Long Reads

How to consciously uncouple from a friend, no ghosting required

“If a friendship makes you feel unmotivated, smaller than you are, or downright crappy about yourself, then nobody said it had to be forever,” says author Laura Jane Williams.

Recently, I had a friendship end. I feel guilty, but not in the way you might think. I feel guilty because I’m relieved. She hadn’t felt like a friend for a really long time, and it took courage for me to finally step away. I’m actually quite proud of myself.

And that’s why I want to write about it. Everybody I know has a story about being “friend dumped”, so it stands to reason that most of us, like me, have also been the ones doing the dumping.

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Friendships only work in a voluntary arrangement. Once you continue a friendship out of obligation, it doesn’t yield much connection, or intimacy. I knew Jane for eight years, through work, before we friend-broke-up. We would text almost daily, go to events together and get drinks afterwards, and we’d be the first to comment under each other’s Instagram posts with the flame emoji. Jane was a source of fun, she really listened to me, and I knew she always had my back. But she was also moody and difficult, and it often fell to me to both organise our plans and then keep her happy as we did them. She didn’t really get on with my other friends, either – she only ever wanted to hang out just the two of us. 

Breakups: “friendships can ebb and flow – in fact, all my strongest ones have”

When I moved house and dramatically changed my lifestyle, our friendship became strained. Over the course of almost a year I was no longer at her beck and call like I used to be, and she resented it. I suppose I’d already emotionally distanced myself by the time she said some hurtful things that made me reassess whether our dynamic was healthy. I decided it wasn’t, and that I wanted space. 

Friendships can ebb and flow – in fact, all my strongest ones have – but Jane said we had to be friends like we’d always been, or we couldn’t be friends at all. I reiterated that I just needed some breathing room, but I noticed a few days later that I’d been blocked from all of her social media platforms – the millennial equivalent of being struck off the Christmas card list. We haven’t spoken since.

I don’t understand the pressure we put on each other to stay best friends with everyone we’ve ever gotten close to. This is a physical, emotional and practical impossibility as we grow up, and take different paths. Change is the only constant. Research from Utrecht University found that most relationships fall apart through circumstance. In our lives, the size of our social network tends to stay the same at about five close friends, but we have a high turnover in the cast of characters within it. We always have friends, but who they are morphs over time. Ultimately, everyone feels closer to different people in their lives, and at different stages.

“Friendships are always susceptible to circumstances,” William Rawlins, the Stocker Professor of Interpersonal Communication at Ohio University, told The Atlantic. “If you think of all the things we have to do – we have to work, we have to take care of our kids, or our parents – friends choose to do things for each other, so we can put them off. They fall through the cracks.”

female friends
Friendship: “women bond both passionately and profoundly”

As my friend Charlie, 31, says: “I very much believe that some people are there for a short time and maybe for a reason, but they don’t necessarily have a place [in our social circle] forever. The thing is, much like in a relationship, we all change – but do we change together and still fit, or do we grow apart?’

And sometimes, friendships don’t just fall through the cracks due to changing circumstances – they can end for a reason. As Amy, 29, told me on Twitter: “A few years ago a friend and I were going through a rough patch. I owned up to the hurt I had caused but also told her that in order for our friendship to continue, I needed her to be sorry for how she had hurt me, too. She wasn’t able to, so the friendship as it had existed ended.”

Women bond both passionately and profoundly. We’re socialised with the language to talk about our feelings, fostering friendships of deep intimacy that can feel not unlike falling in romantic love. As Emma Jane Unsworth, screenwriter of forthcoming female-friendship movie Animals, tells me: “I feel like I’ve begun so many friendships like love affairs”. In contrast, however, she notes that she has “rarely ended them so”. She says there’s no grammar for the ending of a friendship, and she’s right, which makes me even more determined to be more honest about my own relationships.

I wish I’d spoken up sooner to Jane about our friendship, and my feelings of unhappiness. If I could do it again I’d demonstrate more grace. Rejection hurts, whether it is expected or not, and it was my own cowardice that meant I distanced myself before finally having ‘The Talk’. I don’t think I trusted her to respond well to my upset, which I suppose says everything about the state of the friendship to begin with.

friends
Friendship: “in our lives, the size of our social network tends to stay the same at about five close friends, but we have a high turnover in the cast of characters within it”

I don’t think there needs to be any other reason behind ending a friendship other than you want to. Women are forever having to justify themselves, to defend themselves for putting their needs first, or even suggesting they have needs in the first place. It’s still somehow unacceptable in society to be a woman with boundaries, who says no as much as she says yes, who advocates for her own wellbeing and sets her own rules. But in my book, if you want out of a friendship, then that’s a good enough reason to end it.

We have to assume the best in people – but that includes assuming the best in ourselves. We get to decide where we spend our time, and accept that it’s OK to grow out of a particular friendship. Life happens to us all.

In ending my friendship I’m proudest of distinguishing between the two of us, and the friendship itself. Before our big fall-out, I made it clear that it was the friendship itself that wasn’t working – not that she was a ‘bad’ person or had screwed up irreparably. Framing the conversation that way means you can’t get too personal.

If you start slinging mud and pointing fingers it can lead to a bigger fight that drags out. Exactly like ending a romance, ending a friendship has to be clear and deliberate. Say it isn’t working for you and that you’re bowing out. Listen to what they say, but don’t feel the need to respond extensively. Tell them you wish them well, and mean it.

I’m determined to take the high road now that we’re over. I miss her sometimes, but mostly I know that I stepped back for the right reason: it got to the point where I dreaded seeing her name on my phone screen. We both deserve more than that.

What I wish somebody had said to me is: you’re not bad or evil for having a friendship that didn’t work out. It’s wonderful to have been a part of somebody’s life. But ultimately, you come first, and if a friendship makes you feel unmotivated, smaller than you are, or downright crappy about yourself, then nobody said it had to be forever.  

Our Stop by Laura Jane Williams is out now in e-book, and the paperback and audio book (narrated by Carrie Hope Fletcher) publish on 8 August

Names have been changed

Images: Getty, Unsplash / Lead image design: Alessia Armenise

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