Jenny and Rachel have been best friends since the first day of kindergarten. And Jacob has been hanging out with the same group of friends since college.
We love the idea of having friends for life.
There’s an idyllic quality to having the same friendships for decades. But sometimes this unrealistic expectation – that our friendships should last forever — keeps us clinging to people long after the friendship has run its course.
Not all friendships last a lifetime—and that’s OK
Long-time friends like Jenny and Rachel have been through a lot together. They’ve anchored each other through teenage angst, countless boyfriends, the birth of their children, the end of Rachel’s marriage, and the death of Jenny’s mother. But now, in their 40’s, they seem to have little in common – except a shared past.
Rachel feels drained by Jenny’s constant need for reassurance. She’s tried to be a good listener and sounding board, but Jenny has responded to her empathy with abrupt and judgmental comments. Rachel feels guilty about ignoring Jenny’s texts, but she also knows talking to Jenny leaves her feeling hurt and angry.
When is it time to end a friendship?
Friends should bring positive qualities like support, laughter, fun, and empathy into your life – at least most of the time. Yes, conflict is a part of every relationship and an occasional disagreement doesn’t mean your friendship is doomed. When differences of opinion and hurt feelings are dealt with openly and respectfully, they can make friendships stronger.
So, how do you know when a friendship is no longer healthy? Here are a few signs that a relationship is more harmful than healthy — and it may be time to end the friendship.
Signs of an unhealthy friendship
- You feel like you’ve grown apart. You no longer have much in common in terms of interests or values
- Your friend routinely takes more than she gives. She isn’t supportive, always needs something from you, but doesn’t return the favor
- Your friend asks you to do things you don’t feel comfortable with (perhaps, asking you to lie to her husband)
- You walk on eggshells around your friend, fearful of upsetting or disappointing her
- Your friend is mean, harsh, overly critical, or gossips about you (especially after you’ve asked him to stop and explained how hurtful it is)
- Your friend betrayed you or hurt you in a major way and hasn’t apologized, taken responsibility, or changed
- You have recurring arguments that never get resolved
- Spending time with your friend feels like an obligation rather than a gift
- You feel like you can’t be yourself around him
Ending a friendship is a big decision. It’s painful to recognize that a friendship can’t be salvaged and that you’d be happier without this person in your life. You can use the questions that follow to help you figure out whether you need to end a friendship, take a break, or distance yourself.
Questions to help you decide whether it’s time to end a friendship
As you use these questions to reflect on your friendship, be sure that you’re thinking about the present. It’s easy to remember the good times you’ve shared in the past, but don’t let that influence your feelings about what is going on right now. You’re trying to decide if this is a healthy friendship for you now.
- Do I look forward to seeing or talking to him?
- Do I have fun when we get together?
- What positive things does this friendship add to my life?
- Do I feel like she respects and appreciates me?
- Can I count on her to be there for me?
- Does spending time with him bring out the best in me?
- Is there a mutual give and take in this relationship or do I feel like I’m doing all the giving?
- Have I expressed my concerns? What have I done to try to improve our relationship? Is it possible for the friendship to be saved?
- How long have I felt this way? How long have these issues been going on?
- Would it make sense to see less of him or take a break?
Ending a friendship doesn’t make you a bad person
It’s important to remember that it’s not bad or mean to end a relationship. Your primary responsibility is to yourself – to your wellbeing. You have to do what’s right for you.
Unfortunately, sometimes that’s in conflict with what other people want you to do, but you have to take care of yourself. Choosing the “right” friends and surrounding yourself with supportive, positive people who treat you well is an act of self-care and it’s emotionally healthy.
The end of a relationship (and potentially needing to hurt your friend’s feelings by breaking up with her) can trigger guilt (the feeling that you’ve done something wrong) and shame (the feeling that you are wrong/bad/unworthy). Shame, even more so than guilt, can make us reluctant to end a relationship, even when it’s quite unhealthy.
To overcome feelings of shame and guilt, reassure yourself that the end of a friendship isn’t a failure or a sign of your inadequacies. It’s a normal occurrence, although one that people don’t often talk about.
Give yourself permission to do what’s right for you.
How to break-up with a friend
Breaking up is hard, whether it’s a romantic relationship or a friendship. And it’s quite possible that you haven’t had any practice or role models to show you how to break free of an unhealthy friendship. Here are a few guidelines, that I hope will be helpful. The approach that feels right to you will depend on your and your friend’s personalities and the reasons for ending the relationship.
Let it fade away. Sometimes friendships die off naturally as our life circumstances change (you change jobs, you have children, you move, etc.) and people drift apart. You can try to speed up this process by not being as available as you once were (declining invitations to get together, being slower to respond to texts, etc.).
Sometimes this passive approach works well, and you gradually see less and less of each other, and other friends and activities will fill in the gap. Other times, we need or want to address the issues directly and make a clean break.
The face-to-face break-up. This is a tough conversation to have, but it does provide an opportunity for closure and clarity. If you’re sure you want to end a friendship, it’s not nice to beat around the bush, give mixed messages, be passive-aggressive, or lead someone on. The kindest and most effective approach is to be direct, stay on topic, and calmly tell your friend how you feel and what you want. Don’t be overly critical or judgmental; try to focus on the problems in the relationship not the problems you see in your friend.
Example: “Jenny, I’ve been struggling with our friendship lately. I feel like our lives are going in different directions and our friendship doesn’t seem the same. I’ve thought a lot about what I need, and I’ve realized that our friendship isn’t working for me. I don’t think it’s possible for our friendship to be what it used to be, so I think it’s best that we part ways.”
Your former friend may feel angry, confused, and sad, which is pretty normal. You can respond to her feelings with empathy, but you aren’t responsible for “fixing” them or the relationship. Remember, this conversation is to let her know you’re ending the relationship, not to rehash everything that’s gone wrong and try to fix it.
Example: “I understand that you’re upset with me. This is really hard. However, this is what I need to do for myself right now. I hope that we can both take care of ourselves.”
In a perfect world, we could all have these kinds of conversations respectfully, but sometimes having a face-to-face conversation about sensitive issues isn’t the best idea. If your friend is volatile, you’re afraid of her reaction, or you think discussing it with her will only make it worse, then opt-out of the face-to-face conversation.
An email or phone call may be viable options, but again, trust your instincts about whether you think it will be helpful or harmful.
Make a clean break. If this is an emotionally abusive, toxic, or codependent friendship, you may need to cut things off immediately without any explanation. In these situations, you need to make a clean break, or you risk getting sucked back into your former friend’s drama and manipulation. So, once you’ve set your boundaries, you need to enforce them.
Social media makes this harder than it used to be because there are so many ways to stay in touch (even without direct contact). You will need to unfriend, unfollow, and block contact with this person if the friendship is really going to die off. This can feel harsh, but I assure you it’s necessary with people who don’t respect boundaries, are very needy, manipulative, or are emotionally unstable.
Take care of yourself
Ending a friendship is emotionally taxing. It’s difficult to make the decision to break-up with a friend, have a difficult conversation, and enforce your boundaries. You’re also grieving the loss of your friend.
Even if this friendship hasn’t been fulfilling lately, your friend was once an important part of your life. It’s sad to have this relationship, and all that it once was, come to an end. With this in mind, be sure to take extra good care of yourself so you can heal and recover from the loss of this friendship.