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When Saying Goodbye to a Friendship Is the Best Choice

How to press the delete button on toxic people.

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illustration of friends parting ways, end of friendship
Elia Barbieri
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In the hit Netflix series that aired from 2015 to 2022, "Grace and Frankie," Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin portray best friends Grace and Frankie whose bond is unbreakable, a relationship cemented by the surprise coupling of their two ex-husbands.

In "The Golden Girls," the iconic sitcom that ran from 1985 to 1992 and is forever streaming, the alliances between Rose, Blanche, Sophia and Dorothy set the stage as role models for best friends forever later in life. We all want to be them.

But sometimes in real life, long-term or newly formed friendships sour and it’s time to call it quits. Cutting ties can be a very healthy and positive move, often the best choice for self-care and a sense of peace.

Years ago, I ended friendships with a group of women I'd known since childhood. Our regular get-togethers felt forced, ritualistic — and expensive. When there was pushback and lashing out at me over a misunderstanding, I was done.

I regularly curate my friendship circle to protect my low tolerance for conflict and preserve my right to remain calm. No drama queens. We all have acquaintances who intentionally agitate at every gathering — perhaps for attention or just trying to be more interesting. They perpetuate rumors and, worst of all, can’t find their wallets when the check arrives.

One of my oldest friends has this policy: "I cut ties with anyone who makes me feel less than rather than more than — even if they have been in my life for years,” says Bessie. “In the choice to keep friendships, I rely on my gut. If my stomach churns and my comfort level drops in their company, I know to trust what I’m feeling and stop the relationship. In my late 60s, I just want to be with girlfriends who are warm and empathetic and just plain fun."

I, too, trust my gut, and keep friends who are loyal and honest, generous souls I can count on anytime. My college roommate, Dana, is still my best friend. She lives in Los Angeles and I live in Chicago but when we talk, distance evaporates as she knows me as well or even better perhaps than my sisters. Lorraine has been my dear friend since the 80s; she is funny, considerate and available for me. Calling it quits on these women is impossible.

Julia Keller, 66, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of the 2023 book, Quitting: A Life Strategy: The Myth of Perseverance and How The New Science of Giving Up Can Set You Free, acknowledges the difficulty of ending relationships, but also the reward when the friendship no longer serves you.

“Quitting does not get any easier. Quitting is choosing,” Keller says. “There is always that fear of regret, that I will let go of something I wish I hadn’t. The older we get, our friendships become more important. So the idea of letting them go becomes ever more frightening and ominous.”

You can choose to end a friendship in different ways, Keller says. “There is the bold declaration to oneself and then there is ghosting. We have all ghosted and been ghosted.”

Regardless of the style of terminating a friendship, Keller says there is an upside. “You get an internal solace from the conviction 'I am in control of this.’ It gives you the power and the agency.” She adds, “The sense of agency cannot be overemphasized. We have finite time and finite emotional energy. Be very careful on how much you are spending and in what direction.“

In her 2020 book, Forgiving What You Can't Forget: Discover How to Move On, Make Peace with Painful Memories, and Create a Life That’s Beautiful, author Lysa TerKeurst writes: “You don’t have to hand over what was precious and priceless for you and deem all the memories hurtful. You get to decide how you’ll move forward.”

Yes, there is a danger of social isolation as the World Health Organization recently declared it is a global crisis for older people. And COVID exacerbated the problem. The WHO established a Global Initiative on Loneliness and Connection in partnership with the International Telecommunication Union, the United Nations Department for Economic and Social Affairs and UN Women.

“Social isolation and loneliness are widespread, with some countries reporting that up to one in three older people feel lonely,” the WHO report states. Similarly, in the U.S., the Centers for Disease Control estimates that one-third of U.S. adults aged 45 and older suffer from social isolation.

Yet a 2023 Proquest research study shows that ending a dysfunctional and harmful friendship can be a healthy move. “It would pay for individuals to terminate a poor-quality friendship, which would enable them to reduce resources that they would not be reciprocated, and open a slot in their social network, which could be filled in with a friend with desirable qualities.”

Even if the termination of a friendship results in relief, it can be traumatic. In their 2022 book. I'll Be There (But I'll Be Wearing Sweatpants) Finding Unfiltered, Real Life Friendships in This Crazy, Chaotic World, authors Amy Weatherly and Jess Johnston write, “Losing a friend is deeply painful, gut-wrenching even, and it causes you to question yourself, stop trusting others and put up walls so high and thick they are almost impossible for anyone to climb over.”

A classic McGill University study from 2002 gives credence to the positive power of calling it quits on a toxic relationship, though the severing can be difficult: “Intentionally ending one’s friendships or distancing oneself from a friend may be a high-risk strategy. On the other hand, ending a friendship that is toxic may improve well-being.”

As we age, our well-being is a high priority. It is essential to honor the bonds that work best for us and say goodbye to those connections that are no longer beneficial. It’s what Grace and Frankie would do.

Have you ever had to end a friendship? Let us know in the comments below.

Follow Article Topics: Relationships
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