how to break up with a friend

How to know when it’s time to break up with a friend (and what to do about it)

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Breaking up is hard to do, especially when it comes to friendships. Relationship expert, Sam Owen, gives us her advice on how to know you should end a friendship and how to go about it in a healthy, drama-free way.

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Change is an inevitable part of life. As we evolve and grow everything, from our passions and tastes to our jobs and romantic relationships, transform in myriad ways. One of the inevitable casualties of change can be our friendships. Friends support and enrich us, but if a friendship can’t develop as the people in it mature, the bond is likely to fade.

For many of us, anxiety around our friendships has heightened during the pandemic. A Friendship Study commissioned by Snapchat found nearly half of the people surveyed didn’t feel as close to their friends since lockdowns were imposed. Another 88% of people, meanwhile, said they’d lost touch with a friend in 2020.

“A friendship ending can be sad, heartbreaking and even excruciating at times, but it is a natural part of life,” says Sam Owen, a leading relationship coach and author. “We don’t always evolve at the same time as our loved ones and different influences can enter people’s lives and change their character.” 

It can be painful to realise you’ve grown apart from someone, but managing our social networks correctly is an important form of self-care. “People affect us, for better or for worse, so by taking stock of your relationships you’re looking after yourself,” says Sam.

In her book, Happy Relationships: 7 simple rules to create harmony and growth, Sam describes a system called “Nurture. Pause. Prune” to help manage our social lives. “If your relationships are happy and make you feel good you must nurture them because they’re critical to your health, survival and happiness,” says Sam. “If a relationship disempowers you or you feel bad around that person a lot of the time, you can either ‘pause’ or ‘prune’,” she adds. By “pausing” you distance yourself from a person and try not to see them as often. By “pruning” you cut them out of your network altogether.

Here Sam gives her expert advice on how to recognise when it’s time to break up with a friend, understand whether you should “pause” or “prune” someone out of your life and, if you do decide to break up with a friend, how to go about it in a healthy, drama-free way.  

How to recognise when it’s time to break up with a friend

Understand the key attributes of friendship

“Every relationship we have, whether it’s a partner, parent, boss, or neighbour, has a basic foundation of friendship,” says Sam, explaining key attributes of a healthy relationship are: compassion, empowerment, appreciation, respectfulness, trust and helpfulness. “When any one of those is missing your relationship isn’t going to be happy and healthy,” says Sam.

“If someone does something to upset you and it’s a one-off and they’re genuinely remorseful about it, that’s fine. We all make mistakes and we’re human,” says Sam. However, if someone doesn’t own up to making you feel bad, they do it repeatedly, or they do something egregious that breaks your trust in a big way, Sam suggests there’s little long-term possibility for that relationship to be sustained.

Be aware of nostalgia

If you’ve been friends with someone for a very long time, or previously enjoyed spending time with a friend, it can be even harder to recognise when the relationship isn’t working anymore.

“Sometimes you can be so nostalgic about a relationship that you forget to really pay attention to how it feels in the present moment,” says Sam. “It’s important to assess what the dynamic is like now and whether it’s helping or hindering you.”

Tune into your body

Our bodily sensations can give us a real insight into how we feel about somebody. Research has found we make decisions in our subconscious mind first and in our conscious mind later, Sam explains. Our body can react to information in the subconscious mind before we’ve processed it. “This means our gut feelings are often conveyed through our bodily sensations,” says Sam.

Being aware of how your body reacts when you’re in someone’s company or considering meeting up with them can tell you a lot about how you feel about them. “If they make you feel relaxed that’s a sign the relationship is healthy,” says Sam. “On the flip-side, if they make you feel tense internally it’s a sign something isn’t right in that relationship.”  

Can a friendship still work if it’s been affected by lockdown?

Without being able to meet up and socialise properly, many people have felt lockdown has shifted the foundations of their friendships. But how do you recognise if a friendship has changed unequivocally, or if it can return to normal as the world reopens again?

“The best thing you can do is take action,” says Sam. “We can guess and guess about the state of a friendship from afar, or we can know for sure by getting up close and personal.” Sam suggests connecting with a friend again if you think your relationship has been affected by lockdown. “See if the dynamic is actually the same or if it has changed. You’ll know even after one meet-up whether a friendship is salvageable.”

Should you “pause” or “prune”?

“It’s important to give every relationship your absolute all so you don’t walk away with what-ifs,” says Sam. “You don’t want to look back years later and think, ‘I could have salvaged“It’s important to give every relationship your absolute all so you don’t walk away with what-ifs,” that friendship but I didn’t give it a chance’.”

If you’re unsure about cutting someone out of your life, Sam suggests “pausing” your contact with them and keeping them at a distance. This can give you time to ruminate on the relationship and see what it feels like to not have the person so intensely in your life. You might want to meet up again in the future to see if you can salvage things.

The “pause” tactic is also helpful if you’re having issues with a family friend or someone who is part of your wider social circle. “You may not be able to get away from them altogether, so keeping a distance from them can help your wellbeing,” says Sam.

If you decide you need to take someone out of your life altogether because they are hindering your health and happiness, then consider “pruning” them out of your network. 

How to break up with a friend (and avoid drama)

Be honest

“Whatever you do, don’t ghost them!” says Sam, explaining it’s better to be honest with someone about the exact reason you want to end a friendship, whether you’ve grown apart or they’ve betrayed your trust.

Know what you want to say

Be clear about what you want to say to the person before you approach them so you can deliver it in a calm and confident way, Sam advises. “You’re less likely to go into fight or flight mode where you can’t construct sentences properly and might come across angry when you don’t need to be.”

Be compassionate and respectful

“Always aim to leave people better off than how you found them,” says Sam, adding that you should do your best to empower the person and make them feel valued. “Just because your parting ways doesn’t mean you want to break them down,” says Sam. “You’ve spent all that time together. Remember that, whatever the ending, it doesn’t sum up the entirety of your connection with each other.”

Be patient

There’s always a chance the person receiving the news doesn’t take it well. If the person you’re ending a friendship with becomes angry or nasty give them time to calm down and remind yourself their anger isn’t necessarily directed at you. “Be patient and see if they come back to you to say sorry for the way they reacted,” says Sam. “If they don’t, you know you made the right decision.”

Take care of yourself afterwards

Breaking up with a friend can be extremely difficult and upsetting. Afterwards, Sam advises spending time with people who are good for your health and happiness. “Research shows being around just one supportive friend can boost our resilience and increase our happiness,” says Sam. “If you’re second-guessing yourself, hang out with people who can reinforce all the great things about you where somebody else might have knocked you down.”

It’s also important to take care of your body and mind. Pamper yourself, “even if it’s just washing your hair,” says Sam, and make yourself feel valuable. Spend time exercising or in nature. Both can soothe anxiety symptoms and ease depression

  • Sam Owen, relationship coach and author

    Sam Owen relationship expert
    Sam Owen: relationship expert and author of Happy Relationships

    Sam Owen is a leading relationship and life coach. She has appeared on BBC, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 giving relationship advice, as well as being employed by major brands like HSBC and Morrisons. She has published three books, including Happy Relationships: 7 simple rules to create harmony and growth, exploring how people can nurture significant relationships in their life. 

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