“This sounds like grief.” These four words, from my therapist over Zoom on a Sunday morning, triggered unexpected tears. She was right, of course – this friendship breakup felt like a deep loss and one of the reasons why I was in therapy in the first place.
“Type ‘relationship break-up’ into Amazon search,” recommends Hilda Burke, a psychotherapist, couples counsellor and author of The Phone Addiction Workbook. “You’ll get 2000+ results but change it to ‘friendship breakup’ and the number drops to around 200 and most of those are written for children. It’s as if adults don’t break up with or even endure any type of conflict or strife with their friends.”
Female friendship breakups tend to be just as, if not more, intense as our romantic ones: our female friends are our sisters, our first point of call, our mentors and therapists. “While it is difficult to make sweeping generalisations, females tend to look at friendship breakups thoughtfully,” according to Lee Chambers, psychologist and wellbeing consultant. “Reminiscing about shared experiences, looking at where their friend has migrated towards, looking inside for answers as to why the breakup has happened. Men, on the other hand, are more likely to ignore their responsibility. They are less likely to search for closure, be critical of themselves or share the story in the same level of detail.”
With friendships, often you’re rarely thinking about how or when it will end. As such, there’s no finite blueprint when they do. “You’re pretty much alone to deal with it and that’s why I believe many are turning to therapy,” shares Burke, who says the topic has become increasingly popular in her therapy room in the past year. “Many of my clients apologise for bringing up their feelings about relationships that are ‘only friendships’,” she adds. “They often feel unreasonable for making such a big deal about being upset about friends that have let them down or for spending time dwelling on a friendship that they feel no longer serves them.”
Perhaps I had just swallowed the Spice Girls pill too hard on how boys will come and go but friendships never end. When faced with the reality I could no longer be best friends with said friend anymore, it took months of sleepless nights, calling other friends to make sure I hadn’t overreacted, working out what I did wrong, while questioning how someone so close to me, someone I trusted so much, have caused so much emotional unrest.
Journalist and editor of It’s Not About The Burqa, Mariam Khan’s story mirrors my own. Her friendship breakup flagged anxieties and made her feel as though she was both over-reading into things while worrying she was being “too much” when asking her friend to be the friend she needed. It was also the tipping point for her to get therapy, as she realised she needed to develop healthier relationships as well as help to digest the impact of her friendship moving forward.
“The lesson I learnt from that specific breakup, is that regardless of everything else going on - we can be busy - we do make space for the people we want in our lives. Friendships are an active thing, once you start to treat it passively, and take it for granted, it can essentially fall apart. Also, it is not a selfish thing to want to be loved by a friend and expect more.” Though it is natural to feel negative emotions when our friendships dissolve, it’s important to practice the art of self-compassion. “It is common to feel angry, sad or lonely,” Chambers says. “We may be anxious about seeing them again, or worried about the impact on a shared friendship group. If the situation has started to intrude on many other aspects of your life causing depression, anxiety, overthinking, second-guessing and not being able to trust ordinary situations, especially to a point of distress — then it's a sign that seeking help would be beneficial.”
“Everyone has lost a friend at some point. The big goal is to find a level of closure and acceptance on the breakup, which gives us the ability to commit to being open to finding new friendships which we enjoy, meet our needs, and realise that we need failed friendships to know exactly what we need, what we will tolerate, and learn lessons from in order to grow.”
My friendship breakups, painful as they've been, have taught me to be merciful to myself. That it's not always my fault for things ending nor do 'forevers' in friendships equal a good, beneficial and healthy relationship. It also taught me not to extend any amount of suffering for the sake of keeping a friendship as I cannot love anyone else if I am always considering my feelings second. That said, Khan makes an astute point that while these relationships didn't work out like I thought they would, this isn’t a bad thing. “It can still make my heartache and be a good thing it happened in the first place.”