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By Lindsay Goodlin,
Licensed Clinical Social Worker
June 23, 2019
When and How to Break Up with a Friend
Many years ago, I was sitting in a coffee shop when I overheard a conversation between two people that caught my attention. The pair were friends and they were discussing a third person that both of them had known. The conversation was around whether or not this third person should be allowed to come back into their lives; they had a shared history but were also disappointed in her behavior and were not sure they wanted to re-open the door to their friendship.
As I was hearing their debate, I noticed another woman who was also listening in. Eventually, she chimed in and shared her perspective that there are different types of friendships that we can experience. She explained, “there are friends for reasons, friends for seasons, and friends for life”. This rang true to me and has stuck with me since hearing it that day in the coffee shop.
The Friendship Problem
We might think of friendship “problems” as something only belonging to children or teenagers, but adults are also susceptible to feeling hurt, left out, and rejected by their peers. This can be compounded by the fact that adults often have a harder time making new and deep friendships. As adults, we no longer have the same embedded social opportunities as the school years provided. In addition, our jobs, family obligations, and other responsibilities mean that we typically have less time to engage in social activities.
Being disappointed or betrayed by a friend can truly hurt at any age and we are not always well-equipped to handle these situations. I am hearing more and more in my therapy practice about people who are struggling with how to manage feelings around being let down, toxic friends, and having trouble building and maintaining quality friendships.
Why We Break Up with Partners but Not Friends
When we are in a dating relationship and things are not going well, we eventually part ways with that person in search of a better fit. In fact, there are a plethora of examples of this in our media and in conversations we have with our friends (and, in my case, clients). If we can break up with a partner who no longer makes us happy, why are we less likely to break up with a friend in the same scenario?
One reason is that most people will only engage in one committed relationship at a time but it is culturally acceptable and encouraged to have multiple friendships. This means if one friend is not meeting all of our needs, we can find another one (and another, and another) to fill in the gaps. This in and of itself is actually very positive; especially because we are unlikely to have all our needs met by any one person.
Another reason we may be less likely to say goodbye to friends is that many friendships occur within a group context. You may have a group you’ve been hanging out with since high school, or maybe it’s your ‘mom’ friends, or the coworkers you spend time with outside of the office. When something happens with one of the members of the group, saying goodbye to that person may not be realistic and it may also mean disrupting other relationships within that same group.
We also keep friends around out of habit. These are typically the friends we have had for years but we can no longer really remember or identify what we share in common. These are also the friends who, if we met them today, we would not choose to have a relationship with.
Lastly, we may not break up with our friends, simply because we don’t know how and it is a difficult thing to do. Walking away from any relationship, even ones that aren’t good for us, is hard. We do not have a ton of examples of how to dissolve a friendship and it can be challenging to know how to approach this.
Types of Friendship
Identifying and accepting that not all friends are meant to be in our lives forever, allows us to appreciate the time we have with those people but then to let go when it comes time to say goodbye. Taking a page out of my coffee shop encounter, here are three types of friendships that you may have in your life.
Friends for Reasons
Friends for reasons are the friends that leave a lasting impression on our life even though they are only part of it for a brief time. These friends show up for a purpose and they often teach us something about our self that helps us grow. I have a friend, for example, who once showed me a photo of her wedding party “this friend’s purpose was to introduce me to my husband” she shared. She was no longer in touch with her bridesmaid but the relationship had left a lifelong imprint on my friend’s life.
Friends for reasons can also be friends you have in a very specific part of your life. For example, if you play a sport you might have friends you get together to play with but do not see under other circumstances.
Friends for Seasons
A season can be a week, a month, or years but it always comes to an end. Friends for Seasons are the friends you make on vacation, at camp, or in College. These friendships can be a ton of fun and they can also run deep, but they do not extend past their time. Friends for Seasons may also be related to a time period in your life but do not work the same way as you grow and develop. For example, you might make amazing friends in your twenties but those relationships might fade once you settle down, have kids, and life’s priorities change.
Friends for Life
Friends for life should be those who we can rely on, who love and accept you, and who you feel add value to your life. These friends are very special and you are lucky if you can identify even a couple of them. We may sometimes confuse friends who are really for reasons or seasons as belonging to this category because they have been around for so long; but, what truly makes a friend for life is not just the length of time you’ve known them, but the quality of your relationship.
The Break Up
Now that we have identified why it is hard to let go of friendships and the types of friends we have, we can start to think about (or maybe you already know) which friends may no longer be adding value to our lives. Depending on how you know someone, there are different ways to dissolve a friendship.
The first way is to allow the friendship to dissolve slowly by reaching out less and maintaining distance. This might be best in situations where you are going to see this person and want to keep things cordial. The other option is to be direct with your friend and tell them why you have decided to end the relationship. This option might be harder to do; however, in certain situations it is the right thing.
Typically it is best to be honest. That doesn’t mean you have to rehash all of your history, but sharing with someone that you have been hurt by their behavior or that you are looking for a different type of friend at this stage of your life is okay. It might even help that person to grow and become a better friend going forward.
Whatever you decide to do, remember that life is short, your time is valuable, and it is better to have fewer high quality friends than many who do not add to your happiness.
About the Author
Lindsay Goodlin is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker with twelve years of experience. After graduating with a Masters of Social Work, Lindsay went on to complete a Clinical Fellowship at UC Berkeley and has since worked in medical, eating disorder, mental health and addiction programs. Lindsay’s approach is strengths-based and she draws primarily from Mindfulness and Cognitive Behavioral Therapy approaches to help her clients live happier, healthier lives. Lindsay currently offers therapy and clinical supervision to people across California in her private online therapy practice. Lindsay also provides consultation to technology companies, trainings and groups, and regularly produces articles for her blog and other publications. You can learn more about Lindsay Goodlin at www.