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Breaking Up Is Hard to Do: When a Friendship Dies

Here's what happened when my best friend and I broke up several years ago.

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illustration of heart friendship necklace formed of 2 female faces
Kelly Blair
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A friendship breakup can be as painful as the breakup of a romantic relationship, requiring a period of grief and healing. I discovered this when my best friend and I broke up several years ago.

Ellen had been my saving grace in graduate school. It was our early morning runs that helped our relationship blossom during my lonely days in Binghamton, New York. Soon we were sharing meals and drinking cheap red wine at one another’s apartments.

We stayed close for a couple of years after we graduated and went our separate ways — Ellen back to small-town New Hampshire where she’d grown up, and me to New York City, where I immediately felt at home.

The physical distance proved somewhat challenging, but we spoke often and regularly exchanged lengthy emails. During one of our few-and-far-between in-person visits, things went downhill quickly after Ellen made a cutting remark about me in front of my new boyfriend (now husband).

The friendship deteriorated after that, with both Ellen and me realizing the relationship was no longer worth keeping alive.

Friendships, like romantic relationships, aren’t immune to strife and challenges, and don’t always go the distance. This is normal, however, explained Carla Marie Manly, a clinical psychologist whose book Aging Joyfully discusses the importance of friendships and their impact on our emotional and mental well-being. As she explained to me in an email: “The loss of a friendship — especially a deep friendship — can trigger intense feelings of grief. … Part of the healing often involves moving through the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.”

Here are some things I learned you can do to help you move through those stages and get to the other side.

Validate the loss

Like a romantic breakup, a friend breakup may also be quite painful. Simply rushing to get over it and to the other, more rosy side is often easier said than done. Lauren Spinella, a New Jersey-based licensed mental health therapist, says one way of coping with the loss of a friend in our lives is to start by acknowledging it and validating why it’s so hard. “We can give ourselves permission to hurt and feel uneasy,” Spinella told me.

Since Ellen was the person I called whenever I was feeling down and needed a pick-me-up, it was a real adjustment no longer having that option. Although I accepted the friendship had run its course, having served an important purpose for us both at one point, it took being clear with myself that the loss impacted my days in both small and large ways to really help me work through the situation. Starting there — and taking to my journal instead of speed-dialing Ellen — was part of the healing.

Embrace a greater self-awareness

Not all friend breakups feel the same, and not all of them are particularly sad either. In other words, there isn’t always a big blowout or irreconcilable conflict. Sometimes, it’s just life. As author Manly says, “Many friendships fade due to a variety of factors including major life changes (e.g., marriage, divorce, and retirement), political differences, and geographical issues. … It does not mean that we forget the person we’ve lost.” Indeed, forgetting a close friend overnight seems like an impossibility anyway. Whether you’re missing your former pal’s advice or companionship, it’s bound to be an adjustment.

“For example, maybe your friend was the person who helped you decompress after stressful days,” adds Spinella. “This might then be a great time to explore what else might help you unwind and destress: Maybe look into a yoga class, try meditation or lean on other loved ones who want to support you.”

Make new friends

One of the reasons breaking up with a friend can be difficult is feeling like you’ve lost a cornerstone of support. The best friends lift us up, let us vent, encourage and challenge us, offer tough love when needed, and comfort us when we’re going through a tough time. To break up with a friend who offered all of these things and more is to feel a shift in the ground beneath us.

Put more bluntly, “It can feel like ripping out a piece of you when these relationships end, and it can be a huge adjustment learning to function differently now without them,” says Spinella. 

I knew I wouldn’t be able to just go out and find another Ellen, as I’m aware that making friends after a certain age is not easy. With so many extra hours in the week (our email and phone correspondences were long and significant), I knew I needed an activity to keep me from wallowing. I decided to join a running group and get serious about training for a marathon. No one person in the group replaced my lost friend, but the activity led to new friendships with like-minded women.

Over time, any traces of anger or sadness about the breakup dissipated. What I feel now is gratitude for the friendship, and acceptance that it wasn’t meant to be forever. Nearly a decade later, I’m not grieving — and I’m in love with running.

Have any of you experienced a friendship breakup? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships
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