How to End a Friendship While Protecting Your Heart

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The chaos of the pandemic made falling out of touch natural — even acceptable. That was kind of handy when it came to an acquaintance that, for whatever reason, you don’t have room for in your life.

But breaking up with a once-close friend is not that easy. Cutting ties with a deeper connection is much harder, given that everyone is following everyone on social media — never mind that they may be able to see who you’re reimbursing for beers on Venmo. If you work or share a living space with the person you’d like some distance from, that can be even harder.

And severing a friendship can be so much more painful than ending a romantic relationship. With a partner, you expect there to be intense feelings, but friends can pack in a surprising amount of emotional baggage you didn’t even notice they were carrying around, explains Fran Walfish, Psy.D., a California-based psychotherapist and author appearing on CBS’s The Doctors and WEtv. It may feel easier to ghost them to avoid confrontation — and in some cases, that’s what you’ll need to do.

But way more often than not, ending a friendship requires an approach that stresses compassion for the friend you once held dear, compassion for your own feelings, and firm resolution to help you both move forward. “I do believe it helps tremendously to have an understanding of what went wrong. It’s a learning opportunity to grow and use the information in a positive way for the next relationship, and enhance self-awareness,” Walfish adds.

Sometimes, the reason you need to end the friendship is a no-brainer, says Brittany Johnson, LMHC, an Indiana-based trauma-focused therapist and author of Get Out of Your Own Way. Johnson reports being booked solid since the pandemic began helping clients work through revelations that left them feeling that they didn’t know their friend at all, or that they didn’t share the same values. Many breakups were brought on by being shocked to discover very different takes on current events, such as social unrest around racial injustice, police brutality, or politics around the 2020 election; more was about the science behind the spread of COVID-19 and dealing with lockdown.

But other times, says Johnson, the problem with your friend is less black-and-white, and doing the legwork to be certain you want to end the friendship can save you a lot of grief. Even if you are pretty sure you don’t want this friend in your life, the best way to end a friendship is actually to try to preserve it at first.

That’s because communicating why you are angry or disappointed in a friend has several benefits: Expressing yourself can ensure your friend knows how you feel, Johnson says, so they can’t claim to be surprised. It also allows you to feel at peace when with your decision if your concerns aren’t resolved after you bring them up, and gives your friend a chance to apologize and perhaps be there for you in the way you need, says Johnson. There’s nothing worse for your own emotional wellbeing than forcing a relationship to end and realizing later that you’ve made a mistake.

Unfortunately, after an initial heart-to-heart, it quite often becomes clear that the friendship isn’t working, and that it’s in your best interest to end it entirely. What kinds of situations warrant this response? According to Good Housekeeping’s panel of psychologists and therapists, these are red flags that you simply can’t ignore:

Assuming it’s any of the reasons above aside from an abusive situation, however, what should you do next?

The short answer here is no, and there are some other don’ts: Don’t ask another friend to deliver the message that you won’t be speaking to them again, nor should you rant about them on social media, or be destructive in some other way.

So what should you do? Start by gradually distancing yourself from the friend in question, experts say. This gives you time to make sure you’re ready to discuss things without spilling out pent-up anger or frustration, says Johnson. Acting too fast is generally turns “the talk” into “the screaming match.”

Next, decide if you want to have a face-to-face or spell it out in a letter, advises Jen Polite, PhDc, LMHC, MS, a New York-based psychotherapist. Part of this is getting real about your expectations, she says. “What’s your objective? The objective is imperative because you want to ensure that you’re not having a conversation in hopes that they’ll give you something, like closure, explanations, or clarity,” Polite says. “Though ideal, this type of outcome isn’t within your control — your objective should be centered on what you alone can control, and you should only schedule a live conversation if sharing how you feel is the most important thing on your agenda.”

And you’re not a wimp if you decide not to have “the talk,” says Johnson. “If it’s not your strong suit, it’ll be counterintuitive to try to force yourself to have a face-to-face conversation,” Johnson explains. In this case, you’ll work to express your feelings in a note.

A written goodbye can help you end things peacefully in many ways, chiefly among them that you’ll avoid a confrontational scene.

Some people find it easier to face a friend and declare their feelings, allowing someone a chance to respond and see genuine emotions. You’ll want to select a neutral setting to have this conversation — somewhere that isn’t on anyone’s “turf” so to speak, and quasi-public if possible, to keep both you and the friend from making a scene.

Regardless if you’re doing it in person or via snail mail, employing these strategies when ending a friendship will result in the healthiest possible resolution for both parties.

Some conflicts should prompt you to immediately block a friend on social media and remove yourself from any interaction: those that make you feel unsafe or targeted. Safety is non-negotiable, says Douglas. There are things you cannot simply agree to disagree over. “Issues such as social injustice, racism, and police brutality intersect with many individuals’ personal experience and deeply held values,” she says, and can make you feel emotionally unsafe around someone. If you don’t share any other social circles and have no need for closure, you can ghost this person and sever communication without explanation. You don’t owe them anything.

Another time ghosting or blocking may be appropriate: If they’re actively gaslighting you, meaning they’re erasing your human experience or opinions, says Douglas. The emotional labor of convincing someone to respect your feelings, or not be racist, homophobic, xenophobic or generally intolerant in any regard is not on you alone, and you can decide that it’s too much for you. You don’t need to bear the cross of mistreatment in a quest to correct a former friend’s behavior, she adds. In other words, you can freely walk away from this person without closure or explaining why you’re ending this friendship if it’s too hard on you.

If you don’t feel unsafe or gaslit, but just don’t want to deal, muting a former friend is a good choice. This option (or the unfollow function on Facebook) wipes their content and activity off your feed — and they will be none the wiser. It’s an easy digital fix that can save you a lot of internalized drama.

Despite how sure you are you needed to quit your friend, you’ll likely feel extremely sad. “You should expect upfront that there will be some grieving, especially if this person had any hand in major milestones in your life,” Brown explains. You may even doubt your decision for a short while, which is only natural. “Having your pros and cons list [from before], being able to confidently say why you ended the friendship is crucial here. In moments of sadness, you’re able to remember why you made the decision.”

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