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Thoughts from a therapist: on friendships ending

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“Is there such a think as a friendship breakup? If so, I think this is happening to me. We’ve been friends since secondary school, and that’s several decades ago now. But recently, well, in the past couple of years, something has changed. I don’t know what has happened, if anything happened…..but we’re just not that good friends anymore.

We barely see each other, rarely talk…..where we used to see each other and catch up practically every day. Perhaps it’s just life – I have a young family, and she has a thriving business. I miss her, but I’m also hurt that she’s allowed our friendship to deteriorate to this extent. What do I do?”

Let me start by stating that there is a very specific flavour of pain reserved for when friendships break up or breakdown. It absolutely is such a thing.  It’s real. And, man, does it hurt.

And yet, it’s rarely talked about.

There is no shortage of songs, film and literature that reflect the difficult experiences of a romantic relationship breakup – but when it comes to a friendship breakup it can seem like we’re on our own. However, the dissolution of a friendship is not an uncommon thing – we just don’t tend to talk about them. I’m not sure why, because they can be equally, if not more, painful.  A recent (ish) study noted that friendships become increasingly important as we age, as well as being a stronger predictor of overall well-being than familial relationships as we get older. So, they are important, they do end, and it is painful when this happens and can have a real impact on our well-being. We just don’t talk about it. 

I don’t have the full details of what’s happening in your situation, just the outline. But it’s enough to bear witness to the confusion and pain that you are in. Conflicting emotions: you miss her and you are angry at her. These are classic experiences of loss, and grief. And no, grief is not reserved only for the death of a loved one. We feel loss and grief in many non-death circumstances. I wonder if your experience is one of great loss and you are grieving that loss currently. 

You don’t know what happened. You don’t even know if this is a friendship breakup. So much unknown. There is no indication, it would seem, of explosive conflict – or the rupture which can be easier to identify, and understand and also offers the possibility of repair. Rupture and repair – these are perfectly healthy and normal (almost necessary) components of being in a relationship. But here, there is just a great expanse of unknown. And I see you, desperately trying to make sense of what happened, of what went wrong….perhaps because then you can stop it happening again in other relationships, you can learn from it, or maybe so you can address it with the lost friend. Meaning-making – we strive for it. And the absence of meaning can be a very isolating and confusing place. More often than not, friendship breakups are almost exactly as you’ve experienced yours – a gradual drifting or growing apart. A dwindling in contact to almost nothingness. 

Our friendships, especially those that have spanned decades and were forged in our childhood and adolescent years are special things. They offer a sense of continuity. A thread which helps us knit together the dots of our various life stages. Only our family members and relatives offer the equivalent. When one of these are severed and lost, or strained, it can call into doubt our trust in other connecting threads, or worse still, chip away at our personal sense of continuity and security. Of growth, and development, that the ‘then’ and ‘now’ are connected, tethered. Without out these threads, or a lynchpin thread, we can feel untethered, disconnected, fractured somehow. I wonder if this is also in your experience of life right now? 

I recognise in your letter the very human urge toward blame. You’re angry she’s allowed your friendship to deteriorate. I’m curious about this, and wondering if it is the protective veil of anger talking here: If there is fault to be laid, then it’s at her door, not yours. When we dig a bit deeper behind blame, we often find our own shame. Now of all the emotions, shame is one of the most sticky. We don’t like shame. We actively seek to avoid it, and we have a fantastic artillery of defence against it. It’s a hard question to land, but I wonder if you might be able to reflect on your own role in this. It takes two to tango and all that jazz. I wonder if you are able to imagine what she might be feeling about your relationship….if she might be experiencing the same sense of loss, grief, sadness, anger, resentment, blame, shame? And in a similar vein – the vein of ‘lets imagine’ – I wonder what you might want to say to her, if you could…and then I wonder what’s stopping you?

Lucy Butler

Psychodynamic Counsellor

www.lucybutlercounselling.co.uk

@lucybutlercounselling

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