“It must’ve been love, but it’s over now! It must’ve been good, but I lost it somehow.” This 1990’s breakup song by Roxette was no doubt inspired by the end of a romantic relationship, but research shows these same themes — of pain and confusion — often mark breakups with friends as well.
Researchers at Manchester University, for example, found that women are often more traumatized by dumping their friends than ending things with a lover. Women, they discovered, tend to feel a sense of shame over releasing a friendship — often blaming themselves for shirking their sense of duty.
Though most people try to avoid such painful experiences, friend breakups are sometimes unavoidable. And even necessary. Research has shown, for example, that toxic friendships can be linked to illness. Dartmouth sociology professor Janice McCabe even suggests that ending friendships can help us maintain a positive identity. When we end a relationship with a dishonest friend, for example, it helps us affirm our own commitment to honesty.
Whatever the reasons behind a friend breakup, the process of ending the relationship can be even more complicated than dumping a romantic partner. After all, romantic breakups are universally seen as painful experiences — events that warrant the compassion of others. That’s because romantic relationships, of course, are readily understood as being deep attachments that provide life-giving companionship and support.
Despite the fact that friends often develop deep attachments and provide many similar benefits to each other, these platonic relationships are typically seen as more disposable. We may, then, be surprised at how hard it is to get over an important friendship, and by how difficult it is to draw support from others who may not recognize the deep loss we’ve experienced.
So how do we move on from the loss of a friendship? Here are seven tips for letting go and pressing on toward well-being.
- Take responsibility Sometimes friendships end due to changes in circumstance — someone moves or gets a new job, for example. Other times, friends slowly grow in different directions, gradually distancing themselves without ever having a definitive breakup conversation. But there are times when we know exactly why things came to a halt, and we may even know how we contributed to the relationship’s demise. When this is the case, we want to be honest with ourselves as we reflect on what happened. It can be helpful to identify how our behavior broke from the behavior we hope to demonstrate in the future. Acknowledging that we have a choice to improve our behavior opens the door for personal growth and improved social success.
- Get out of the blame game When we blame others for a bad outcome, it often stunts our growth by falsely suggesting there’s nothing we can do to impact our social success. Sometimes it can be helpful to remember that rarely do others intentionally wake up with a plot to cause us pain; rather they carry baggage and work with limited resources that may inhibit their ability to be a better friend. All of us have weaknesses that inevitably come out in the course of friendship.
- Grieve your loss First, release yourself from any expectations that you immediately rebound from the loss of a friend. Everyone grieves differently and grief looks different on different people. The important thing is to find a way to express your feelings, whether that be giving yourself permission to cry, talking to a trusted friend or family member, or journaling about your feelings. Remember that healing doesn’t mean you have to like that the friendship ended, only that you make peace with what happened.
- Celebrate your strengths Friendship breakups often trigger feelings of blame, failure, and rejection, which can damage our self-esteem. As you’re processing your grief, it can be helpful to spend time listing your own strengths as well as noting other friends and positive circumstances you have to be grateful about. When we remind ourselves that we still have access to good things, even though we are experiencing sadness, it can lessen the power of our negative feelings.
- Compose your thoughts Try to narrow down one or two main insights you have gained from the loss of this friendship. For example, perhaps you have learned not to trust people too quickly. Rather than overwhelming your senses by trying to list every single little thing that went wrong and every wrong done to you, stick to the one or two lessons important for forming better relationships in the future. State these confidently and concisely, aloud or on paper. This helps us feel that our pain has given us some value, which sometimes allows us to more easily release it.
- Nurture your need for community When we’re grieving, we may not notice that our reduced energy levels have caused us to isolate ourselves. Rather than expecting other people to notice your condition, take the initiative to talk to other friends or family members who are likely to express care and compassion. Spending time with other friends also positively reinforces our self-esteem, reminding us that we are loved and can still experience social satisfaction despite our losses. If you’re unable to find friends who can recognize and respond to your grief, it may be productive to seek the help of a professional counselor who can work with you to move beyond your current hurt.
- Live your best life While it can be tempting to want to enact some sort of revenge, or make our former friends pay for their misdeeds, the best kind of “revenge” is a life well-lived. Remind yourself that although the loss is legitimately painful, you do not need that particular friend to experience happiness. The world has many other pleasurable, enjoyable people and experiences that you can partake in that have nothing to do with that person. So whether it is exploring some new sight-seeing destinations, joining a gym, or sampling a new hobby, try to fill your time doing more of what you love during your stage of loss. This will reduce the time you spend revisiting painful memories and recycling bad experiences, and will increase your chances of having positive social interactions with others.