There are laws and lavish protocols for getting a divorce or terminating a business partnership. We even have rules for disinheriting our children. But how on earth do we go about breaking up with a friend?
For young people it’s less complicated: You just stop hanging out with them, or you unfriend them on Facebook and they figure it out. Yet at our age, when we’ve been friends with people for decades, it’s not so bloodlessly accomplished.
I have plenty of wonderful new friends, and those relationships are based on grown-up shared interests and tastes. But I also have a lot of “old” friends — that expression has taken on a second, less-flattering connotation in recent years — many dating back to grade school, college, my former jobs and various pursuits.
Over the years, those friendships have been the source of some of my deepest joys and closest bonds. When you don’t have a live-in partner or children at home, friends can be closer and more important than family. And when those relationships are good, they’re very good. But when they go awry, it can be horrible.
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How to Divorce a Friend
This might be truer of women, but waking up to the reality that spending time with a certain person has become sheer torture is in itself torturous. We feel so responsible, and guilty, for our feelings and theirs that we sometimes get paralyzed and wind up wasting yet another night listening to their needle-in-groove tales of woe or, worse, all-night brag sessions about their fabulous lives. Or, less dramatically, we suffer through entire dinner parties of boring chitchat or gossip that has zero relevance to our own lives and interests.
Not everyone wusses out like that, but I suspect most of us (women, anyway) have endured way more hours in the company of boring/toxic/clueless friends than we care to admit. But one of the great benefits of aging is the shift in values we experience. Unlike in our teens, 20s and 30s, when we needed friends and social groups and would put up with a lot to be accepted, in midlife we have a stronger sense of who we are and what we enjoy as well as what we cannot tolerate.
At midlife the ticking of the clock gets a little louder — and more urgent. We become aware that we don't want to waste our time on unsatisfying things — and we don’t have to! And while it’s easy to say no to invitations and activities we clearly dislike, letting go of an old friend is still tough. There’s a haunting sense that we’ve put a lot of time, energy and ourselves in that relationship. It’s hard to walk away from any investment.
Having raised kids or taken vacations or suffered through the same 11th-grade chemistry class together or been drinking-and-bitching-about-our-love-life buddies isn’t strong enough glue to hold together a mature adult friendship. Life’s too short to suffer fools (or boredom). The time has come to say buh-bye to those who drag us down or hold us back.
With some people, there will be a natural attrition, and lack of contact will eventually cause the connection to end. But others — usually the most toxic of them — are tenacious and never get the hint that you’re not interested in staying friends, and you have to come out and tell them in so many words.
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5 Rules of Disengagement
Over the years, I “unfriended” a handful of people for the reasons mentioned above. It was never easy, and each situation was different, but I was comfortable with the outcome. Still, to gain more skills should this come up again, I reached out to Jan Yager, a friendship coach, sociologist and author of four books, including When Friendship Hurts and Friendshifts, who shared this advice.
- Explore whether the friendship could, or should, be salvaged. If you’re still on the fence, do a “cost analysis” of the relationship. For example, is your main connection just “nostalgia,” or is this someone with whom you have mutual friends (making future group activities awkward if you end the friendship)? Try to determine whether you’ll feel only temporary relief and might actually miss her or him in the future.
- Talk it out. Before you take irrevocable and potentially hurtful action, suggest a get-together on neutral ground to discuss what's bothering you. Letting her know what doesn't sit right with you might actually help to shift her behavior. Or it could turn out that your friend is going through something you didn’t know about — or is angry about some forgotten thing you did to her.
- See if the friendship naturally disintegrates. Most failing or weakened relationships don’t have dramatic flare-ups, so letting it peter out may be a better alternative to having a verbal confrontation. Most people will catch on eventually.
- Prepare your “speech.” No matter what the circumstance, make the break in as kind and caring a way as you’d want it done to you. Make it clear that you’re not rejecting your friend — just the way you interact. Praise what you like about her, but explain that you believe this is the best course of action. If you’re equivocating or she gets overly emotional, you could say, “Let's take a little break and revisit our friendship in six months and see if things have changed.” If this person did something you can’t forgive, calmly point that out and let her know you need time to heal and rethink your friendship.
- Plan ahead. Break up in person, but carefully consider whether to unfriend or unlink with them on social media sites. If you have mutual friends, you might need to let them know of your changed status with this person. If you both live in the same small community or work in the same field, be prepared to be polite should you bump into her at the store or an industry event. You don’t need to share any personal information, but be cordial and friendly. If this friend persists in reaching out to you, let the calls go to voicemail and the messages go unanswered. If that doesn’t work, you may have to tell her, politely but firmly, that you don’t wish to have further contact.
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