I have been broken up with approximately four times in my entire life. The first three times with guys I dated for an average for 8 months each, who all said twisted versions of the same thing upon our final conversation: “Jen, you’re ... you. Which is great, but just not right for me.”
My heart felt like it was a sponge, getting squeezed by the hand of someone I was starting to fall madly in love with. It took weeks, sometimes months, to feel like my cheery-self again; to feel like I was officially over a person who now received the “ex” label and would be spoken about in a hushed tone when mentioned over brunch.
But the fourth breakup was the one that broke my heart in an unusually painful way. That’s because the breakup wasn’t one from a romantic partner, it was with a best friend.
Last June, a close friend of mine, perhaps my all-time-closest — the kind of friend you meet in your early twenties and practically kiss the ground that you’ve found your forever soul-mate, the one you can rely on to be there for you when you just need someone to talk to on the phone for an hour and a half on a balmy Sunday, or come to an event you’re hosting because you’re scared no one else will show up, and vice versa — looked me in the eye and told me that she didn’t want to be my friend anymore.
“I’m sorry,” I blurted out, sticking a finger inside my ear to make sure it wasn’t blocked with ear wax. I wanted to make sure I heard these words correctly. “You don’t want to be friends anymore?”
My best friend stood there, on the corner of the street, clasped her hands over her mouth and shut her eyes.
Just months before this moment, she and I could be caught laughing in the backseat of Ubers, coming home from Friday nights out, dancing to Bruno Mars while cooking weekday pasta dinners, and traveling to Orlando for Halloween Horror Nights.
Now this was our horror. Or at least mine.
“I just don’t want to be your friend anymore,” she said back, finally.
I didn’t understand. There were hardly any warning signs. The month before she seemed distant, cold and hardly answered me back when I texted or called. That’s why I asked her to meet me one afternoon so that I could see what was going on.
“Jen,” she continued. “It’s not black or white. I just don’t want to be friends and I don’t exactly have a reason why.”
My heart skydived to the pit of my tummy. I begged for an answer as to why. I begged to fix whatever I had done wrong. But she didn't have anything to tell me. No reason. No explanation. Just that the friendship was over.
And as she turned away and left, I sobbed on the corner of Fifth Avenue, and for many days after, even now, almost a year later, my heart aches as I write this.
Why a platonic break up can be worse than a romantic one
If you’ve never had a friend break up with you, spoiler alert: It's a real doozy. It can be worse than a romantic breakup because you feel like you lost your sidekick, your go-to person, your safety blanket. Someone who knows years worth of secrets about you, understands what you’re saying when you’re not saying anything at all, and knows exactly what to do or say to make you feel better.
Unlike romantic relationships, where we always know in the back of our minds that there’s a chance it may not work out, friendship breakups slap us silly; an outcome that we never considered a possibility.
“Given the (supposed) singularity of romantic relationships, we’ve been conditioned to proceed with caution, and to know that people are fickle with their affections. Therefore, while tremendously painful, there are a plethora of reasons to attribute to a romantic breakup that don’t feel like a direct reflection of who we are (ie. they aren't ready to commit etc.),” says Meg Josephson, a psychotherapist in NYC.
Yet, on the other hand, Josephson says that from a young age, we’re bombarded with platitudes about the ability of a strong friendship to withstand all.
“Friends ‘till the end, true blue friends, through thick and thin ... we grow up with the idea that if a friend is a good friend, they will unconditionally accept us and be there,” says Josephson.
Not only could this be why it hits harder, but it also leaves us mentally unprepared to handle the situation. Which is why, when it happens, it can feel all sorts of uncomfortable.
Friends ‘till the end, true blue friends, through thick and thin ... we grow up with the idea that if a friend is a good friend, they will unconditionally accept us and be there.
How to heal if you’ve been dumped by a friend
Dr. Benjamin Ritter, founder of Live for Yourself Consulting and The Breakup Supplement, says that losing a close friend can feel like you are losing a part of yourself and that there are a few immediate things you can do to help yourself heal.
- Box up the old memories. “First, get rid of your memories, at least for now. Anything that reminds you of your ex-friend will feel like a slap in the face,” says Dr. Ritter. “You need to get rid of your photos, gifts, avoid your favorite hangouts, at least for now to give your mind a chance to get used to that person not being around.” This felt familiar as I’ve done this before with exes. But this time, it meant getting rid of clothing that I borrowed from that person, pictures that were all over social media, and even birthday gifts that were given to me. It was hard to let these things go, but what was even harder was unfriending her on social media. I knew that I had to, not just because I didn’t want to look at her life without me in it, but because she was still liking things I posted on Facebook and Instagram, as if our friendship was still going strong. Unfriending her online was the right thing to do since she pressed the unfriend button offline.
- Stay busy. The next thing that Ritter advises is to fill up your free time. “If you spent a lot of time with your ex-friend then you'll have a lot of empty time available,” says Ritter. “Fill that time with things you know you enjoy. If you don't, you may find yourself feeling lonely and focusing on the fact that your friend decided to move on.”
- Conduct a friendship inventory. I made it a point to do a “friendship inventory,” making a list of all the people I considered close friends. Next to their names I wrote down one nice thing I could do for them that month and also reached out to make plans with them, whether in-person if they lived nearby or via Skype if they lived far away, to make sure that our friendship was maintained. After losing a close friend, I wanted to do everything I could to make myself a better friend to those that I cared about.
- Don’t take it personally. The last thing Ritter advises is the hardest. “Don't personalize this. It can be easy to think that if your friend broke up with you, something is wrong with you,” he says. “If you mistreated them you really need to reflect on your actions and self, but the majority of the time in friendship breakups it's just that your friend is on a different path than you. It's not personal and has little to do with who you are, more so, who your friend wants to be.” One thing I did to make sure I remembered this was to do an evaluation of my life and also the qualities that I know I bring to any friendship, plus the ones that I look for in friendships. This helped me understand that quite possibly, one of the reasons why I was broken up with was because our lives were moving in different directions and we shared different values when it came to friendship.
What's the best way to break up with a friend?
The more I told people (other friends and co-workers) what happened to me, the more I realized that not only was I not alone, but that plenty of people have been on both side of the conversation, even as the friendship enders. Which made me think: when the time comes to end a friendship, what’s the best way to do it so that the other person is able to move on quicker and not feel so broken?
Weena Cullins, a Licensed Clinical Marriage and Family Therapist (LCMFT), says it’s important to end relationships that have become unhealthy to avoid fostering bitterness or resentment.
The first step in doing that, Cullins says, is with the truth.
“Sometimes true friends are the only people who are qualified to point out our blind spots, shortcomings and hurtful behavior. Be honest with your friend about your reasons for wanting to break up versus walking away without having the hard conversation,” says Cullins. “Your bravery just might help them develop self-awareness and make corrections for future relationships.”
The other technique she suggests is talking about the bigger picture and explaining your decision.
Friendships are about the dynamic that two people help create; not just one person’s behavior.
“Friendships are about the dynamic that two people help create; not just one person’s behavior. Acknowledge your behaviors and personality traits that contributed to your decision to break off the friendship,” says Cullins. “Your friend will appreciate your objectivity and may be able to receive your feedback with a less defensive posture.”
Almost a year later, I think about that ex-best friend on a weekly basis and wonder what I did to make her want to end our friendship. While I may never get my answers, the experience has been a learning opportunity, reminding me to continue to put effort into being a good friend to those I care about in my life, and teaching me what not to do should the time come when I am the one doing the unfriending.
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