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Getting Through a Friendship Breakup

A 29-year-old tells me for the past four months she has been mourning a friendship breakup with her best friend.

“Is it normal for people to take so long to deal with the loss of a friendship?” she wonders in one session.

I’ve written before about friendships, about how they can be a stabilizing force during important life transitions. As we grow up, our narrative of relationships often moves from ‘family of origin’ to ‘family of choice’. The people we surround ourselves with often become our primary support system, particularly as it becomes more and more common to live far away from blood relatives. We consciously choose to invest in and develop our relationships with these friends based on their supportive qualities.

In India, this takes on added significance. Within a culture that places value on blood ties and arranged marriage, friendships are truly the relationships we choose for ourselves. As such, they are often a deeper source of empowerment and vulnerability than we realise. Age can also be a factor of intensity; for teens, friendships can be keenly felt, not just because teens are known to be emotional roller coasters, but because at this age, friendships are their way of exploring independence and establishing a network outside parental authority, an important developmental milestone on their way to becoming functional adults.

Because of this, when these friendships end, we sense a loss that shakes our sense of equilibrium and leaves a vacuum in our lives. The rituals that once stabilized us – the weekly phone calls, the exercise dates, the coffee meet-ups – seem to haunt us. Like phone calls at a certain time, your best friend being your speed dial, Sunday morning run and even others remind you about it. Like at your regular coffee store, the server may check or ask about your ex- best friend or in cases if you are part of the same social circle.

As Irene Levine, the author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Break With Your Best Friend, puts it, “One of the things that makes [a friend break-up] really difficult is that there is no one to talk to about it. The person you’d most want to talk to is the person you broke up with.”

This friendship breakup often seems like losing a part of our own selves, so intimately are our meaning and well-being linked to these relationships. And it compounds with age. When we are younger, we see broad and likely prospects of making new friends and meeting new people; but as we grow older, our ability and resources to explore new relationships from scratch are limited. Our different roles as, say, a parent, spouse, professional, etc., leave us with little time or energy to invest in new relationships.

A friendship breakup can have many causes. Some friendships end in a gradual drifting apart. Sometimes people or obligations – like a new baby, or spouses that don’t get along – get in the way; other times, miscommunication or a betrayal of secrets can end a friendship. The loss can leave us with sadness, but also, depending on the circumstances, with a lack of faith in our ability trust,  or perhaps feelings of betrayal, which can manifest as anger or resentment.

Acknowledging the loss and engaging in self-care can help us move past these emotions toward healing. Stifling or ignoring our grief, pain or betrayal, keeps us stuck in the moment of loss and can sometimes spread to negatively affect our other friendships. So consider the friendship breakup an opportunity to be mindful and reflect without getting into a blame game.

Also consider – is the friendship truly lost? As David Whyte says, “All friendships of any length are based on a continued mutual forgiveness. Without tolerance and mercy, all friendships die.” Perhaps it is our turn to extend that forgiveness first. Particularly in the case of ‘growing apart,’ one small gesture can enliven a friendship. Take a step forward and have an open conversation with your friend – without a scorecard in mind.

However, the key is always mutuality. As mature adults, it is important to know when we are consistently receiving less than we are giving to a relationship. When a friendship truly is at an end, we need to make choices about what closure means. Letting go with bitter feelings still in your heart is not closure, really. But letting go with good wishes for your friend, a little prayer, maybe, and acknowledgement of all the good times, allows us to heal. Remember, our ability to keep our hearts open to other friendships or invest more with another friend is not a sign that the relationship with the BFF didn’t matter. It’s a sign that we still have hope and choose to give friendship another chance.

If you do find yourself struggling with overwhelming negative feelings after a friendship breakup, feelings such as blaming yourself or noticing a pattern of losing your closest friendships, do invest time in learning to understand and manage your emotions with the help of a professional psychologist.

My 29-year-old client also asked me: “Do you see others in therapy, who may reach out because of this [a friendship break-up]?”

The reason we seek friends in the first place, the comfort we find in them, is also the very thing that heals us after a lost relationship: the knowledge that we are all struggling, we are all vulnerable, and we are all going through life together; we are not alone, even when we feel like it.

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