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14 January 2023

It’s time to accept it: there’s no easy, painless way to break up with a friend

Sometimes the only thing that is right for us will be wrong for someone we care about, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

By Marie Le Conte

No one really knows how to end friendships. There are socially accepted scripts for romantic break-ups – what to say, what not to say, how to be the bigger person – but if you want a friend to leave your life, you’re on your own.

It feels like a self-perpetuating problem: no one knows how to end friendships so no one talks about it, and because no one wants to talk about it, no one ever learns how to do it. Maybe we all like to assume that entropy will always take its course, and there is no script because there is no need for one.

Anecdotally at least that feels like wishful thinking. I have dumped friends before and been dumped by others. Each time it felt weird and awkward, and unnecessarily wounding for at least one party involved, if not both. If you actually ask people, a lot of them will tell you that they’ve also gone through friendship break-ups, and don’t exactly feel great about how they went.

I wonder if that’s why The Banshees of Inisherin, which won three Golden Globe awards this week, struck such a chord. If you’ve not seen it, the plot goes a bit like this: Man 1 and Man 2 are friends. One day, Man 1 wakes up and decides he no longer wants to be friends with Man 2. Man 2 drives himself quite mad trying to understand why Man 1 no longer wants to be his friend, driving Man 1 to madness in the process. That’s pretty much it.

The movie is heart-wrenching for a number of reasons, but the sheer unfairness of it all is its central plank. Man 1 deserves to be left alone if he wants to be left alone, and yet he isn’t. Man 2 deserves to still have a best friend he loves very much, and yet he cannot. There is no scenario in which both men can get what they want. It’s terrible to watch. It’s unfair!

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At least romantic break-ups have the luxury of making sense, most of the time. The sex used to be good and now it isn’t; one of you wants kids and the other doesn’t; you were in love and now you aren’t. There is a reason and you can’t get around it. It hurts like hell but it’s for the best.

Friendships are more amorphous. That’s why it’s harder to draw clear lines within them. Still, some people try. Dr Arianna Brandolini, an American therapist, recently went viral on TikTok and beyond by trying to explain how one ought to break up with a friend.

“I’ve treasured our season of friendship,” she thinks you should tell your soon-to-be-ex-pal, “but we’re moving in different directions in life. I don’t have a capacity to invest in our friendship any longer. I get that it might be hard to understand, but I’ve been re-evaluating many areas of my life recently, including my ability to be a good friend to you. I just want to be honest and upfront so I don’t disappoint your expectations.”

At which point, presumably, the friend stabs you between the ribs. The video has been viewed a quarter of a million times on TikTok in under a week, and a tweet about it has garnered over 40,000 likes.

[See also: What a year of my thirties has taught me about growing up]

It is easy to mock Brandolini’s psychobabble, but it didn’t appear in a vacuum. For some years now strands of internet culture have been trying to argue that, with the right phrasing, behaviour or both, it is possible to remove harm and discomfort from all human interactions.

It began with sex, as it often does. Consent, you see, is the key to everything. If you ask a partner for consent before kissing them and ask them if they feel comfortable at every stage of your encounter and make sure they consent to any combination of tongues, fingers and genitals being inserted anywhere, all shall be well. No one will ever walk away from a hook-up feeling a bit queasy or regretful ever again.

If, for whatever reason, you do walk away from a hook-up feeling a bit queasy or regretful, then that probably means that the other party misbehaved in some way. You were wronged and deserve justice. If everyone had acted correctly, you would not be feeling like this.

Similarly, the language of emotional and psychological abuse is now used to describe any behaviour that made someone feel angry or sad. If someone stopped texting you after two dates or broke up with you after a few months of what felt like enjoyable dating, then surely something foul is afoot. “Gaslighting” has become a fan favourite, and anything and everything can now be described as “toxic”.

Again, the message is clear: if you were hurt, then the person responsible must have done something wrong. Luckily for you, you will never be a bad person like them, because you’ve been learning. You’ve watched videos and read posts and you know what you should do and say in order never to cause any harm. You’re fine. You’re safe.

Except of course you’re not. The great truth and tragedy of life is that we walk around endlessly hurting each other without meaning to, in big and small ways and often without even noticing. Sometimes the only thing that is right for us will be wrong for someone we care about, and there’s nothing to be done about it.

The internet is full of people who have been hurt before and would like to envisage a world in which they never get hurt again, and it’s full of crooks and cranks who let them believe that can happen.

I didn’t enjoy watching The Banshees of Inisherin because it made me too sad, but I’d still take a thousand shots of Colin Farrell’s beautiful and devastated face over one more TikTok pretending everything will always be good if we try hard enough. That’s no way to live.

[See also: Cool Britannia, once the envy of the world, is no more]

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