Breaking Up With Friends

rainbowCarl Jung coined the term “synchronicity” to describe the connecting principle that causes events or experiences to intersect simultaneously. We’re familiar with the word “coincidence” to describe a similar principle, but synchronicity carries a paranormal or, perhaps, a spiritual connotation: a recognition that we’re all connected through an invisible web in more ways than we realize.

So when the vast majority of my clients discuss the painful experience of outgrowing or ending friendships in the same two-week span, the word synchronicity springs to mind. It’s more than coincidence; it’s the sense that we’re all struggling with the same issues and that none of us are alone.

It’s an inevitable and heartbreaking fact that some friendships seem to have a finite lifespan. There are friends that you know will see you through every transition and life change, support you through every loss and joy, witness your breakdowns and celebrate your breakthroughs. And there are other friends that enter your life for a season, perhaps the high school through college years, perhaps through your twenties. It’s these friendships that you may eventually outgrow.

It’s often through transitions that the truth-silt of a friendship rises to the top of consciousness. Weddings, parenthood, turning thirty, losing a loved one, and moving can all bring to the light whether or not a friendship will survive the bright light that shines through the amplified, vulnerable soul-state that transitions constellate. This is when you see if a friendship has become dead weight and needs to be loosened or cut away, or if it will be strengthened and the intimacy deepened in ways you could have probably predicted. Just as transitions offer an opportunity to weed out the beliefs and ways of being that are no longer serving you, so they provide the loosened soil from which you can weed out friendships that have withered.

The most common reason I hear that a friendship has withered and needs to be let go is when the initiate (the one in transition) realizes that the friendship is primarily one-directional. “I realized that I’m always the one calling or reaching out to make plans,” my clients will share with me. “I’m always there for her and she’s rarely there for me. And when we talk, it’s all about her and her life and she rarely asks about me.” Friendship, like all relationships, need to operate in two directions in order to remain healthy. When you realize that you’re doing all the giving and your friend has been taking for years, it’s time to move on.

Another common reason is that you met the friend at a stage of life where you related over your common wounds. Perhaps when you met you needed to feel needed and, thus, consented to a friendship agreement where you were the giver and your friend the taker. As you’ve grown through your twenties or other transitions, you’ve likely let go of the need for a friendship that is primarily based on need and wound. You’re ready for an equal relationship where you champion each other to take responsibility and are equally committed to supporting each other through words and actions. At this point what I commonly hear is, “I feel like I’ve outgrown her.” It’s not that your friend has to be in therapy just because you are (if that’s the case), but she or he does need to support your growth and recognize that you’re no longer in the same wounded place you were in when you met.

Ending a friendship or changing the contract can be one of the most challenging conversations you’ll ever have. As with any breakup, when you let go of a friend the dominant issue is often revealed with greater clarity or even amplified. For example, if you’re ending the friendship because your friend is self-centered and lacks compassion, this is exactly what you’ll see in the final conversation and the aftermath. This can serve as a confirmation that, even when it’s hard and painful, you’ve made a loving choice. Let yourself cry before, after or during a conversation, reminding yourself that even when you move on from a situation that isn’t loving, it’s a change and an ending and requires times to grieve in order to work it through to completion.

For many people, a direct conversation may not be necessary as the friendship just naturally fades into outer layers of one’s life. You find yourself calling each less and making less plans to get together. This indicates that there’s a mutuality to loosening the connection, and while you may still decide to see each other a couple times of year, there’s an unspoken understanding that you’ve both moved on in different directions. There may be a grieving process required in these cases as well, but it’s usually less so as there isn’t a firm cut in the friendship cord.

When you let go of a friendship that is no longer serving you you’re sending a clear and powerful message to yourself about how you want to spend your life and energy. No longer willing to nurture a plant in your garden that is taking energy and weighing you down, you open up the space to invite and nurture new friendships. As with all transitions, where there is a death there is a rebirth, and one will always depend on the other. So when you let go and grieve, notice the new places inside yourself and your surroundings that open up and blossom.

18 comments to Breaking Up With Friends

  • Tina

    I will never win, nor do I want to win, the “Who Has The Most Facebook Friends” contest. While I would love to have more real friends, I am grateful for the few I do have. It’s hard sometimes to weed out unhealthy relationships. Thank you for affirming that it’s okay to expect real relationships that are mutually nurturing.

  • Rpeli

    Sheryl, for sure you’re in my head!

    Thank you for this article, which helps articulate a painful part of this process for me. I’m still trying to work out whether this will be a ‘break up’ (I think only time will tell if we get through) or just a bump in our road. In my situstion, im finding it hard to judge whether I’m the on that’s actually grown, or whether its her. Whatever the case is, we both have different ways of handling life right now and its causing a clash in the way we relate to each other, which no communication can assist with.

    The way things are, I won’t be sorry to feel less responsible for being in contact less frequently (or feel responsibility toward myself in this friendship in general), but it will be sad to lose what was 27 years of friendship. Am happy to let go and offer this one up to the universe for answers.

    Thanks Sheryl

    • It’s so painful to go through a breakup, no matter with friends or partners. So YES, of course it will be sad to lose a friendship of 27 years, even if you sense inside that it’s a loving choice for both of you.

