capturing the beautiful calamity of healing in therapy

It’s Okay to Break Up with A Friend

When I reflect on all the breakups I’ve endured, the most challenging ones were not the stereotypical intimate relationships. Far from it. The hardest were the ones with friends- especially those long-lasting ones from childhood- where closeness was fostered over slumber parties and sharing notes, where girlhood bonding mattered more than anything. Most of these didn’t concretely end with a finite statement; they ended by the ambigious means of drifting apart, of losing connection slowly and, oftentimes, unknowingly.

As we grow up, friendships ebb and flow. Frequently, these relationships move to the wayside after adolescence, making room for marriage, careers, and the building of new families. This is not necessarily intentional nor malicious. Our priorities just tend to shift, as we transition into new developmental stages. Where friends defined our existence and identities as youth, we find new ways to cement our self-esteem and personality.

Throughout adulthood, we naturally outgrow people. We move physically, emotionally, and psychologically in different capacities. We hone in our own growth and interests; downtime is less of a luxury than ever before; we are sandwiched between multiple responsibilities on a daily basis. And yet, we live in a society that bombards us with messages about “best friends forever” and never giving up on the people you care about. Betraying the loyalty upholding friendship is unestablished territory- it is so taboo that we don’t even have a term such as a “breakup” to describe it

I always ask clients about their friends, because while we cannot choose the family we are born into, we can choose the friends we associate with. The quality of these relationships is highly revealing of mental health and self-esteem. How friends make a person feel is a telltale sign of the strength of a client’s well-being. In simplistic terms,  a healthy client attracts a healthy subset of friends. He or she values the necessity and joys that come with having a healthy support system. How can we define a healthy friend? It isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach, as nothing in mental health ever is, but “health” in a friendship can generally be perceived as a bond that is inspiring, joyful, and meaningful.

When people enter therapy, the state of their mental health tends to be impaired in some way. Oftentimes, we see people “stuck” in toxic relationships riddled with painful feelings of guilt, anger, and resentment. We are familiar with toxic family and intimate partner dysfunctions- this actually tends to be the bulk of primary distress. However, we rarely breach the subject of toxic friendships. And, yet, more likely than not, as clients grow and develop in their own therapeutic processes, they start finding that certain friendships are getting in their way.

It is fascinating how we assure people romantic love is often fleeting- and that’s okay- without ever mentioning that friendship can be as well. We tell people “never settle for less than you deserve” and then we make disappointed faces when we hear that two friends are no longer close.

But just as we outgrow intimate partners and the differences and conflict supersede the similarities and pleasure, friendships evolve on similar wavelengths. At the end of the day, holding onto something or someone who does not appropriately serve us only harms us. Who served us in high school may not serve us in college, and who served us in college may not serve us in our thirties, and who served us in our thirties may not serve us in our forties. This is the natural process of life, and yet it is a painful, ambiguous grief.

We don’t receive the message that it’s okay to “fizzle out” or appropriately set a boundary with someone with whom we no longer need. Instead, we receive messages that we are selfish, entitled, or bitchy. This is detrimental and damaging to our self-esteem and identities. Loving yourself means treating yourself with respect and, ultimately, treating yourself as a your own best friend.

The outgrowing of friendships is not selfish; it is self-love. You are allowed to put yourself first, and you are allowed to choose who you spend your cherished time with. You are never under obligation to keep a friendship just for the sake of keeping it.

It doesn’t matter how the friendship shifts; it doesn’t matter whether it is a natural drifting apart or a concrete, “I can’t spend time with you any longer.” Each dynamic will warrant its own set of boundaries and communication. What matters is staying true to ourselves. What matters is giving ourselves the gift of positive love and connection.