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Ask Billie: “Should I break up with my best friend of 15 years?”

Stylist’s columnist Billie Bhatia answers your questions.

“My school friend and I were inseparable for 15 years. We travelled and lived together. Since the pandemic we’ve grown apart. When I do see her, I come away feeling bad about myself (she thinks my life is much easier than hers as she has a husband and a family), we rarely have anything in common anymore and she even forgot my birthday. Is it time to give up on the friendship?” 

In our formative years, having a best friend was a huge part of our identities. In the same way people refer to partners as their “other half”, the value we placed on the label of “best friend” was paramount – you were nobody unless you had one.

My best friend at school and I weren’t inseparable in that living-in-each-other’s-pockets way, but we were very close. We spent big chunks – important, life-bonding chunks – of time together. We were, and are to this day, inherently different. We liked different things (pro: we never fought over the same boys), we behaved in different ways and we prioritised different life choices. At its most primitive, she was outdoorsy and I was an inside kind of girl. But our closeness remained over the years through mutual respect, and we were fiercely loyal. Like you, we travelled and lived together. And like you, we too have grown apart.

Can I still call her my best friend? No, and I wouldn’t want to. Not because it would be doing a disservice to those people who are as close to me now as sisters, but because I don’t really believe in the notion of best friends at all. This is where you need to start to decipher what your friend means to you now. Because what comes with a best friend is pressure to be the best for them and, in return, they’re expected to do their best for you. And can you guarantee that? Judging on my own performance, no. I can be a thoughtful, fun, supportive friend – but the best? Probably not. Removing that expectation might help you emotionally untangle yourself.

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We also have to accept that as much as we would like to cling on to our sweet, simple school days, that is no longer our reality. You have changed as much as she has. When my friend and I grew apart, I felt guilty at first. In the same way you dwell on a break-up, I would replay situations in my head where I could have tried harder to maintain our strong connection. It was as though we’d failed the “best friend test” because I didn’t think of her immediately when something important happened (to your point, we forgot each other’s birthdays). While we might have begun on the same starting line, our lives have gone in different directions – hers involved getting married, moving out of London and starting a family, while mine has been the complete opposite. Sure, I’ll always care for her, but do I want to know every detail of her life now? Not really. Would she say the same? Most likely. The truth is, our desire to see beyond our differences had burned out.

As hurtful as it might be to admit (even just to yourself), not every friendship is for life. It doesn’t negate the time you spent together, but if that friendship isn’t servicing either of you anymore, that is OK. There is a collective guilt we feel when the embers of a friendship are reduced to cinders, but that can’t prevent us moving on.

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It got to the point with my friend where our conversations felt like a box-ticking exercise. We didn’t ignite the other, but rather began to dim each other down. While we never said it out loud, I’m certain the feeling was mutual, and so we just began to ask a little bit less. There was no brutal letter that declared our friendship was over, no obscure Instagram post, no heartbreak. We just slinked away – perhaps in a cowardly manner, but also a pretty natural one – and I suggest you do the same. What I’ve come to learn is you can’t force a friendship – not when the only thing that connects you is history.

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Images: Portrait Sarah Brick/illustration via Getty