The breakdown of a deep, longstanding friendship can be heartbreaking. The kind of heartbreak akin to a romantic breakup. There’s shock. Shame. An insurmountable amount of pain. Take the Carrie Bradshaw/Samantha Jones fallout that’s currently playing out on the small screen in the Sex And The City reboot, And Just Like That... We know, so far, that Samantha has moved to London, is no longer Carrie’s publicist or a part of their friendship foursome. Her declaration from the original show – "We made a deal ages ago. Men, babies, it doesn’t matter…we’re soulmates" – is now a statement of the past. There’s no denying that the loss is life-altering.
But perhaps Samantha knew that, sometimes, a friendship check-up is necessary for our mental health and wellbeing. And sometimes the outcome is that the friendship no longer serves us. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic we’ve taken the time to reevaluate every aspect of our lives – including platonic relationships.
Clinical psychologist Dr Samantha Rennalls, cofounder of Abode therapy clinic, has noticed more people doing exactly this. "People have had a lot more time to consider what and who adds to their quality of life, and the increasing value of social interaction in the pandemic environment seems to have led many people to prioritise the quality of friendships over quantity of friendships," she tells R29 UK. "With people experiencing more stress, burnout, anxiety and low mood throughout the pandemic, people have been able to get a better sense of what their friendships have to offer them when they have needed more support, and while it doesn’t always result in 'cutting off' all disappointing friendships, I have noticed people more carefully considering the degree to which they want people around them to be involved in their lives."
I gave her her space and thought: If we can't repair this, it might not be much of a loss to me.
How do we know when it’s time to simply let a friendship go? "When the cons of the relationship outweigh the pros," advises Dr Rennalls. "Paying particular attention to the emotional toll that a friendship takes is important. If you notice that a relationship is causing a notable amount of pressure, stress or anxiety on a regular basis, it may be a sign that this relationship is no longer healthy for you. There are questions that you may ask yourself, such as: how energised do I feel when I spend time with this person? Am I more invigorated or am I left feeling drained? How understood do I feel in this relationship? Am I always having to explain myself and my intentions? How safe do I feel in this relationship? Do I speak and act freely or am I cautious, like I’m walking on eggshells? How respected do I feel in this relationship? Am I valued in this relationship or are my thoughts and feelings not considered as worthy? What is the power balance like in this relationship? Do I find myself being in a position of submission or dominance that I do not want or that is not present in other positive relationships?"
It’s a decision that Stevie*, 33, had to make earlier in 2021. "I ended the friendship because my principles had been compromised so much that I couldn’t really see a way forward," she says of a friendship that came to fruition when she was 18 years old. Looking back, for Stevie, the friendship had started to falter in the run-up to the pandemic, with her friend making poor choices that she tried not to judge. "I would try to advise her – to a degree – and it was just wasted energy," she says. It reached a critical moment when her friend – who works with children, some of whom are immunocompromised – allegedly broke government guidelines that were in place at the time to have a one-night stand with someone she’d met on a dating app.
"I think her problem is that she wants to meet someone and have kids, and her biological clock is ticking. So she started dating a lot of people, in really quick succession," Stevie continues. "This was at the time where everyone was in support bubbles. Her bubble was her family, who live in a different house to her. She went from being extremely cautious to not at all. It just completely baffled me because she works with these children. It’s not my experience and everyone is different but, at the same time, I couldn’t stop thinking about the families of the children that she works with."
Before letting the friendship go, Stevie did try to repair it. "I tried to speak to her about it but it really didn’t go well," she explains. "We tried to draw a line under it and when I tried to speak to her about something else, I wasn’t getting any energy back. I gave her her space and thought, If we can’t repair this, it might not be much of a loss to me."
According to Dr Rennalls, it’s a conversation and process that should be approached with an "open mind and lots of compassion". "Find out what’s been going on for your friend and consider wider contextual factors that might be impacting their life," she advises. "Communicate, communicate, communicate. It is important to be able to express your experiences and also understand your friend’s perspective at the same time – both can be valid even if they’re not the same. Things to be communicated and listened to include: what’s been challenging for you; how you’ve been impacted; how you’re currently making sense of the situation and what you want and need from the relationship. Invite the same information from your friend and actively listen to their responses in a nonjudgmental manner."
A 2017 study found that friendships become increasingly important as we age. That's even more reason to keep and nurture a strong few. "They can have direct benefits, such as the warming experience of bonding with someone with whom you share love, compassion and mutual trust, in addition to providing practical assistance with the sharing of resources," says Dr Rennalls of healthy friendships. "Friendships can also have indirect benefits, through the effects of biological processes that occur when we have positive experiences, including reduced levels of stress hormones and releasing chemicals associated with pleasure and joy."
Don’t underestimate how beneficial it can be to let go of a friendship though. "As much as it’s sad, I feel like it was the right decision to let it fall by the wayside," says Stevie of her decade-long relationship. "Letting a friendship go can be really tough, in the same way that any relationship breakup can be," says Dr Rennalls. "It can generate feelings of loss, failure, rejection and sadness – and sometimes regret, guilt, shame and other emotions. The following four steps can be helpful in navigating and processing the letting go of a friendship: acknowledging the status of the relationship; accepting the situation; ending in the most healthy way possible and coming to terms with the loss." As Carrie knows, the loss can be hard to take but it’s a part of life, getting older and preserving our wellbeing.
*Name changed to protect anonymity