Ask A Therapist: Is There Any Good Way To Break Up With A Friend?

Photographed by Vivas Paola
Ever wondered what you'd say to a therapist, given the chance? We asked Dr Sheri Jacobson, a retired psychotherapist with over 17 years' clinical experience and the founder of Harley Therapy – Psychotherapy and Counselling, for advice on the things we worry about in private.
Have a question for a therapist? Submit yours for Sheri.
I have a friend who, frankly, I feel like I’ve outgrown. She doesn’t seem to feel the same way and I can’t work out how to deal with it the right way. If this was a guy I’d just break it off but that feels weird and cruel to a friend you’ve known since your teens. All the advice I see on social media is either really formulaic and cringe or really dismissive and patronising. I care about this friend and I don’t want to hurt their feelings unnecessarily, I just can’t handle them at their current level. Should I just stop replying and ghost them?
– Ria, 25
There's no template for ending friendship: the potential methods are as varied and multifaceted as our personalities. It's helpful to consider all the options and try to make a decision that works for you as well as the other person. However, use yourself as a starting point.
One option is open, honest communication where you let the other person know that you feel that you've outgrown the friendship and perhaps give examples as to why. That can have its advantages and disadvantages. Another option, as you say, is the slow fade or ghosting, where you take a full step back. Or you could opt for a midway option, where you're still in touch but there is a planned withdrawal.
The way you approach it really needs to be evaluated in the context of the friendship itself. Ask yourself what is comfortable for you as an individual and how you anticipate the other person might feel about it. Empathy is really important here and could lead to either option. For example, brutal honesty is actually really appreciated by some people and if they don't know why something is happening, they will rack their brains and it will be agonising for them. So why don't you let them know your reasons as that's how you've known them to process things better? Other people are extremely sensitive and don't want to hear that there's a rift and so will fare better with a gradual withdrawal. I guess what I'm saying is there are lots of permutations and, generally, it's very helpful to take it with your needs and the other person's needs in mind.
It can help you determine what the best course is for your situation if you have been observant about your friend's history, particularly their background and how they've been treated by others in the past. Early experiences often can be good markers for how they're going to be with others. So if you've observed that they get very anxious when a boyfriend ghosts, then you might take that as a clue as to how you might handle this sort of friendship shift. On the contrary, if they have appreciated when people have been forthright about the end, then that also can be taken as a hint. It's not a certainty that they're going to behave similarly but past events can often give us clues.
The important thing is not to spout out therapy language defensively. The words 'boundaries', 'toxicity', 'narcissism' etc. are flowing around fairly liberally but we can use other phrasing that gets to the same point. 'I feel I need to do this for myself' is essentially setting a boundary; 'I feel that I'm not my best when I'm around you' could be code for toxic. Likewise, if you feel that person is behaving narcissistically, you could say 'I haven't been spending enough time on myself in this relationship' or 'I feel that I get lost when we spend so much time together and I look after your needs more than mine'. So there are benign ways that we can draw on therapeutic language without being alienating, defensive or even hurtful.
The other way to set boundaries is to frame things around ourselves and our needs. Rather than put the other person down, we can focus on what we feel we need to do for ourselves and, honestly, sometimes we don't even need an explanation. Sometimes it's enough to say 'I want to spend more time doing XYZ'. None of this will stop it being tricky in some way. The end of a friendship is rarely pleasant. It's usually uncomfortable for at least one person and more so if you do decide to go the transparent route.
Sometimes it's the easier thing to recede, especially if the friend is someone who would otherwise pressurise you into maintaining that relationship. But if you do that you should acknowledge it to yourself. It's really important to process our emotions, especially difficult ones, so we can avoid repeating the pattern in the future. Reflecting on the friendship in this way can also help you express any gratitude for what you had, even if that time you're grateful for has long passed.

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