Friendships are meant to be a source of joy and support. Good friends share your victories, console you on your losses, and do their best to keep it real at all times.
But sometimes, even the closest of twosomes turns toxic. In times like those, breakup cliches like “it’s not you, it’s me” fall flat – so how can you gracefully step away from a duo that’s gone south or run its course?
Below are six tips to help you navigate a friendship split:
1. Pinpoint the major issues in the friendship
When you end a romantic relationship, there’s often a specific reason (infidelity, for example, or trouble communicating). But when it comes to friendship schisms, unless there was a deep betrayal, the catalyst may be harder to pinpoint.
If you're struggling to put your feelings about the friendship into words, take time to intentionally reflect: What is it that's made the dynamic unhealthy to the point of needing separation?
The issue(s) might be something like:
- Unrelenting conflict in the friendship
- You’re both in different places in your lives, and/or you've outgrown the friendship
- The things or lifestyle choices that initially bonded you are no longer prevalent in your life
- You don’t like how you act when you’re hanging out with them, or feel like you have to fit inside a certain “box”
- They are overly dependent on you, to the point where you feel emotionally drained every time you hang out
Once you have a clearer picture of where you're at, you can decide the best next steps. (More on that below!)
2. Decide whether you want to end the friendship immediately, or phase the break over time
Assuming you have a firm grasp on why you want to end the friendship, you can decide whether it calls for an immediate ending or a more gradual parting of ways.
Ending the friendship immediately
Let's say you feel deeply betrayed, and need some space ASAP. In cases like this, it's wisest to call the friendship off (at least until further notice). Skip to #3 for more tips on how to actually navigate the breakup conversation.
For other scenarios where there's no single causative reason to end the friendship, it could be a matter of implementing stronger boundaries as you ease out of it.
Phasing out of a friendship
Maybe your friendship has ongoing, unhealthy patterns rather than one causative concern. For example, your friend might consistently lean on you for emotional support, which can make for a draining dynamic on your end. If that's the case, you can start putting up healthy walls now to protect and distance yourself from unhealthy patterns.
Try putting your phone into DnD mode after a certain hour, shifting away from one-on-ones to group hangouts, and learning a few key boundary-setting phrases like “I’d rather not discuss this.”
Note that while these are all gentle ways to phase out of an unhealthy friendship, you shouldn't ghost your pal altogether! Rather, when you've created healthy distance, you can have a clear, level-headed conversation about why you've decided to step away.
3. Keep the confrontation cordial, and use "I feel" statements
When you're ready to have the breakup conversation with your friend, keep it respectful and courteous. Doing so will go a long way, both now and if you cross paths again.
You're not pointing fingers here, but rather, explaining how the friendship has made you feel, and why you need to step away.
Keep in mind that what you say will have a direct effect on your friend's feelings! For example, consider the differences between these two sentences:
- “You’re too self-centered."
- “I feel like we talk a disproportionate amount about your personal problems, and there’s not enough emotional space for me in our friendship.”
Whereas the first is a hurtful accusation, the second is an "I feel" statement that avoids casting direct blame. Sticking with "I feel" statements avoids blame, and steers the focus to yourself and your own needs. After all, nobody can contradict your emotions or needs.
Try a variation of these statements for the actual breakup, depending on your situation:
- “I feel like I’m moving towards a new direction, and need to focus on myself.”
- "I'm feeling too hurt by everything that's happened to continue hanging out, and need some time and space to heal."
- "I'm having a hard time navigating the conflict in our friendship, and I need a break for my own peace of mind."
Above all else? Stay kind. "This is a good time for the Golden Rule," says Dr. Kristin Davin, a psychologist in New York City who specializes in navigating relationships.
While the friendship might have run its course, your friend did once hold an important role in your life. They deserve to be treated with respect and compassion accordingly.
4. Consider consulting with a therapist before making the split
Often, when you’re in the middle of an issue with someone, having a neutral party ask questions or give feedback is helpful for shifting your own perspective.
It’s easy to get lost in the toxic details, but having a professional support you in your thoughts of breaking up may be helpful. You may even find that a full-blown breakup isn’t the way to go – you might learn to more effectively communicate your own needs if you feel like the relationship is one-sided, for example.
And if it does become apparent that you need a friendship breakup, you’ll already have the support of a professional to cope with the emotional aftermath. There may be residual guilt, anger, or resentment about the friendship that a therapist can help you work through.
5. Give your mutual friends a heads up about what’s going on
If the two of you have a lot of friends in common, chances are your larger group will notice something is up. Keeping them in the loop will squash any confusion (not to mention, speculative gossip).
"Doing so not only demonstrates to your other friends that your relationship with them remains important, but also that you recognize changes in friendships can be tricky," says Dr. Davin. And taking a healthy and proactive approach to maintaining your relationship with others shows how much you still value them in your life.
You don’t have to go into too much detail about the split, of course. You can paint the picture with an open manner, like:
- "I’ll be seeing less of [friend’s name], but I don’t want this to affect your relationship with each other! Please don’t feel like you have to take sides."
- "I might be taking some space from our bigger friend group, but I’d still love to see you for one-on-one or smaller gatherings."
If there’s a lot of overlap in your shared friend group, don’t be afraid to take this time to meet new people, too. Take up a new hobby, like joining a book club or dodgeball team, or reconnect with old friends who are outside your main crew.
6. If helpful, agree to check in with each other down the line
Just like with break-ups from romantic partners, you may still have feelings about your friend. Positive feelings, feelings of closeness, and remaining intimacy are common after a breakup with a friend.
If you think it would be helpful to check in with your previous pal every once in a while, plan ahead during the split for any potential future communication.
Lay out mutual limits, like that you’ll check in with each other via text in three months, or agree to have a phone call if something major happens.
As the song goes, breaking up is hard to do – and friendship breakups can be just as devastating as romantic ones (if not more so!).
Taking time to honor any emotions that may arise, being proactive about mutual social encounters, and treating yourself extra kindly in the coming weeks or months can help make the process a gentler one.