Should I break up with my friend? What to consider before you have "the talk" with your BFF

Three psychotherapists’ thoughts on walking away from this relationship.

Three psychotherapists’ thoughts on walking away from this relationship.

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Ending a romantic relationship is a treacherous navigation — with much debate about the best method and complicated aftermath — but have you ever thought about ending a friendship? Ending a friendship may initially seem like a drastic measure, but for any of us who have been hurt within long-term or meaningful friendships, the platonic breakup can be a viable and seemingly necessary option. But it's complicated. No friend is perfect — and if you look back, there's surely a few times when you have been an irritating companion… So what are grounds for a breakup? What are just the normal strains of a friendship? We posed this question to a variety of therapists and broke down what you need to ask yourself when deciding if you should break up with your friend.

What is the problem, actually?

Can a friend's offence be clearly identified? Communicated? "There should be a clear reason that can be articulated", according to psychotherapist Malcolm Welland, "something that can possibly be discussed if the other person wants to pick 'it' up." This is an important consideration if you ultimately want to foster a discussion, are seeking an explanation from the other person; plus envisioning what that would be like may help clarify what even made you feel this way.

However, psychotherapist Susan Monteith believes "you don't need a specific reason to opt out of the friendship. How you feel when you're interacting with the person is the indicator. There does not need to be anything specific. This will, of course, make the breakup discussion more challenging."

If it's general annoying behaviour that's bothering you, Jungian psychotherapist Sylvia Kraus reminds us that "it's impossible to never feel perturbed by a friend who we see with some regularity. The best antidote to feeling annoyed is to remember that in some way you are probably annoying your friend too. You probably piss off your dog often and yet have no idea because pups are so forgiving."

What was my role in this?

A friendship is the dynamic that exists between two people and, as much as your friend may be in the wrong, this is an integral moment to examine what part you played in the downfall of it. Kraus believes these conflicts are "a good time for you to engage in some deep personal reflection, i.e. What am I doing to make it even possible for said friend to treat me in this way? Have I done anything nasty to them to deserve this ill treatment? Does my friend deserve my kindness? Do I deserve theirs?" If you feel like there is behaviour you could have improved upon that, in some way, aided to the negative dynamic of the friendship, then maybe the break up is not the best option.

Don't avoid them

Limiting certain interactions is one thing (eg. if the problem is that your friend cannot handle their alcohol, then don't go out drinking with them), but you don't want to find yourself in a situation where you slowly ghost them without an explanation. As Welland states, if "the relationship is important, then things should always be discussed. The limiting interaction usually results in a drifting apart. And then it becomes hard to pick things up in a meaningful way. There should be a point when it is clear that the relationship isn't going to be the way it was." What you're doing by gradually seeing them less is taking a passive role in the friendship, which leads nowhere productive, so, regardless of the desired outcome, tackle the issue head on.

Is breaking up something we should actually do?

This is the ultimate question, right? When to work on it, when to call it quits... Making the case for working through it is Sylvia Kraus, who doesn't think "a total forced breakup is ever a good idea, because nobody ends up learning anything from the dark behaviour that resulted in the injury." Welland at least warns us to take our friendships very seriously, saying, "if the relationship or person is important to you, then it and he/she warrant another go. The Ancient Greeks, especially Aristotle and Romans, valued friendship highly. It was something that we could and need to rely on to get through life."

But even if you do wish to end the friendship, it's not merely matter of cutting ties — respecting your (former) friend and friendship, and learning what you can about this experience and yourself, will require a lot of personal work. Monteith believes the break up process "helps you by maintaining your inner integrity, by being honest and forthright. It also helps the other person if you can be clear about why you're leaving the friendship. This will give them a chance to explore their inner life and examine the issues in their other friendships, and perhaps correct them or get help in pursuing change."

Striving for objectivity is good, for all

Welland argues that the offending behaviour "is not always equal to the hurt in the other person. I'd say often there is confusion and misunderstanding at the root of it" and understanding that gap is important. For example, if your friend has lied to you, but you can understand why they did, it might be possible to understand if you might have done the same thing yourself. It can shed a different light on the situation.

Regardless of the outcome, this is a positive exercise. "It is through relationships that humans have evolved as a species", says Monteith, "Figuring out how to relate successfully with others is what we are meant to do. We need others in order to become aware of our Shadow (unknown aspects of our psyche both good and bad) and then figure out how to embrace and metabolize those Shadow traits."

What about those grounds for breakups...

Among offenses that can constitute a breakup, it's easy to see deceit, betrayal, emotional abuse as sufficient grounds, but it's really up to you, of course. "Everything depends on the values", Welland says, "(the) culture and general philosophical outlook of the person." Even though it's important to contemplate the situation and even seek the advice of others, the decision is ultimately yours. Monteith echoes this sentiment, believing that "only the individual can define each of these for him/her self and determine when the lines are crossed."