When speaking about breakups, we normally think about romantic relationships — there’s a fight, a betrayal, a monumental change, and suddenly the relationship no longer exists. People recognize the pain, the grieving process that can go along with a bad breakup and provide support and encouragement. But much less is said about the breakdown of friendships. Navigating a friendship breakdown can be a painful, lonely process. “People feel like they should have this figured out, and assume that everyone else has this figured out,” Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical therapist who specializes in young adult and adult friendships, explains. “They feel like they are doing something wrong going through friendship breakups.”
Many friendships far outlast romantic relationships — often they even outlast marriages. They can be formative connections that last over decades. But, as with any relationship, people change and things shift. Unfortunately, in a society that prioritizes romantic relationships above all others, there’s often no network or support given to those experience a friendship breakdown. Friendship spats are seen as petty or frivolous — but betrayal and hurt are still betrayal and hurt, no matter what kind of relationship they stem from. And even in cases where two people just drift apart, there can still be that gap and that grief and that loss that we so often associate with breakups.
Friendship breakups hurt way worse than regular breakups…
— Aly (@alyssabethrios) February 16, 2019
In fact, it can be even harder — because there’s not really a language for talking about a friendship breakdown and it’s often not signposted as clearly. “If a sexual relationship breaks down, there’s punctuation there,” Andrew, who lost a friendship of 40 years, explained. “That’s a full stop. You stop having sex, you stop living together, if that’s what you’ve been doing. There’s all this protocol, painful as it is. But there’s none of that when friendships stop because there’s nothing to disentangle. So you’re left alone, and you have to fill in the gaps yourself, replaying all of those conversations you’ve had. Things you might have done or said that landed as a slight on this person. Or were there signs?”
What would be far more useful is if, as a society, we could recognize friendship breakdown as an opportunity in the same way we look at relationship breakdowns. Sure, it’s painful, confusing, and messy — but you’re better off without a relationship that isn’t working and you’ll end up stronger on the other side. “You’ll actually go through a bit of a grief process with it, and that’s okay,” Marni Feuerman, a psychotherapist, explains. “If you feel like you can’t change the toxic friendship situation, it’s okay to mourn it, move on and find relationships that are much more satisfying.” Once we can start to recognize friendships as being as powerful — or even more so — as many romantic relationships, we can start to talk about friendship breakups in a more healthy way and give them the gravity they deserve.