting effort into staying connected, this can be one sign the friendship is approaching the end of the road, eExplains Mary Beth Somich, a counsellor who specialises in family dynamics, anxiety management, and boundary-setting: “When there is a lack of communication and no real initiative to make plans to connect over several months, it demonstrates that the relationship isn’t a priority.”
It has to be on their terms
If you find that your friend typically dictates the activities or the timeline of a hangout, it can be exhausting. “If the friendship feels like a chore, it’s a sign that it’s time to move on,” Somich says. “Healthy friendships are not draining, annoying, burdensome, or one-sided. Conversely, they are meant to uplift and recharge us, helping us feel connected and at ease.”
If you met them today, you wouldn’t be friends
Sometimes we meet someone in secondary school or college, and despite our lives going in very different directions, we stay close because we respect each other’s choices and don’t try to change them. But sometimes, friends grow apart. “One of the most common misconceptions about friendships is that they’re meant to last forever,” Somich says. “But it’s actually very normal for friendships to end due to personal transitions, such as moving away, having a child, or simply growing apart in values and interests.”
You’re disagreeing all the time
If you find yourself with a friend who is combative or challenges everything you do and say, it might be time to move on.
It gets dramatic
Suppose your friend is causing you distress, putting you in danger through their risky behaviour, disrespecting your boundaries, betraying trust or even physically assaulting you. In that case, these are all reasons to immediately step away from this friendship.
Sometimes a friend will test your boundaries to see what they can get away with. If you can recognise this in advance, end the friendship before the behaviour escalates.
“You can decide not to maintain an active friendship without erasing or negating the important role they played in your life,” explains says Emily Anhalt, a clinical officer. “It’s important to remember that a friendship does not have to last forever for it to be worth having,” Dr Anhalt says. “Some friendships serve important purposes at a particular time in our lives, but are not meant to be carried with us throughout life.”
Do some quick math
Friendships aren’t business and shouldn’t involve tally sheets, but there are some points worth paying attention to. “It might be time to move on from a friend if their presence in your life causes more stress, distress, anxiety, overwhelm, frustration, and effort than it does joy, companionship, comfort, care, support, and love,” Dr Anhalt says.
Getting through a friendship break-up
If your friend was a big part of your life, it can be hard to imagine not being able to text them a funny meme or call for a marathon phone session. If it helps, imagine what it would be like to have stayed in this unhealthy, unbalanced friendship.
“Allow yourself to experience all the emotions that come with the loss, including sadness, anger, disappointment, or occasionally even relief,” Somich says.
Allow yourself time to grieve: It can take time to adjust to a friendship breakup, and it’s important to give yourself time.
“Losing a friendship is a grief process, and like any other loss, you have to work through the stages of grief to ultimately reach a state of acceptance,” Somich says.
“Understanding that the average friendship lasts four to seven years can help normalize this transition out of active friendship.”
Reflect on what happened: “Take a look inward and use the experience as a learning opportunity,” Somich says.
“It’s a chance to reflect on relational patterns that may be persisting for you and getting in the way of creating successful relationships in general. Meeting with a trained therapist to examine your relational patterns and attachment styles can be very enlightening.”
Surround yourself with friends
If you have a friendship breakup with someone you were very close with, you may feel isolated, disoriented and alone. “It helps to surround yourself with friends you feel strongly connected to,” Somich suggests. “That time together will reinforce that you are valued and supported and can help soothe the loss of the former friendship.”
Be gentle with yourself…and with them
When you’re going through a friendship breakup, don’t ghost or send confusing signals. If you think you can downgrade to a less intimate friendship, you can try that, or maybe the friendship just needs a break or some breathing room. Just be gentle and fair to all parties involved.
“Even if a friendship is no longer serving you,” Dr Anhalt says, “it’s likely that you have feelings of sadness, disappointment, anger, and loss that the friendship didn’t work out the way you hoped. Moving on from a friend can be as [painful], or even more painful, as moving on from a romantic relationship.