How to Break Up With a Friend

How do you decide when a friendship has run its course? And, once you do, what's the best way forward?

Kim Fry, a 40-something teacher in Halifax, tries her best to live by her values. As a lifelong grassroots activist, Fry’s commitment to progressive causes informs the way she approaches her family, her job as an educator and her relationships. She’s aware that her dedication to lefty politics may seem over-the-top to some people, and she’s okay with it. Those in her carefully chosen network largely understand— and share—her principles. 

So Fry was alarmed when, well into the Covid-19 pandemic, people in her circle started posting conspiracy theories and vaccine myths on social media.“It was scary,”she says,“because these are people I felt politically aligned with—in some cases for more than two decades.” Fry shared resources and tried to engage in healthy debate. But with one longtime friend, she says, she found herself fighting a losing battle. 

Fry was gobsmacked to see her pal voice support for the “Freedom Convoy” in Ottawa, while also seeming to dismiss the presence of hateful and xenophobic messaging. In numerous private conversations, her friend held firm. “It was so hard,” Fry says, sadly. “I really thought we could come to a place of understanding.” 

According to a 2022 report by the Abacus research group, nearly a quarter of all Canadians had relationships that were negatively affected by contradictory views over Covid-19. Even in normal times, we gain and lose pals all the time. One 2009 study found that adults replace 50 per cent of their social circle every seven years. But how do you decide when a friendship has run its course? And, once you do, what’s the best way forward? 

Be Clear and Accountable

Danielle Bayard Jackson is a certified women’s coach who specializes in friendship and communication. In summer 2020, she noticed an uptick in the number of people who came to her seeking guidance about how to break up with a friend. “People were saying, ‘I see my friends differently,’” she says. “Cultural and global events during the pandemic led many of us to reassess who we want in our circle.” 

Beyond conflicts over core values, there are many reasons why people stop being friends: maybe one of you has hit a milestone (parenthood, say) and the other can’t relate; maybe you and your joined-at-the-hip dorm-mate drifted apart after graduating from university; maybe your work bestie got a new job and the two of you no longer bond over office drama. No matter the context, clarity is key, says Bayard Jackson: “First, ask yourself why you’re considering terminating the friendship. Next: have you verbalized that to the other person?” 

Even when you’re parting with a pal who suddenly seems to have a different worldview, let them know what’s going on. Stacy Thomas is a psychologist in Toronto. She recommends going point by point and using “I” statements to ground the conversation in your personal point of view, and avoid blaming the other person: “This is my experience here. This is what I struggle with. And this is why I don’t believe it’s healthy for me to continue.” 

For Fry, setting firm boundaries was key. After cutting ties with her friend, Fry posted a public message on Facebook to let others know she’d unfriend anyone who spread disinformation. 

When to Let It Fade Away

Having clarity about the reasons why a friendship has ended may not dull the pain of the split, but it can provide both parties with a sense of resolution. 

In my 20s, I became besties with one of my colleagues. We laughed deliriously at inside jokes and frequently talked on the phone. Our friendship outlasted our tenure as colleagues, but at a certain point I realized that I hadn’t heard from my erstwhile BFF in ages. I never asked what happened. 

“Sometimes there’s nothing to say or do,” says Thomas. “The person didn’t do something that was astronomically wrong, but they triggered something inside us.” If you were ditched by childhood friends who switched schools, for instance, you might be hypersensitive to feeling abandoned, even if you can’t quite pinpoint why you were triggered. Bayard Jackson adds that a gradual fade can be fine—if both parties are aware it’s happening. Otherwise the question becomes: are you just avoiding the conversation because you don’t know how to navigate conflict? 

Even so, there are certain situations where ghosting is the best strategy. Friendships can take on toxic qualities. According to one survey, 84 per cent of women and 75 per cent of men report having had an abusive pal. These friends might gaslight you, bully you or reveal something you’ve shared in confidence. Prioritize your well-being and quietly cut ties without guilt. 

Find a Silver Lining

No matter how a friendship ends, it hurts to let go of someone you love. “Human beings,” says Thomas, “are attachment creatures. And grief is the flip side of love.” Struggling to accept the situation is normal, Bayard Jackson adds. Counterintuitive as it may seem, finding something to be grateful for in the former friendship can help, and it can also stop you from fixating on what you could have done differently. 

It can be hard to wade through the complex emotions that accompany this kind of upheaval, especially when you’re the person who’s been friend-dumped. It’s hard to feel rejected by someone who knows you intimately, and it’s hard to receive feedback, no matter how constructive. “Our ego doesn’t like it,” says Thomas. “We feel like we’ve done something wrong, like we’ve been a bad person.” 

Bayard Jackson and Thomas both also stress that all relationships, at their core, are part of how we learn and grow. If we abandon the idea of “best friends forever,” we can grasp that an ending isn’t necessarily tragic. “Take a moment to recognize how much you’ve learned from this experience,” says Thomas, and take note of what you might want to do differently next time. 

As for Fry, she says her experience has made her more cautious in how she approaches close connections. But she also has a deeper appreciation of the friends who are able to learn and grow, who have continued to share her values and who, despite the upheavals of the pandemic, have been unwavering in their support. 

Now that you know how to break up with a friend, find out how to make new friends as an adult.

Reader's Digest Canada
Originally Published in Reader's Digest Canada