Friendship breakups more common than you think
December 06 2016
By Zoe McKnight
Annie Wong has been told she can be a bad friend.
Recently, she and a friend were emailed by a mutual acquaintance asking about a possible artistic collaboration. In a reply-all message, what came back from the friend was a shock: “I no longer speak with Annie Wong.”
Despite the pair meeting in “a magical way” on the streetcar a year ago, sharing creative interests and the intention to develop a closer bond, they didn’t hang out that much. The now-former friend accused Wong of not making time for the friendship.
“She was right,” said Wong on Nov. 17, a day that happened to be National Unfriend Day, a faux holiday created by comedian Jimmy Kimmel of all people, to “protect the sacred nature of friendship,” according to its Facebook page.
Wong is a self-described introvert and full-time multidisciplinary artist who finds it hard to balance her personal life with her many gigs. She feels guilty about missing baby showers and birthdays but didn’t see this breakup coming.
“If you’re building a friendship you do invest a lot of time and emotion,” said Wong, 32. “When this happened it made me think about all of my friends because I’ve made so many interesting friends and I miss them all the time.”
Though the depths of romantic breakups are plumbed in movies, books, lovelorn poetry and songs, platonic breakups — an actual rupture, not just ghosting — can be just as devastating if less visible, said Shasta Nelson, a California-based friendship expert and author of two books on friendship, including Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness.
On a new episode of Chelsea Handler’s Netflix talk show, the comedian discusses friend breakups with celebrities Trevor Noah, Sarah Jessica Parker and Julianna Margulies. (Noah thinks only women do this; Parker has never done it; Handler has, and thinks women are overly sensitive because they’re subject to constant scrutiny; Margulies thinks women do it because they’re emotional beings.)
But other examples are tough to recall. That lack of exposure is a shame because most women will experience the end of a friendship more often than the end of a romance, Nelson said.
“Chances are higher that we would have more platonic breakups in our lifetime than romantic breakups,” Nelson said. “We have so many more friends than we do dating partners at any given time, but we don’t talk about it very much.”
The five most common threats to friendships include blame, jealousy, judgment, neglect, and non-reciprocation, said Nelson, who founded the women’s friendship community GirlFriendsCircles.com, a friendship matching site.
There are no cultural guideposts or social models for how friend breakups should happen. Nelson recommends having “the talk” to end things with healthy closure just as one would with a lover, even if it can be awkward — which it will.
She said most people will replace half of their current close friends in seven years, a fact backed up by a longitudinal Dutch study published in 2014 in the journal Social Networks.
That study, based on a multi-year survey, showed that while the average number of confidants and friends remained stable, about half of those contacts were swapped out for new ones within seven years, often due to life-changing events such as a new job, marriage or neighbourhood, especially when that led to a lack of opportunities to spend time together. For about 16 per cent of respondents, the relationship was completely broken off.
Experts say many friendships needn’t end entirely, especially among the kind of pals who have been around long enough to remember childhood homes or first marriages. But there are deal-breakers, said Irene S. Levine, author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend and professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of medicine.
Those include behaviour that undermines you, your career, or other relationships, such as badmouthing and gossip. It could also include behaviour that is untrustworthy, such as lying or spilling secrets, or encroaching on boundaries, such as stealing friends or copying.
Several years of jealousy, competition and critical comments ended with a 3 a.m. shouting match between Mickey Tankosic, 34, and a former friend. They had been close on and off for nearly 15 years, through different cities, various boyfriends and a divorce.
That unravelled into nasty comments about Tankosic’s weight, her apartment, her finances. Tankosic said the woman even pursued an ex-boyfriend of hers. All this cut deeply, but she kept quiet, as they shared mutual friends. Tankosic wanted to believe the friendship wasn’t locked in an unhealthy pattern, and that the friend was just insecure and acting out.
But Tankosic says the friend began copying her, adopting her vocabulary, musical tastes, bucket list and jokes. Four years ago, an over-the-top impersonation was the “final drop in my cup,” said Tankosic, who works for a non-profit in Toronto. She asked — no, demanded — the friend leave in the middle of the night and never come back.
“The instant relief I felt is indescribable,” Tankosic said. Though the friend made attempts to rekindle the relationship over the following months, her overtures were ignored. Tankosic later re-evaluated other friendships, repairing some and abandoning others.
But not all friendships that fail are toxic. Some just don’t work. Many friendships end “when there are consistent misunderstandings, disappointments, friction,” psychologist Levine said, though she has heard stories of friendships irrevocably broken by the recent U.S. election.
“Friendships are voluntary relationships and are supposed to be mutually rewarding … sometimes friendships reach their expiration dates. People change and the friendship is no longer satisfying for a variety of reasons.”
If that happens, be sure you’re prepared to deal with the fallout.
“Once you pursue that route, there’s no going back,” Levine said. “You have to be very, very sure. You’ll never be able to reclaim the friendship at the same level of intimacy.”
Annie Alexander, 36, dumped a friend who wasn’t there for her when she lost a beloved grandmother during her twenties. At one time, the pair had shared clothes, daily phone conversations and cottage weekends. Once that ended, with some ill-chosen words, Alexander mourned the loss.
“She was like a sister to me. I was so sad,” she said. “It haunted me for years after.”
Alexander eventually tried to reach out again via email, but never heard back. Still, she learned an important lesson.
“We can agree to disagree,” she said. “Do we appreciate and love our friendships enough to still be friends? When there’s a decent foundation and an effort on both sides.”
It’s important to differentiate between passively and actively ending a friendship, said Toronto psychologist and relationship expert Nicole McCance. She advocates for being picky with friends, which are some of the few people we can choose to have in our lives.
“It’s healthy to let friends go,” McCance said. “Cleaning house can sometimes make a huge difference in people’s lives, removing the negative friends.”
In an active breakup conversation, bring up the tension and bring up the pattern, she said, and remember it’s likely your friend has noticed, too. Afterwards, it might be better to disclose little of the conversation, even to mutual friends. That could be interpreted as gossip or backstabbing.
“Just cherish your other friends,” McCance said.
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