In Friendships, Why Is Breaking Up So Hard To Do?

By Kelley Boymer
16 Mar 2022

“There are some friends who simply bring out the best in you. Even though you are both thoroughly imperfect, you inspire each other to do the right thing and to keep moving into higher levels of growth. Their light makes what is already good inside of you shine much more brightly.”

Yung Pueblo

I think back on my relationships and feel so incredibly grateful for the nourishing, loving, compassionate, vulnerable, trustworthy, authentic, meaningful, and ever-evolving friendships that I have developed over the years. Some developing in recent months and others lasting over 25 years, they are all so special and meaningful in my life. 

I also feel nostalgia, sadness and gratitude thinking about those that have come in and out of my life. I’m a girl’s girl through and through. I could not live without my female friendships. They have been there for me through thick and thin and continue to be one of the most important parts of my life. These friendships have evolved over the years from elementary school play dates to learning how to apply clear mascara and roll on glitter to sharing secrets about crushes. In high school and college these friendships changed as we grew into young women navigating romantic relationships, awkward social situations and discovering our place in the world. Now in my thirties many of my friendships are people I work with or share similar interests with and fellow mothers. Being able to connect with these women on both small day-to-day things to the more complex and bigger issues of life are so vital to staying sane. There are things that we don’t want to or can’t discuss with family and partners, and that is one of the many benefits of friendship.

I listened to a few podcasts recently that sparked some thoughts on friendships.

In NPR’s most recent season of Invisibilia they dig into a “relationship that doesn’t typically get as much attention in our culture: the joyful, complicated, overwhelming and messy power of friendship.” We Can Do Hard Things a podcast by Glennon Doyle also recently addressed this topic, discussing How Do We Make–and Keep–Good Friends? 

It got me thinking…

Why do we hang on to friendships that aren’t serving us, especially when we wouldn’t do this in a romantic or family relationship?

Maybe we do this to avoid conflict at all expense. Or maybe it’s to avoid awkwardness in the future. Whatever reason it is, it can’t be worse than forcing a relationship that clearly isn’t worth it for either party.

And on the opposite end of the spectrum…

Why do we ghost friends instead of having a “break-up” conversation like we would with a boyfriend or girlfriend?

I have been guilty of ghosting friends in the past. It got to the point in our friendship where things didn’t feel right. I felt like I was forcing a friendship that was no longer serving me. I was maintaining that relationship so I would not hurt anyones feelings. Instead of having an awkward or difficult conversation, I avoided and slowly disappeared from those friendships. I may have left those individuals feeling confused and hurt. Or maybe they were relieved because they were feeling the same way. Who knows? But after speaking with friends, I’ve found that this happens a lot more than we might think. Why is this so common and why do so many of us fall victim to this sad friendship fade-out?

Why don’t we address the elephant in the room when we feel hurt or hurt a friend?

When my students would come to me in tears sharing their experience of friendship betrayal, my eyes would well up with empathy. Even those experiences that happened years ago felt like it could have been yesterday. I still feel that ping of hurt when excluded from a walk or a dinner out with a group of friends. And it always surprises me when I think, gosh shouldn’t I be over this by now?

Instead of telling our friends we are hurt, maybe we lay low for a while, or maybe we’re a little passive aggressive. Eventually we move on without addressing the elephant in the room. But sometimes those feelings linger. Why is it so hard to be honest about our hurt? Or apologize for leaving someone out when you know you hurt them?

What makes a friendship meaningful and authentic?

Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close by Aminatou Sow & Ann Friedman written by two best friends explores the history of their messy yet life affirming friendship and outlines what it takes to maintain meaningful friendships.

As written by Sow and Friedman, a “Big Friendship” is…

  • A bond of great strength, force, and significance that transcend life phases, geography, and emotional shifts
  • Large in dimension, affecting most aspects of each person’s life.
  • Full of meaning and resonance.
  • Reciprocal, with both parties feeling worthy of each other and willing to give of themselves in generous ways.
  • Active and hearty.
  • Mature–its advanced age commanding respect and predicting its ability to last far into the future.

Yung Pueblo a meditator, writer and speaker writes about the qualities of a deep friend connection…

  • Laughter is abundant
  • Honesty is encouraged
  • Vulnerability is welcomed
  • Support is real and active
  • You can put your guard down
  • You inspire eachother to grow
  • You give each other good advice
  • They help during times of struggle
  • Both of you feel stronger together

Why do we neglect to give these significant relationships in our lives the courtesy of a “break-up” and why do we cling to the relationships that no longer serve us? Maybe because society has failed to give friendships the same social guidelines we understand and expect with romantic/family relationships. There’s this grey area where we don’t know how to move forward when things get weird.

What if we reset the narrative by speaking up if you’re feeling hurt in a friendship? These conversations can be powerful and transformative. Maybe they make the bond stronger or maybe it helps you realize it’s time to move on. Either way, there is no harm in trying to have an honest conversation with a friend coming from a place of love and wanting to heal, whether that is together or apart.

