The Etiquette of Breaking Up With a Friend

When you think of the word “breakup” you may imagine teary eyes and pints of Ben and Jerry’s ice cream. Or perhaps a broken heart and sad Taylor Swift music comes to mind while you try to convince yourself that there are always more fish in the sea.

What we don’t often think of is a breakup of a different kind: one with a friend. Let’s discuss how to identify what type of friendship situation you are in and how to go about a breakup, if necessary, with the standards of good etiquette in mind.

Identify The Situation

Generally, there are three cases of friendship breakups: a friendship that ends slowly and organically (The Natural Fade), a friendship that becomes detrimental (The Toxic Friendship), and a friendship that no longer serves value for both parties (The Necessary End). If you are uncertain about a friendship, make an effort to be in tune with how you feel, both when you are with him or her and when you are apart. Through observation you can better understand and examine the situation.

The Natural Fade

For the first case, you naturally grow apart from a friend as communication slows and you both move on. That is a common course of life and is a way that we all grow and change. Try asking yourself questions like: Are we transitioning into a new phase of life (such as graduating college or moving)? Has our common denominator (working in the same office or going to the same school) changed? If yes to these and similar questions, you are likely in The Natural Fade.

If you are uncertain about a friendship, make an effort to be in tune with how you feel, both when you are with him or her and when you are apart.

The Toxic Friendship

Another scenario is when you are in a toxic friendship and it can make sense to stop talking, cut your losses, and focus on people who build you up and who improve your life. This exists when someone mistreats you and a relationship becomes a source of negativity or pain in your life. Examine your responses to questions like: Do you feel bad about yourself after spending time with this friend (because he or she makes negative comments or criticizes you without merit)? Is there anxiety or stress associated with being around this friend? When this is the case, you may very well be in The Toxic Friendship.

The Necessary End

The third situation is when you have realized there are areas of a friendship that no longer create value and you would prefer to move forward without this relationship being a significant part of your life.

For example, perhaps this friend only seems to have fun with you when you are out on the nightlife scene (and despite initiating time together in other activities that feed your soul and develop your relationship, he or she does not put in the effort). Or maybe there is an element of selfishness that, while not malicious, leaves you wanting in the relationship. Ask yourself: Are there fundamental differences in your values (like not agreeing on issues that are important to you)? Are you putting in far more effort or is there a lack of reciprocity in the relationship? While we must be certain to not be unduly critical or have unfair expectations, if there are areas of the friendship that cause you true and justified discomfort, then you are in The Necessary End.

friendship breakup 2

While we must be certain to not be unduly critical or have unfair expectations, if there are areas of the friendship that cause you true and justified discomfort, then you are in The Necessary End.

How To Breakup

If you have been a careful observer, asked yourself the above questions, and determined that you no longer want to continue a friendship, here is how to facilitate the breakup while maintaining proper etiquette and regard for your friend.

The Natural Fade

For the first case you can let the relationship slowly close on its own. As you are both transitioning in your lives you do not need to have a breakup conversation or make any specific mention if you can feel a natural progression taking place. Honor what the relationship once was by keeping up a certain level of correspondence if it feels right (through periodic texts or interactions on social media), but otherwise you can gently move on.

The Toxic Friendship
If you find yourself in a detrimental friendship, then it is best to breakup quickly and completely, and focus on the positive and uplifting people in your life. When it comes to separating from this friend, you must be the judge of how best to let them know that you don’t wish to continue the friendship. Whether it’s in person or over the telephone, be sure to compose your thoughts ahead of time so you do not get frazzled. Clearly and concisely explain that the relationship is not healthy for either of you and that it would be best to stop seeing each other.

Remember the feelings you assessed when asking yourself the questions above and incorporate those into your explanation. While they may attempt to draw you back in, refrain from re-engaging in the cycle. Instead, turn to other friendships for support and validation, and give your heart time to heal from the negativity of this unkind friend.

The Necessary End

Arguably the most tricky of the three, the Necessary End requires having a conversation to let your friend know that you do not want to continue the relationship. It can be uncomfortable but needed. Depending on the length and depth of the friendship, you can use your discretion as to the content of the conversation, but there are clear standards of etiquette to keep in mind.

– It is important to treat the other person respectfully and refrain from having the conversation over text. This is a cowardly and immature way to communicate when you are dealing with a sensitive topic like this. Meet in person or have a phone call.

