Breaking up is hard to do… with your friends
There is a lot of advice, literature and general feel good material out there to help you move on after a romantic relationship ends. Whether you are the one whose heart is broken or the one doing the heartbreaking, you know you can turn to someone in your circle of friends and family who can sympathise, console you or alleviate your guilt.
There’s not much out there about breaking up with friends though. Or having a friend break up with you. And the friendships that break up or ‘move on’ sometimes cause so much more loneliness than the end of a romantic relationship.
We all carry a lot of guilt with us because we’ve simply moved on from friends — and there’s nothing which says — ‘that’s normal’.
So we cling on to the friendships that have already died or have become so unrecognisable, that we stay even though we know, instinctively, that the ‘feeling’ just isn’t there anymore.
I find it uncomfortable to talk about this. Because it means one fundamental thing in most of our lives — our friendships — may be as fragile as other relationships. From my experience, there are 6 aspects that test friendships, and if they don’t survive, perhaps it’s time to think about gently moving on.
Sometimes our teenage dreams of success die (and maybe it’s a painful death). This change sometimes means that some of our friendships change as well. Friends who grow up wanting the same things as us from a career may drift away if we’re no longer going in the same direction. This makes sense, each person’s career is shaped by the peculiarities of life. We will not all end up being doctors, teachers, financial analysts, lawyers or consultants together. We would do our friendships a favour if we did not hold on to building a career with our friends.
Marriage & Relationships
I have seen marriage and long-term relationships change many friendships, for better or for worse. It’s inevitable; partners often replace what we used to get from friends, and sometimes, new friendships replace what we expect from our partners. And marriage brings its own set of rules — with an expanded family, obligations and ultimately, different ways of looking at life. Friendships can adjust to these new relationships — for example by becoming more possessive (trying to hold on to what once was) or stronger (understanding that the pulse has changed). Either way though, there is always some sort of shift to compensate for our new partners, and this isn’t always easy on either party in the friendship.
You are 30; soon 35 and in the blink of an eye, most of your friends are either married, in relationships or married with kids! The group doesn’t look and feel the same anymore. Again, the mistake we often make is to cling to group dynamics of the past — when everyone was younger, single and on the same journey of discovery. If we want our familiar groups to grow, it’s best we forget what they were based on and instead look to how they can evolve and thrive in the current situation.
A very close friend of mine once told me, that he and I would be close friends for the duration of my stint in the city he was living in. He was right. Despite the many advances of communications technologies, friendships are stronger with proximity. The ability to pick up a phone in the same time zone, go for a late night drive or bond over beer/tea on an impulse, adds depth to friendships. Being a restless seeker of adventure myself, my constant changing of cities I lived in didn’t do much for proximity. I tried to hold on — unsuccessfully — and drove myself crazy with the guilt of not speaking to friends frequently. When I let go of that guilt, realising that real friendships don’t break over distance, only reduce their intensity, it has strengthened many of my ‘long distance friendships’.
This is a hard one to accept. Some people who we knew to be our closest friends, reveal themselves to be, quite simply, assholes over time. The realisation of this shakes us; it’s like being cheated on by a partner — did those years of friendship mean nothing? Was this person always so jealous/manipulative/opportunistic? How did we not see it earlier? Life is long, and time sometimes reveals the negative friendships in our lives — and there’s no gentle solution to this. Don’t be loyal to try and make yourself feel better. It’s just time to move on.
I think it’s fair to say that all of us look back on moments in our past with some regret or embarrassment. Or perhaps we are ashamed of who we are now. And if we are trying to change our lives in some way — to reinvent and build on our strengths — it can be unhelpful to have friends who want to remind you of the past. It’s like the crabs-in-the-bucket story. You want to actively better your life — you don’t need people who cannot support you in that journey.
I hope none of us need break up with friends — the world can already often feel lonely sometimes. But as we grow, it’s important to keep the friends that really matter close, and add new depth to these relationships.