Do you have deep “big friend” connections? Have you found a way to have hard conversations with friends if you’ve been hurt or did you end a friendship that wasn’t serving you? Let us know in the comments.

“Some friends deserve a whole chapter in the story of life. Things wouldn’t be as good if they had not been around to support you through unbearable storms and to tell you those few hard truths that helped your evolution. Their essential light made your life shine undeniably brighter.”

Yung Pueblo

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  1. Brittany Coppola wrote:

    Thank you for posting about this! I have had a few friendship breakups, I’ve experienced and also ghosted friends. In 2021 I had a terrible falling out with a friend, we got into a big fight, and part of the reason we got into a big fight is because she really wronged me, but there had been this build up of tons of frustration and anxiety that I had been experiencing throughout the course of our entire friendship: she was jealous of me, she didn’t truly support me, I often wondered how genuinely she actually liked me or if she was just using me as a crutch to get through business school, her breakup with her boyfriend, the pandemic, etc. I was giving so much energy and time to her, and I tried to set limits throughout the duration of our friendship. This big fight we had was just truly the last straw, and I’m not proud of my behavior or what I said. We did have one final chat to end things – it was nice to get that closure, but the conversation was very difficult and uncomfortable. I was not surprised, but disappointed, that she was not able to understand that our big fight was a symptom of underlying fissures that I had tried to bring up before.

    I think about this friend from time to time, and sometimes she visits me in my dreams. I feel a sense of nostalgia for the good times – she was such an interesting, curious, eccentric person who I really did connect with in a lot of ways. The times I am tempted to send her a ‘hope you are well’ text, I remember that it’s stupid to reach out or spend mental ram on someone who was ultimately never a true friend to begin with, despite the good times and tender moments we did share. I’ve moved past a point of being bitter, and my quality of life really did improve once she was no longer in it – which weirdly made me more sad. All of this is to say, friendships are tough and require maintenance and work, and it’s not something we talk about enough.

    3.16.22 | Reply
    • Stacia wrote:

      Sigh, reading this I realized that I could have written these words myself about a long-term friendship that I am moving away from for similar reasons. It is helpful to hear from you that your quality of life improved – that happened almost immediately for me (a sense of relief) once I decided that it is in my own best interest to put this friendship in the rear-view mirror. I am now at the point where I have to decide if the ‘break up talk’ is going to be helpful for either one of us. This particular friend has a completely different communication style than I do so I suspect that whatever I say to her will be misinterpreted – leaving the conversation possibly more harmful than helpful… I have also accepted the fact that sometimes people change in ways that do not serve a long-term relationship. This has been hard for me to understand as I am a very loyal person (most of my friends are either life-long or decades long and I don’t give up easily).

      3.18.22 | Reply
      • Great point, Stacia! Sometimes that talk can be more harmful vs. helpful if you know in advance that individual isn’t going to be open to it. Also so nice to hear that you were able to move on and feel a sense of relief and happiness in your decision to move on from a friendship.

        3.21.22 | Reply
    • Thank you for sharing, Brittany. Breakups with friends can be just as heartbreaking as a breakup in a romantic relationship. Similarly there are always things you still love and miss about that person but in the end you know when something just wasn’t meant to be. Hopefully you can find peace in appreciating the friendship you had and also moving forward and learning from it in your future friendships.

      3.21.22 | Reply
  2. Erin wrote:

    I ended a friendship late last year – the first one I had actually ended and not just ghosted. I’d known her for 20+ years, but hadn’t had any real interactions with her in probably 12 years. I found myself lying every time she came to town so that I didn’t have to see her, and she had become very condescending about my liberal political and social views. When I told her that I appreciated the memories we had together from college, but it was time to move in separate directions, she got really nasty and then tried to get my mom intervene. It just showed me that I had made the right decision, even if it was difficult to have that conversation.

    3.18.22 | Reply
    • Wow, so brave of you, Erin, to face that head on and unfortunate that it backfired on you! I’m sure the individual was acting out of hurt and maybe will come to appreciate your honesty in the future.

      3.21.22 | Reply
  3. Amy wrote:

    I have had a friendship “break up” and while it was the right thing to do, it was still hard. I wonder to this day how we would have evolved had I not stood up for myself and let the prevailing issue slide.

    More recently, during the pandemic- I have been ghosted by friends and I think I would rather have been “broken up” with so that I could have time to grieve the friendship and move on. Instead I am left wondering what happened.

    To round this out, I made a pledge to speak up when I’ve been hurt. I did so recently and it ended up with me being gaslit about what had hurt me. It also made me reevaluate the friendship as a whole.

    Adult friendships- they are tough!

    3.18.22 | Reply
    • They can be so tough, but also so special. These conversations are so hard to have but do often provide the closure or information we need to move forward in a relationship. It sounds like you have worked hard to prioritize the tough conversations. I do think the pandemic has changed people’s perspectives and priorities and this may have caused shifts in friendships as well. Focus on those friendships that feel loving and nourishing to you!

      3.21.22 | Reply

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