When to end a friendship - and how to do it


By Julia Feldmeier
for the Washington Post
Article Launched: 12/09/2007 01:46:48 AM PST

According to WikiHow, the online how-to manual, the recipe for breaking up with friends and burning bridges in the process requires a handful of ingredients: popsicle sticks, glue, personal friendship mementos and lighter fluid. Also, a friend with whom you no longer want to associate.

The popsicle sticks, instructions say, are used to build a bridge that symbolizes the good days of your friendship, decorated with related artifacts. Call the person with whom you're about to sever ties and explain, in harsh detail, why he or she is no longer your friend. Lastly, the site says, set the bridge on fire and "release joyous laughter" after you have "simplified your life by trimming the fat of an unwanted friend."

If only it were that easy. Breaking up, after all, is hard to do. Especially with friends. Sure, there are clean, organic breakups. Childhood pals who eventually - and understandably - grow apart. Or freshman hallmates who befriended each other on the first day of college but gravitate toward different parties, different social networks.

But what about when it's one-sided? When you've decided that a friendship is toxic - more destructive than beneficial - how do you end it? And when you value some friends more than others, what happens to those on the bottom rung of your friendship ladder? A romantic breakup is socially accepted; the need to sever ties is understood. So, too, is a natural demise to friendship, a petering out over distance and time.

But when there are no ordinary circumstances to facilitate a friend breakup, what does it mean to decide you've given up on someone? Is there an active way to cut yourself loose - without burning bridges?

First, an unreturned phone call and an ignored text message. Then a delayed e-mail, mildly apologetic, but, alas, life has been so hectic, so busy. You'll get together soon, really! The use of exclamation points is intended to suggest sincerity, earnestness.

This, of course, is misleading. It's the phaseout, the non-confrontational and oft-preferred method of ending relationships. Patti Kelley Criswell, co-author of "A Smart Girl's Guide to Friendship Troubles" (American Girl, 2003, 87 pp., $9.95), recommends this approach:
"To make it less formal is always preferable, because then there's not formal rejection," she says. "You're not wounding, you're just slowly pulling away and being busy."
All well and good, but when this tactic is used in romantic relationships, it's considered heartless. What gives? Presumably, "we only have one person that we're sleeping with," Criswell says. Friendships, by contrast, "are not monogamous; this isn't your one person."

As one 25-year-old D.C. resident recently discovered, the phaseout hinges on the other person's taking the hint. Emily, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used, realized that a friendship had turned toxic when the woman repeatedly insulted her boyfriend and offended her other friends. So she began ignoring phone calls, texts and e-mails, hoping avoidance would signal the relationship's demise. It didn't.

"Every once in a while, she would dupe me into feeling like a terrible person, and I would invite her to a party or just to hang out, and each time, she made me and everyone else uncomfortable," Emily says.
Hints weren't working
The last time they spoke was when the friend called her at work from an unknown phone number.

"I picked up not knowing who it was. I made some random excuse to get off the line and then never called back," she says. "You would think a person would get the hint, but clearly, no."

Technology has added layers to the friendship conundrum. Although cellphones and social networking sites keep us more connected, tech companies are increasingly adding features that enable us to "rank" our buddies. Last year, T-Mobile launched a Fave 5 phone plan that allowed customers to choose five phone numbers to which they could apply unlimited minutes of service - ostensibly, to their favorite friends. Facebook recently added a "comparison" feature that allows users to rate friends, so Joe X may be listed as "kinder" than Sally Y.

But what about when friends don't get the message? When they refuse to acknowledge their new status as former friend? Then a more active approach to "unfriending" may become necessary.

"Nobody wants to take responsibility for hurting someone else's feelings," says Marni Kamins, co-author of "The Breakup Repair Kit: How to Heal Your Broken Heart" (Conari Press, 2003, 176 pp., $14.95). "You're trying to do something good for yourself by not hanging out with this person, but you'd probably serve her best by saying, 'Hanging out with you doesn't make me feel good, and here's why.' "

Feedback can be helpful, Kamins says. If, for instance, you're inclined to shed a friend because they're perpetually disenchanted with their job and thus unable to be fun, or to be a good listener, or to fulfill any of the duties associated with friendship, then an honest explanation of why you no longer want to hang out with them may serve them well - as long as they recognize the need to address their job dissatisfaction.

