Let me explain a people puzzle that has always perplexed me:

It’s okay to date.

It’s okay to define a romantic relationship.

It’s okay to re-evaluate a partnership.

It’s okay to breakup.

It’s hard in romantic relationships, but it is okay—if not essential — to be able to date around and then break up when it doesn’t work out.

Why is this not okay with friendships?

Why can’t I date friends?

Why do I feel so bad wanting to re-evaluate friendships?

Why do I feel silly trying to label some friends as ‘best’ friends?

Why do I feel so, so, so bad breaking up with friends?

In romantic relationships we have break-ups all the time—it is considered an important part of finding the right partner. But could you imagine saying to a new friend:

“Um, yeah. It’s been great seeing each other. But I just don’t think we are meant to be. I want to friend break up. It’s not you, it’s me.”

No way. I can’t imagine it.

But here’s the thing: Sometimes we have to break up with friends. End it with frenemies. Stomp out toxic relationships. See if you have one of these before moving on:

  • Do you have a frenemy?
  • Do you have an obligatory friend?
  • Do you have a toxic person in your life?

This is one of the hardest posts I EVER have written. Partially because it is personal to me…

I had a best friend break up with me and it broke my heart.

I recently had to break up with a friend and it felt like death.

It is very rarely talked about.

Okay, so, here I am going to try to make the best of this bad situation. Here’s how you know you need to break up with a friend…

How to Know If You Need a Break Up:

These are the warning signs that a friendship needs to end:

  • You dread seeing them.
  • You feel they undermine you more than support you.
  • There is deception in the relationship—they lie to you.
  • There is self-deception in the relationship—one of you is lying to yourself.
  • You have grown apart and the relationship is dragging on like a slowly dying animal.

Any of these feel familiar? Keep reading.

Option #1: The Talk

You know how in romantic relationships you have “The Talk?” That talk is the pinnacle of nerves, awkwardness and sometimes resolution. “The Talk” usually has a number of goals:

  • To clarify boundaries
  • To define the relationship
  • To see where each person stands
  • To talk about a future

Here’s the great thing about having “The Talk” with friends—it can initiate a break-up talk, it can prepare someone for an imminent break-up, or it can resolve having to break up at all.

You owe it to your friendship to put it all out on the table. The entire goal of “The Talk” is bringing everything to the surface:

friend breakup

  • Hidden resentments
  • Miscommunications
  • Old fights
  • Jealousy
  • Misunderstandings
  • Boundaries

Recommendations:

  • I recommend doing this in person—do not initiate it over text or chat! Everything is better, clearer and easier in person.
  • Go with a goal in mind—do you want to clear something up? Do you want to address something? What would your ideal outcome be?

Option #2: The Break

I think friendships sometimes need breaks. Especially if you just had a very difficult talk, you might need some time away. Breaks can serve to:

  • Give you a fresh perspective
  • Calm down
  • Miss each other
  • Re-evaluate

Here’s the nice thing about breaks–you can take them for whatever reason you are most comfortable with:

It’s Me: You can say that you are really busy and need time.

It’s You: If you feel hurt by your friend’s actions, if you feel there has been jealousy or undermining (see our articles on frenemies and ambivalent relationships), you can say you need time to recover.

It’s Us: Especially after a hard talk, you can tell a friend that you need some distance for both of you to re-evaluate.

Recommendations:

  • I do recommend adding a time component to your break. This will help if you have someone who is not good with boundaries. It also will give you time to re-evaluate without wondering if you should text or contact. Just like in a romantic relationship, defined space can let you take a step back.
  • The terms of your break can be flexible or rigid. You can say, let’s talk again in two weeks. You can say, let’s see how we feel and check-in when we feel we are ready.

Option #3: The Slow Back Away

Let’s say you are in a one-sided friendship or you are friends with someone who is not good with boundaries. Then you might not be able to have “The Talk” or an official break. In this case, you can try the slow back away.

You should use this if:

  • You worry that they will not accept a break.
  • They will not be honest if you have “The Talk.”
  • They are bad with boundaries.
  • You hate confrontation.

This method is less direct—so it’s not my favorite. BUT it can help gently end a relationship or avoid hurting someone’s feelings. The slow back away is usually done by just being ‘too busy’ and ‘ too hard to reach.’

I hate writing this, but the goal here is having a gentle easing in the relationship. You want them slowly to get the message that you want a different kind of relationship. You don’t want to hurt their feelings. You want them to save face.

Recommendations:

  • Text instead of call
  • Engage less on social media
  • Take longer to respond to texts
  • Respond with shorter texts
  • Get together in less intimate settings
  • Get together for shorter, more casual occasions
  • Be too busy to get together

**Again, this is my least favorite because it feels like the least honest. But sometimes it is the nicest way to break up with someone.

Option #4: The Burst

There comes a point in some unhealthy, unfulfilling relationships where the friendship bubble needs bursting. The lies. The faking it. The pretending everything is fine. It needs to stop. I believe friendship break-ups should be treated EXACTLY like romantic break-ups. Something like:

Hey, I know we have had trouble getting together over the last few months. I think that is mostly my fault. I have been pulling away. I think last year when X happened, it really hurt my feelings. I have not been able to get over it. I know you are a great person and have been a wonderful friend, but I think our relationship has changed. I do not think we can salvage it after all that has gone on. I am sorry.

Recommendations:

  • State needs that are not being met
  • Be gentle and kind
  • Talk about how you feel
  • Don’t assign blame
  • Don’t make excuses

This is incredibly hard. I know it. But I think that if you feel you have to end a relationship, you have to clear the way.

When we say no to relationships that don’t serve us, we make room for relationships that do.

Live in truth,

Vanessa

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Hi, I'm Vanessa!

Lead Investigator, Science of People

I'm the author of the national bestselling book Captivate, creator of People School, and human behavioral investigator in our lab.

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