4 Signs It Might Be Time to Break Up With A Friend

In some ways, friend break-ups are even worse than romantic ones -- and they can carry the same emotional baggage. Still, sometimes they're a necessary evil.

Nov 19, 2012 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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I can never break up with TOK -- she knows way too many of my secrets, like my love for jerky sunglasss.

Once in a while, I get weirdly panicked that I’m incapable of keeping best friends. 

I’ll watch movies about childhood BFFs-turned-lovers or go to weddings where the bride’s tearful maid of honor tells a story about their preschool days, and I’ll think about all the close friends I’ve had over the years who’ve drifted away. Sure, I still get drinks with one friend from elementary school, but I suspect it’s because we’ve set a precedent for drifting in and out of each other’s lives with a vague sense of fondness and a predilection for gin. Everyone else, though, is mostly gone.

I tend to fall in friend-love fiercely and quickly, and sometimes that means that after six months of grand, throat-choking affection, we abruptly realize that we drive each other up the wall. Still, it scares me that I can look at photos of myself pressing my face against someone else’s and remember the time and place but nothing of the feeling. 

With some of these friends, distance and time were the killers. With others, though, as guilty as I may feel, it was actually better for one or both of us that we eventually split. The older I get, the more I constantly evaluate how I’m expending my mental and emotional energies – and some relationships just aren’t worth the investment. Tragic, yes, but true. 

If you suspect that a friend break-up might be in your near future, consider asking yourself the following questions: 

1. Is Your Friend Using You as an Anecdote Machine?

When I’m nervous or surrounded by strangers, I’ll occasionally slip into a mouthy, aggressive persona that knows how to work a room while simultaneously desperately wishing to be home with a book. If you ask me about my love life when I'm in this mode, for example,  I'll inevitably respond with a story about a houseboat orgy rather than the far more realistic, “Last weekend I passed out on my date’s stomach after a glass of mulled wine and 15 minutes of ‘She’s the Man.’” 

Usually, this charade lasts a half hour, tops -- just long enough for me to feel comfortable in my own skin. But a lot of my high school friends loved this persona.

“You’re sooo San Francisco,” they’d coo when I told them stories of drunken co-worker makeouts or live sex shows. “I can’t believe your life!”

Conveniently, neither can I. My wacky anecdotes are all true, of course, but they’re not my entire existence. To those friends, though, that’s who I became -- and when I didn’t play that character, they’d get cranky.

“Tell us another wild SF story,” they’d plea when I tried to talk about my short-lived, intensely boring reporter side-job or my apartment dogs. “Have you had sex in Golden Gate Park yet?”

Eventually, it just started feeling too fake. These friends were enamored with a person I’d constructed as a defense mechanism, and I couldn’t maintain the illusion. Maybe if I’d been honest with them from the start it would have been easier. As it was, the next time I got an invite to one of their house parties, I respectfully declined. 

2. Are They Making You Feel Unreasonably Guilty About Your Other Friends?

This is what eventually killed one of those super-intense, inhaling-the-other’s-exhales friendships I seemed to collect in high school. I loved Bonnie like a sister, but she was one of a monogamous-friend type who poured all her energies into one person and expected them to do the same for her. We’d talk on the phone almost every night, hang out every weekend, and make so many grand declarations of love to each other that even my mom accused me at least twice of being her secret girlfriend. 

This was all well and good in high school, but when I got to college, it was impossible to maintain that level of intensity. I wanted to branch out and have adventures and try this new life on for size, and Bonnie was having none of it. Bonnie’s an amazing person, but for her our friendship was all-or-nothing: either I was her number one best friend or we were barely acquaintances. Eventually, it just got to be too much pressure. 

The way I see it, your stick-to-the-end friends should have enough security in your relationship to recognize its potential for flexibility and longevity in the face of life changes. Anyone who gives you shit because you no longer have time to call her every night is making herself into a chore instead of a pleasure. And at that point, that isn’t really friendship at all.  

3. Are You Brainstorming a List of “Safe” Topics Before Every Friend-Date?

When you’ve known someone for a long time, it can be tempting to believe that your shared history will be enough to fuel the relationship for the rest of your lives. And in some cases, this is totally true -- my one childhood friend and I have just enough in common that we have things to discuss when we’ve milked the “your boyfriend/my boyfriend/remember when?” teat dry. 

With others, though, I’ve gone in to a few friend-dates optimistic and unprepared, believing that the closeness we shared five years prior will have endured where our shared interests haven’t. Instead, we sat in awkward silence for two hours, occasionally trying, “So, how ‘bout that Mitt Romney? Oh, you voted for him. I see,” followed by more silence. 

Luckily, when these things happen, both parties tend to recognize that you’re on the verge of whipping out all the photos you took of your housemate’s cat the last time it climbed in a shoebox. It’s sometimes very difficult to admit that relationships can’t usually run on remembered affection alone. But generally, it’s better to cut your losses early and preserve some semblance of that fondness rather than drag out your interactions until you’re forced to either kill each other or enact an ill-advised soul-bonding ritual.

4. Does Your Friend Keep Returning to His Self-Destructive Behavior? Is He Taking You With Him Every Time?

This one is probably the toughest decision to make, and it might deserve its own piece sometime down the road. For me, though, part of friendship involves getting carried along in my friends’ dramas and indiscretions. I’m not always the best at emotionally separating my life from my loved ones’, and my friends tend to reach out for me as an anchor when they need support. Which is great by me -- most of the time.

The hard part, though, is acting as someone’s primary support system when they keep making the same bad decision over and over again. Being someone’s crutch takes work -- it simultaneously saps your emotional energy and makes you feel wildly out of control of the situation. A therapist friend of mine once snapped at me for continuing to be present (one might say too reassuring) for another friend who kept returning to her self-destructive behaviors. 

“She needs to know that your relationship with her is possible collateral damage,” the therapist told me. “If she knows you’ll be there for her regardless, she won’t change her behavior.”

Eventually, carrying a responsibility like that starts to wear on you, especially if it keeps repeating. You start needing your own support system; failing that, maybe you fall back on a few harmful behaviors of your own. Hence, this is one of those uncomfortable moments when choosing your own health over your friend’s might be the smartest option available if you're feeling overwhelmed. 

It doesn’t have to be what I call a “salt-and-burn” style purge, but taking a step back from the situation can provide a lot of clarity in terms of where you’re spending your time. You can still be there for your friend, of course, but you’re also giving yourself the option of opting out, which can be amazing for your own mental and emotional health. 

What about you guys? Any other red flags for ways to tell your friendship is taking its dying breath? When do YOU decide enough is enough? Let me know.

Kate is making and breaking friends at @katchatters.