Such honesty is good, provided that you don't mean to hurt the person.

"Is your intention based in helping them live a better life? If the answer is yes, then talk to them," Kamins says. "It might be uncomfortable, but you can say it with kindness. But if you have anger or resentment, then your intention probably is to hurt the person."

Hurt is only the beginning of what Jessica, a 30-year-old living in California, felt when her best friend of 23 years announced that they were no longer friends.

"It was like being walked out on," Jessica says. "It'd be like having your husband come home and tell you that he doesn't love you anymore and is leaving and has his bags packed and you're never allowed to ask a question. My heart was completely broken."
Out of the blue
A month earlier, Jessica had been the maid of honor in her friend's wedding. Everything had seemed fine. They'd both just moved to California from the East Coast, where they'd been roommates. They got together for what Jessica thought would be a fun girls' night out catching up.

Instead, her friend talked about their friendship - specifically, about how it was over. She outlined the reasons she no longer liked Jessica, handed over the necklace she'd borrowed for the wedding and left. No opportunity for Jessica to ask questions, to find out what went wrong so she could make amends. No resolution.

Two years later, Jessica figures her friend just decided that she could no longer have a best friend and a husband. They still see each other occasionally in shared social circles, though Jessica tries to avoid interaction when possible.

"I can't believe you can put so much trust and love in someone and then have them take it away from you in one snap," she says. "It seems strange to do anything like that to anyone that you once cared for."

A big part of breaking up with friends, then, is self-reflection. Why the decision to pull out of this friendship? Is it them? Or is it you?
"Look carefully as to whether you're off on some neurotic kick yourself or whether it's just that you no longer need this particular person at this time," says Howard Halpern, author of "How to Break Your Addiction to a Person" (Bantam, 2003, 272 pp., $14).

Deciding to end a friendship implies a level of self-awareness - a recognition that the friendship is making you unhappy - but it's helpful to examine why.

For instance, Kamins has a friend whom she finds frustrating to be with because the friend frequently talks about calories and diets. "It drives me crazy. I know these fries are fattening; stop reminding me," she says. "But I don't know if that's something I need to tell her. Is she really a negative person, or does she just trigger my own issues?"

Sometimes, though, it definitely isn't you, it's them. We all have a friend like that, and he or she has a name: Underminer.

Mike Albo, who coined the term in his book "The Underminer" (Bloomsbury USA, 2006, 176 pp., $9.95), describes that person as "the best friend who casually destroys your life." In theory, they are friends with whom we should be breaking up. They're negative; they knock us down. And yet there's something fundamentally appealing about them that makes it hard to sever ties.

Is that masochistic? Perhaps. But Albo says a breakup isn't always necessary. "Instead of cutting it off, you change the relationship," he says. That means recognizing that your friend is an underminer and adjusting accordingly. Perhaps that involves not talking about your successes at work or withholding details of a great date. It's also recognizing that, most likely, their competitive behavior toward you is rooted in insecurity.

"They're sort of great in a way, because they kind of challenge you and push you along," Albo says. "And there's definitely entertainment value."

The people we know are, after all, always entertaining on some level. Even if they're annoying or mean or otherwise unpleasant, there's still a curiousness about them. We wonder why they do the things they do and what they're up to next.

No matter how unsatisfying or destructive our friends may have become, we've invested in them. Bound to us by shared experiences and memories, they're hard to delete from our lives. Nostalgia is difficult to shake loose.
Most prefer subtlety
Perhaps that's why so many of us hope for the subtle phaseout: a way to distance ourselves without burning bridges.

We keep the door open for the small possibility of reconciliation, the chance that they'll change, that we'll change - or that circumstances will find us together again, in need of company, if not friendship.