Countless songs have been written about heartbreak; we recall the disintegration of our romantic entanglements as pivotal moments in our lives; being “dumped” by a boyfriend or girlfriend is understood as a kind of trauma that requires “healing” and a “mourning period”. But what of the friendship break up?
It’s only recently that we’ve begun to have public conversations about the difficulties of losing a friend, and those conversations aren’t even very good ones. A new web series, Ex-Best, explores the issue in a jokey way, exaggerating awkward situations among ex-friends who still work together or are – gasp – invited to the same dinner party, and a couple self-helpy articles will come out every year, offering advice on “How to Break Up with a Toxic Friend,” but the actual impact of ending a friendship remains mostly unacknowledged.
This strange cultural silence around the sadness and, yes, grief one can experience after being rejected by a friend makes what can be a confusing situation feel even more disquieting.
I’d known my friend Will since I was a teenager and, while our friendship had waxed and waned over the years, as most do, I considered him one of my dearest friends. We’d spent countless evenings drinking wine at the beach or watching Drunk History, drunk (to fully appreciate the experience, of course), ranting about feminism and gossiping about friends. We’d shared a mutual friendship group for almost two decades. So after months of being brushed off and noticeably not invited to gatherings that had always been social staples, I couldn’t ignore the fact that something was up. But what?
This is the thing with friend break ups – there is no social expectation of “processing” or that the “dumper” must offer an explanation for their sudden departure. Ghosting, something seen as a terrible faux-pas in the context of a long-term romantic partnership, is a perfectly acceptable way to end a friendship.
Friends don’t go to couples counselling, they aren’t expected to offer a legitimate and logical explanation for wanting to “break up”, there is no effort to “work things out”, and no “we have to talk”. The dumpee is left only with an awkward series of unreturned texts, a few half-hearted excuses for being unable to meet up for drinks on any single evening for six months, and a mysterious missing invitation to the annual Christmas party your friend has thrown every year for a decade.
Was Will angry with me? Was it something personal? Now he had a wife and child, maybe his childless, single friends like me no longer fit into his dad lifestyle? It was strange not to know. Had Will been a boyfriend, we would have had a number of explosive arguments, teary counselling sessions, promises to do better, to communicate more honestly, to stop eating all of my yoghurt in the middle of the night, don’t use my expensive moisturiser, and why can’t you ever ask me about my life? I’m interesting.
When our romantic partnerships end, we usually know why. If not, it’s at least expected that words will be exchanged: “We’ve grown apart.” “I want to see other people.” “You have no interests.” “For the last time, it’s ‘mannerism,’ not ‘aneurysm’.” “Are you literally 12?!” Etc. But with friends, for some reason, it’s different.
What’s strangest about the subject matter is how long it’s gone unexplored. Surely we’ve all experienced the ending of a friendship. In fact, most of us will have more friends in our lifetimes than boyfriends or girlfriends and more friend break ups than divorces – yet we don’t treat this particular kind of heartbreak with anywhere near the same kind of compassion we do our intimate partnerships.
There is no widespread social understanding of the pain we’re experiencing, no “Nothing Compares 2 U, BFF” or “You’ve Lost That Buddy Feeling” songs to wallow in, and no “Ten Ways To Get Over A Friend Break Up” articles in Cosmo. Our other friends don’t spend hours processing the break up with us, saying, “she probably just loved you too much and it scared her” or “you’ll forget all about him as soon as you make a new friend”.
It’s as though we’re expected to feel nothing at all. Which is a pity because losing a friend can be far more painful – and certainly more bewildering – than losing a lover.
The feelings of rejection are all there, but tenfold. When romantic relationships end, it often makes sense. We place expectations on our intimate partnerships that are incredibly high, often unrealistic, and that foster codependence. You end up having the same fights over and over again, often related to the fact that you’ve decided to live in the same house with this person for the rest of your life, and to share money as well as tiny, stinky, screaming humans. It’s not exactly a recipe for success.
But when a person you’ve known and chosen to spend time with for 20 years, by choice – no contracts, no shared property or beds, no children to raise, no money issues to fight over, no sexual or domestic expectations, no attempts to control who the other befriends or spends time with – suddenly wants nothing to do with you and offers no explanation? That’s hard.
I mean, you were friends for a reason, and the reason was simple: you liked each other. So what does it mean when a friend leaves you? There are few explanations aside from, “I guess he just doesn’t like me, as a person.” Talk about a blow to your heart.
In many ways we set ourselves up for this kind of pain and don’t leave room to address our friendship break ups in any way that feels like the “closure” we seek at the end of a romantic relationship. As a society, we place far more value on intimate partnerships (particularly heterosexual ones) than we do on friendship. We do this despite our friends being more likely to be the ones that stick with us until the bitter end, less likely to hurt us as badly as our exes have, and more likely to actually be there through thick and thin, rather than abandoning us and trading us in for a newer, younger friend-model.
We don’t tend to choose our friends for superficial reasons, because of hormones, or because of too much whiskey – we choose them because we enjoy their company, because we find them interesting or funny, or because we have shared interests and histories. Naturally, as we get older and our lives change, friends may grow apart as lovers do, but the concerted, sudden, one-sided ending of a friendship doesn’t get the respect or attention it deserves. It’s socially acceptable.
After Will had avoided making plans with me for months and failed to invite me to his birthday party, I realised this was not just in my head. I finally confronted him – resentful that I’d had to ask, and in effect point out the obvious. I learned little beyond that he had made a decision to no longer be my friend.
I sobbed to my boyfriend the way I would had someone died – but other than that, I was mostly alone in my grief. I felt like I had to simply push that particular heartache out of my mind and move forward as though nothing had happened. Yet I still miss my friend more than I do any ex-boyfriend.
Meghan Murphy is a writer from Vancouver, B.C. Her website is Feminist Current.