One of my best friends used to routinely disappear from my life when they were loved up, which always made me feel like a backup plan. Then they would slowly edge back in when breakup was on the horizon, much to my annoyance, which amplified the thought that our friendship didn’t matter much to them. The second time it happened, I said this was sh*tty friend behaviour and I wouldn’t tolerate it anymore — either you’re my friend all of the time, single and coupled up, or you’re not. To this person’s credit, they apologised, owned it, and have since never let our friendship wane while falling in love again. Our closeness allowed for this honesty and vulnerability on both sides, which is a testament to our respect and love for each other. However, I haven’t always been so lucky. Some friends never managed to kick the habit of getting swallowed whole into their relationships, and lost my friendship as I lost patience.
Hannah, aged 34, from London, says this has happened to her a few times, leaving her “sad and irritated”. She doesn’t want to share her full name in case her former friends see this. “My friendships are really valuable to me, and I find it hard to understand when people are very hierarchical in their relationships and put their partner above everything else,” she says. “It can make me feel like the person has just been passing time with me until something better comes along, or like they don’t particularly value our relationship. Sometimes I can feel used. Although, I also know that balancing all the different relationships in your life can be tricky. I’ve definitely had periods of going quiet in friendships because I’ve been busy with work or had a lot on, so I do try and give the benefit of the doubt when a friend returns to my life single, unless it becomes clear it’s a recurring issue.”
Esther Perel, the psychotherapist known for her work on relationships, is famous for having once said: “You're asking one person to give you what an entire village used to provide,” and our lovers will fall short in this respect. Meanwhile, the village gets forgotten about. Research in academic journal Social Forces says “individuals who are in a partnership tend to have common friends and befriend other couples,” implying that friendships outside of this are no longer fostered. Another well-known quote, this time by writer/director Nora Ephron in her novel Heartburn, also speaks to this: “That’s one of the things that happens when you become a couple: You date other couples.”
Hannah calls it a “shame and quite boring” when this happens. Romantic relationships are often prized over most other relationships, and in her opinion, this is only negative for both our friendships and relationships. “It’s way too much pressure to place on one person. Nobody can fulfil everything we want and I think we need a variety of different relationships in our lives to be happy,” she explains. When people repeatedly treat her as disposable after meeting a partner, she isn’t a fan of them coming back into her life. “I’ve made much less effort in the friendship in future and reserved my energy for the relationships that feel more reciprocal and consistent,” she says.
However, there can be a welfare concern when friends disappear. “I had one friend who did this and when she popped up again told us she’d been in a controlling and abusive relationship with a man who hadn’t wanted her to be in touch with me and her other friends,” Hannah says. Of course, these circumstances are totally different and should be treated as such.
But what happens when our friend has willingly stopped making the effort? Caroline Plumer, psychotherapist and founder at CPPC London, says “It’s always painful to have a ‘fair weather friend’ — someone who’s happy to spend time with us when it suits them, but disappears when they get a better offer. It can feel very one-sided, especially if we find we’re really in need of some support and they’re nowhere to be found. If you don’t feel the relationship is serving you anymore, or too much has happened to get past, then you don’t have to resurrect the relationship for the sake of it when they return as if nothing has happened.” She recommends communicating that their behaviour has been hurtful, even if it’s tricky.
Interestingly, data suggests those doing the abandoning often seem to think their friendships should still be valid after a breakup — even if they sucked at maintaining the friendship while coupled up. According to research by The University of Manchester and Manchester Metropolitan University, published in the journal Families, Relationships and Societies, “despite failing to maintain strong friendship networks throughout the life of a relationship, people did still expect to rely on ‘their’ friends in times of crisis.” The study found the person who comes back post-breakup, if not warmly accepted, feels “isolated and betrayed”. While Plumer says it’s “almost always worth exploring why someone felt unable to connect with you whilst in a particular romantic relationship.”
Chloe*, 27, has experienced this in friendships even while the relationship is still ongoing, as she explains: “The worst is when they only text and ask to hang out when their partner is away.” When friends who’ve dropped back in after going AWOL do this, she spots that “they always try to cover it up, as if they are just genuinely getting back to you about wanting to do something, but you know full well it’s just because they don’t want to be in their flat alone — and all they talk about the whole time if you do meet up is the partner.” In a now-viral TikTok video, one woman shared a similar instance in which she was excited to see her friend after a long time, only to learn she’d reconnected as her boyfriend was out. “Later girl, bye,” she said in the video.
Something about their return seems unfair, if they’re asking for support during their lows when they didn’t make the effort with you during their high moments. “Then the breakup happens and they need all hands on deck to get over the heartache,” Chloe continues. “When all the warning signs are there that someone is like that, then I lessen my investment in the same way they are doing to me. If it’s one time then of course you have compassion for people getting a bit lost in something, but if it’s a habitual pattern, no thanks. I always make a joke that I give people a year. A year to fall for someone and fall off the face of the planet. After that, I need you back on top form. You’ve had your fun, now you need to be a functioning human who can have both friends and a partner. Friendship isn’t about convenience and I won’t be a place filler.”
As someone who is in a long-term relationship herself and who is able to balance the two — to the point where friends joke her boyfriend is a “mystery” — Chloe feels this is only fair to her friends. “It’s something that multiple people have brought up to me about how I never dropped them and always made them feel like a priority in my life, which makes me really happy,” she adds.
Liz Kelly, psychotherapist and author of This Book Is Cheaper Than Therapy, says you might want to reevaluate your friendships in a way that doesn’t involve cutting them out all together. “Think about what role you want them to play in your life,” she suggests. “Friendships can shift over time, and not all are meant to last forever. When thinking about setting healthy boundaries in friendships, consider how you can maintain a connection with this friend in a way that does not come at a cost to your mental or emotional wellbeing. You might decide that this friend is someone you enjoy doing a specific activity with, like thrift shopping, but you choose not to rely on them for emotional support or regular companionship.”
As well as feeling frustrated by your friend’s actions, it’s important to admit there’s a sense that you’ve been let down. Kelly says “the loss you feel when a friend disappears from your life after entering a romantic relationship is real and valid — their absence from your life can impact you in many ways.” A friend may have once provided emotional support, companionship, and been a part of wider social outlets. That loss is no small thing. “If your friend can take responsibility for disappearing from your friendship and validate the hurt they caused you, it may be worth giving them a second chance.”
Chloe is sympathetic to the fact that falling in love can be an intense and overwhelming experience — both emotionally and chemically in the way it affects our brains — along with the notion that “women are told from the start that a romantic partnership is the most important thing they will ever experience.” However, she feels that these people forget that if they became single again they would need a support network. “Surely our focus should be on a network of loves rather than just an individual?”
*Name has been changed to protect identity