As life gets busier due to career, family, and other demands, friendships may seem inessential. However, good friendships are crucial to one’s well-being because they offer a wealth of benefits—from reducing stress to lowering blood pressure. Ultimately, they can help us live longer lives.
Negative friendships also impact heart health. But even if we’re aware of unhealthy friendships in our lives, it can be difficult to know when and how to let go.
Theories on romantic breakups, including how to end a bad relationship on good terms, saturate pop culture. And while a friendship breakup can be just as devastating, we seldom give it the same consideration. In an age of friendship ghosting, there’s little emphasis on how to handle the end of a friendship in a way we won’t later regret.
Melanie Ross Mills, who is a friendship expert, licensed temperament therapist, and author of the book The Friendship Bond, says there’s a process for ending a friendship. “Much like a romantic breakup, we need time to process, grieve, and heal,” she says.
Here are some thoughts to consider while navigating challenges and coping with the loss of a friend.
First, try to resolve the situation
Do you know what happened to cause the dynamic between you two to change?
“Accepting that your friend is choosing a different path is the first step to getting your heart in the right place,” Mills says. “Once you’ve acknowledged, admitted, and wrestled through how and what you’re feeling, you can hopefully go to your friend without bitterness and anger.”
Occasionally we sense the answer. Maybe there was no fault or negative factors involved; the friendship simply ran its course. Not all friendships are meant to last forever, nor does their duration define their value.
“Sometimes we grow out of friendships, and that’s OK,” Mills says. “It doesn’t mean that you don’t care about them. It means that you’re headed in a different direction for the time being.”
If you’re the one ending a friendship and your friend is still reaching out to you, at least give them the courtesy of a reason. You don’t need to give an exhaustive explanation, but say something out of respect for them and the friendship you shared.
“It’s possible to share that you valued your time together and you wanted him or her to understand what’s going on with you,” Mills says. “We’d prefer to ghost as to not have to deal with the uneasiness, but we miss the growth opportunities for both parties involved.”
If your friend pulling away is unsettling to you, discuss it with them—ideally in person rather than via text or calling. And avoid resorting to social media, as that rarely benefits anyone.
“Ask him or her if there’s something you’ve done that needs forgiving,” Mills says. “With every goodbye, we learn, if we’re open to it.”
You don’t have complete control over people’s impressions of you
Broaching the subject of a breakup could dredge up a bevy of accusations. While you can ask someone for an explanation, you can’t control what they’ll say—only how you respond.
While we hope our friends know our true character, their opinions of us can be surprising when put to the test. If there’s a misunderstanding, you can try to truthfully explain yourself, but your friend may doubt your explanation; they may do this to protect their ego or for other reasons that are impossible to know.
Prepare yourself for the possibility that unbeknownst to you, various frustrations have been brewing in their mind for a while and they may offer some unflattering criticism. “There’s a difference between constructive criticism and ill-intended criticism,” Mills says. “It’s a heart issue.”
What happens when the person declines or disregards your request to talk? You can’t force someone to respond to you, but after approaching them you have the perspective of knowing you did your part to try to remedy or better understand the situation rather than dropping the relationship carelessly.
“Sometimes we can’t rationalize with irrational people,” Mills says.
Consider whether the end of the friendship is for the best
Perhaps, in the end, you’re better off without this person in your life and the breakup will make you healthier.
If you usually don’t feel good after spending time with someone, then that friendship might not be salvageable. Ask yourself: Do you really want to be friends with someone who upsets you or who you don’t enjoy being around? Friends don’t need to agree on everything, but mutual respect is essential.
Don’t interfere with mutual friends who continue relationships with your former friend
Each relationship is separate and operates its own way. There’s a mathematic aspect to relationships, and your incompatibility with one person doesn’t mean the same would apply to friends you have in common.
Some people urge or demand mutual friends take sides because they view it as a sign of support for their decision, but the choice to end a relationship that’s not working isn’t validated by someone else also cutting ties.
So, consider whether you truly want to cause the end of a working friendship. It’s not a betrayal if your mutual friends don’t take sides.
“Allowing the third party to decide for themselves without holding their decision against them is the healthy and mature approach,” Mills says. “Respect and give them the power to choose, just as you’ve exercised your power to choose.”
Sometimes we never completely understand why a breakup happens. Good friendships aren’t one-sided and require effort from both people to work. If you’ve explained your perspective and apologized for what you may have done wrong but your friend takes no responsibility for their role, don’t hold out much hope for them to come around.
Even if the friendship ended abruptly, you get to decide how much you’ll allow it to affect your life. We may never fully understand why some breakups happen, but by handling the situation thoughtfully and on our own terms, we can come to make peace with it.
Aimée La Fountain is a Greater New York-based arts columnist for Gannett. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Washington Post, and elsewhere.