– If you are looking to completely sever ties, don’t lead the other person on with “I’m really busy now” or a statement along those lines. You can say something like, “I’ve been thinking about our friendship, and while I have enjoyed spending time together, I’ve realized that we have different *insert life priorities/beliefs here* so I think it would be better if we went our separate ways.”

– Be certain to be kind and not lay blame. As the Emily Post Institute (the experts on all things etiquette) says, “Neither party will benefit from a rehash of their faults.”

Moving on is tough, but life is always in flux. When you carefully consider your friendships, determine which add value to your life, and act with kindness in all circumstances, you will be best serving yourself and those around you.

Have you had a friend-breakup experience? What have you done when you’ve found yourself in one of these situations?

Images via Marlena Steiner

Alyssa is a New Jersey college student studying sales and entering her senior year. She is a reader, etiquette aficionado, and lover of all things Bollywood. On her blog she discusses minimalism, etiquette, lifestyle, and shares her musings on a varitety of topics.

8 COMMENTS
  • Kendra September 26, 2016

    This is a timely and great article! I find myself in a tricky spot with a friend….her husband is best friends with my ex (which ended terribly) but she and I have remained friends for the past year. My new and amazing boyfriend has a hard time with my friendship with her because of the proximity to my ex and doesn’t like when we spend time together…..trying to figure out how to gracefully explain to her that she and her husband are just too close to my ex (whom I want zero to do with).

    So thank you for your article! It helps draw thoughts to the forefront!

    • Alyssa J Freitas September 26, 2016

      That is so tough, Kendra. I have a friend who is currently navigating a similar situation where she and her ex now have mutual friends. I’m glad that this post is helping you think through the situation! I am sure your friend and her husband want what is best for you so when you do have the conversation they will be receptive and understanding of where you are coming from.

  • Leah September 25, 2016

    I ended a Toxic Friendship, but it wasn’t based on her reactions and comments toward me. After about 6 years of trying to be supportive through her eating disorder, bad relationships, and family issues, coupled with her inability to put down her phone during the times we would hang out in person, I became exhausted. It was a rough experience, but I feel much lighter and happier.

    • Alyssa J Freitas September 25, 2016

      Leah, I went through something so similar! Being supportive is one thing, but sacrificing your own happiness and fulfillment in a relationship is never ok. It’s great that you are feeling happier and lighter now, and I commend you for taking the steps to get to this point.

  • Bridget September 9, 2016

    I’m actually in the middle of a best friend (possible) breakup. We had a big falling out and haven’t spoken in a month.

    What makes this easier is that we live across the country from each other, but it’s still pretty hard to deal with the fact that our relationship has changed and has gotten worse.

    I attempted to bring up some issues that had been bothering me this year, but was met with defensiveness and refusal to change. As a result, I opted to take a break from her. In some ways I miss her terribly, and in other ways, I don’t miss her at all. I haven’t had the urge to reconnect with her, and I don’t know if that’s a bad or good thing.

    Saying all that to say this: it sucks, it’s hard, and I wish it were different.

    • Alyssa J Freitas September 10, 2016

      That is terrible and I’m sorry to hear it. It is good that you attempted to address issues you were facing, but it will take both of you to solve it. If she’s not willing to engage in that dialogue, it may make sense to follow your gut and not reconnect. Whatever you decide to do or not do, just remember that it’s a two way street and having people in your life who are willing to make an effort is the most important thing.

  • Megan September 8, 2016

    This was a very timely & great article. As I find myself turning 30 soon, I’ve noticed over the last few years those natural transitions, friendships that slowly fade away. I have also recently had a “break-up” with a toxic friendship. It was difficult and very sad—I appreciated everything that this friend had meant to me, she had been there for me during some hard times and vice versa. But, there were some other areas in which the friendship was toxic and I was unable to be honest or be myself with her. It wasn’t easy, I miss the good parts of the friendship, but it was unbelievably freeing to “break-up” and move on to find others who value me and allow me to be honest and be myself. Thank you for the advice and for touching on a subject I don’t think gets enough attention!

    • Alyssa J Freitas September 9, 2016

      Thank you for your comment, Megan! It is such a freeing feeling when you release yourself from a toxic friendship and realize that there are other, more positive ways to spend your time. Recognizing your own needs in a friendship and not sacrificing yourself is such a positive step and can lead to building even better relationships in the future.

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