Friendships can be hard to navigate. While most enrich our lives and make us feel great, some can leave us stressed, drained, even emotionally damaged. As we get older we are less willing to put up with toxic or exhausting friends but actually ending a friendship is far from easy – and knowing the best way to do it, less so. From blazing rows and never speaking again to ghosting or phasing someone out gradually, there are all manner of ways of dealing with bad friends. But while some bad behaviour can be forgiven and worked out, there are friendship deal-breakers that would make most of us pull the plug forever.
For Chloe*, 28, there was no going back from a close friend's betrayal. "I went through a really hard time after splitting up with my first boyfriend. He refused to accept it and started harassing me to the point I was genuinely scared; following me home from work and leaving me hundreds of messages."
Sarah*, a friend she had been close to for six years, was a real shoulder to cry on during this time, listening to Chloe and sympathising with everything she was going through. Then she secretly contacted the ex on Facebook and gave him her number. Chloe was devastated. "He was my first proper boyfriend and I did not know what to do. She saw how unhappy I was – I told her everything, really poured my heart out to her. We were really close so it absolutely killed me." Chloe wasted no time in removing Sarah from her life and, although she has tried to make contact over the years and patch things up, for Chloe, the betrayal was the ultimate deal-breaker.
For Milly, 30, a cumulation of incidents made her realise her good friend Hannah was actually more of a 'frenemy' who was always competing with her. "Hannah was dating my friend and when they split up we became really close. As two single girls, we had lots of fun and I loved hanging out with her but she was always talking about some girls being 'better' than others, pitting them against each other and rating and comparing their group of friends in terms of popularity and attractiveness," says Milly. She was very competitive, especially when it came to boys, and would actively go after guys that were interested in Milly then brag to her afterwards about how she didn't even fancy them. While Milly was away she trusted Hannah to manage her flat on Airbnb. "She would have nights in at my house with friends or her new boyfriend, borrow all my clothes and often return them stained or damaged. After one big falling out, she told everyone I had mental health problems and that I needed help, lying to cover her own back." The two haven't spoken since this incident and, while Milly doesn't hate Hannah, she is sure it's the end of their friendship. "I would be civil if I saw her, as we still have mutual friends, but I don't think we can go back from that."
When it comes to killing off a friendship that is past its expiry date, it can sometimes be easier to let yourself drift apart rather than address the issue and deal with confrontation. Nikki*, 24, met Poppy* last October when she moved to Paris to study for a year and found herself in a situation where she was quite vulnerable in a new city and lacking good friends. "We met in a club and I was so grateful to have found a fun friend, I perhaps overlooked the warning signs," says Nikki. Feeling sorry for Poppy, who had been robbed, Nikki took her on a night out and paid for everything – but that set the precedent for a very uneven friendship in which Poppy took advantage of Nikki's generosity. "She would come to my house, borrow all my clothes, drink all my alcohol and eat all my expensive food and show no gratitude. I would always end up paying for her to get into clubs, paying for our taxi home, and she would always stay at mine as she lived far out of the city centre." Things came to a head one day when Nikki couldn't find the bag she had bought for a holiday. It turned out that a few days before, Nikki had left Poppy sleeping at her house and she had helped herself to the brand new bag (complete with tags) as well as her trainers without bothering to ask. Nikki has now left Paris and, while technically still friends with Poppy, she now sees her for what she really is – a party friend who cannot fully be trusted. She admits that she chose to let things go unchallenged for the sake of an easy life, rather than deal with the stress of confrontation, explaining: "As I knew I was leaving Paris there was a kind of natural time limit on our friendship so it was easier to leave things amicable rather than have a huge bust-up before I left."
If a permanent friend divorce sounds too final, a friendship break can give both friends the opportunity to reflect and assess whether the relationship is worth saving. Lauren*, 30, is hoping her current break from Lola*, with whom she has been friends for 15 years, will ultimately be positive for their relationship. "Lola is wonderful: truly eccentric, hysterically funny and exciting to be around but sometimes she can be draining too," she says. "In the last few years she's struggled with some issues, but she is also a hypochondriac so one week she has PTSD, then it's ADHD, then a superbug, a virus, dyslexia, dyspraxia, and even though I know this makes me sound like a terrible human being, it can be hard to a) keep up and b) take her seriously. I have tried, I always ask about her health but there are never too many details; she tends to fixate on one thing then forget about it."
When Lola started dating someone new, Lauren noticed their conversations would revolve only around him and their fights. "It got to the point I had to tell her. I said: 'We've spoken every day this week and you've not asked me a single question – how is work? How is the new guy? How are you? Nothing!'" Lola apologised and they agreed to take a little break from each other for a while. Although Lauren does miss hanging out with her, she says it's been a real respite. "We've sent the odd nice text and I definitely don't want to drift totally apart but every now and again there's no harm in taking a little friendship sabbatical. Hopefully, we'll come back stronger."
Grace is funny, witty and great to go out with, but also selfish, unreliable and self-absorbed.
Like Lauren, Harriet* 31, decided against a complete friendship divorce. She has been friends with Grace* for over half her life but has recently been questioning whether to call time on their friendship. "Grace is funny, witty and great to go out with, but also selfish, unreliable and self-absorbed. Sometimes she is an amazing friend and sometimes she is my worst friend." While it would be quite normal for Grace to go weeks (or months) without asking Harriet a question about herself, she would be outraged if Harriet treated her the same way. "It would be impossible anyway as she dominates all conversations with her problems or issues or news," says Harriet. "We can go for months without speaking before she gets in touch with a problem or event that I have a specific usefulness for and I know that she does the same with other friends. I sometimes feel like I’m an accessory that she picks up when she needs it… some seasons I am in, and others I am definitely out." Harriet has decided the friendship is worth saving, though. After weighing it up she realised that ultimately she enjoys the times that are more fun because Grace is there, and is learning to adjust her expectations of their relationship and of Grace as a friend.
So if your friendship is more Marnie and Jessa than Rachel and Monica, it might be worth adjusting your expectations or taking a little friend sabbatical rather than pulling the plug forever. But if a toxic friendship is truly beyond repair and is affecting your sense of self, your confidence and your mental health, you need to extricate yourself safely, says Kate Leaver, author of The Friendship Cure. She suggests writing a small break-up speech in which you try to minimise the drama and fallout, and respect the person enough to be clear about your decision to end the friendship. "Try not to be inflammatory, especially if you’re dealing with someone volatile. Just be clear, strong and as articulate as possible. It’s obviously a deeply personal decision on what exactly to say but try to be unambiguous and kind, if possible. Try things like 'I don’t think, at this stage, we can be friends anymore' or 'You have meant a lot to me but I can’t do this anymore'."
If ending things face-to-face is too confrontational, Kate says it's okay to do by text or email. While nobody likes being dumped this way, sending a message in writing allows you to gather your thoughts and also gives the person some distance and time to digest what you’ve said. Removing a friend from your life can be a painful experience so remember to get moral support from those around you. Kate suggests talking to people you trust throughout the process, such as your friends, family, partner, even a therapist. Enjoy the support from your real friends and once you've let go of that toxic friendship, you will have lots more time and energy to invest in those relationships that bring you up rather than wear you down.
*Some names have been changed