  • Jeremy McCarty

    Sheryl,

    I’ve been a fan ever since your special with Alanis Morissette. I am a huge fan and treat her lyrics as most would treat a book. You might know that on her website she offers members to submit a “question of the week” – a freedom forum to ask what you like. The question I submitted was exactly related to this post about breaking up with friends. I am super excited to read, but first I wanted to share how excited I am that you’re discussing this topic as it’s a super heavy task to take on for someone like me. Much love and many thanks!

  • I have been pondering friendships over the last months. I am going through a major life transition separating from my husband.
    I have been witnessing myself drawing back from friends at the beginning, as my fears of “being judged” and “not enough” were building a big wall between myself and others.
    The more I have been able to let go of my own self-doubt and judgement, the more I have been able to show up from an authentic place with my friends. I am deeply grateful for those who have held me during this challenging time and intimacy certainly has increased. Some friends were not able to support me and I wish them farewell, leaving the door open but not putting energy into making it work.
    You can only love as much as you love yourself and you can only give as much as you are willing to receive. I have been blessed with receiving lots and I am exciting to be able to give back.

  • Lola

    This post came at the right time for me, too! As it gets closer and closer to my wedding, I’ve given a lot of thought on friendship. I’ve heard lots of opinions, and have had varying degrees of support from friends during this transition period, which has been challenging. As much as this transition period has been a chance for me to reflect on my inner workings and my relationship, it’s also been a time where I look at how I interact with all of the people close to me. Lately, I have been questioning whether or not to include an old friend in my wedding party who has often had a draining and negative effect on me (I never seem to live up to her expectations). This article makes me appreciate more, however, the friends that I have grown with over the years.

  • Lisa

    Thanks for sharing all of your wisdom. What about siblings and inlaws – how is that best approached with this subject?

    • That’s an entirely different issue as, unless there’s abuse or extreme narcissism, it’s usually best to try to to find a way to maintain those relationships while still taking loving care of yourself.

  • Angela

    Dear Sheryl,
    You took the words out of my mouth. I had a friend from work who I socialised with for a number of years and during those years I was going through emotional and anxiety issues. I was wounded since I was child being constantly abused from my father. (Physical & emotional):( . During our friendship I didn’t realise she was also wounded because she never spoke about her issues. Where as I’m a woman that shares my pain with close friends. I ended the friendship because I was doing the giving and she just didnt respond to my kindness and openness the way I needed. I felt thirsty I needed her to keep me alive with water. I felt dead being around her most of the time. It’s sad but I had no choice but to disconnect our non existent real relationship. It’s a two way street. I now surround myself with people who keep me alive as I do with them.

  • Chenoa

    How do you end a “friendship” at work. I work along side this person and find no need to be friends anymore. She is very selfish, self-centered and her mood changes constantly. She will not talk to me yet talk to others around me. We are friends with the same people so I try to be cordial around her but find myself wanting to just get up and walk away when she comes around. Any advise would be greatly appreciated!! 🙂

    • That’s a challenge. Is there any way you can change where you sit? It sounds like you’re already taking steps toward shifting away from her, and if you keep doing that the “friendship” will eventually fizzle on its own.

  • Katrina

    This is so timely for me. I awoke just this morning feeling sad about the changing landscape of my friendships. It can be so challenging and it can feel so isolating letting go of the old. The more work I do on myself the less interest I have spending time with a lot of the old friends I went to university with. I feel very diconnected from many of them. I thought it was just because our lives were at different stages, but it is deeper than that if I am honest. I am not who I once was and I know this confuses and annoys them.
    It has also totally happened as you say, that where the gap has formed in my life, so a selection of new friends have arisen. Really wonderful new friends who I love hanging out with and getting to know better, friends who are following a similar path. I am determind to form my own tribe as I move through life and your blog has helped me cement this further. Thank you Sheryl. K x

  • Chenoa

    Thank you for your quick response! We sit about 6 cubicles away from each other so that helps. Hopefully our work friendship will fizzle out soon, sounds mean but I can’t take her constant mood swings and selfishness anymore. Thanks for your help! 🙂

  • Sarah

    This is good to read! While I’ve never had to “break up” with a friend, I know it can be hard for me to see friendships ebb and flow. It’s a good reminder that it’s ok to feel sad about relationships changing…even when it’s more of a “natural” fade out. This makes me grateful for the friends I do have. There are a few that I enjoy so much, and can communicate with and grow with. Quite a blessing!

  • Elizabeth

    Thank you for acknowledging that friendships often fade,change or are lost during transitions. When I went through wedding planning I was so hurt by some of my good friends who seemed to be responding so harshly to me during the transitional time. I didn’t realize it was a fairly common occurance.

  • Tanya

    Thanks, as always, for your touching words of wisdom Sheryl. I am in the situation you described as a response to Lisa’s question – estranged from all immediate family due to abuse and narcissism. I would love to read a blog post from you about managing and healing from this type of ‘break up’ – it can be a tough and isolating road.

  • Lana

    Hi Sheryl,

    Wonderful article, and that subject is very moving to me. I got married last year and I struggle with one of my closest friend. We try to make it work because we think we are those friends that stay close to each other during life transistions but we keep feeling the gap and judge each other. I was wondering how do you really feel it’s time to let it go? Because a part of me thinks that friendships shouldn’t be that hard and want to let it go but an other one thinks that I might learn to be a more loving person through this and not someone who runs away when things are getting hard.
    Thank you for your inspiring words.