Ending a Friendship

By Janis Kupferer 

Sometimes ending a friendship is necessary, but that doesn't mean that it has to be ugly and filled with strife. There are ways to "untangle" from a friendship that can help both parties feel better about the decision.

 Out of the Mouths of Babes
This morning I watched out my window as two little girls played together. At first the two girls played nicely and appeared to be having a good time. But then, one little girl collected up a pebble from the sidewalk and tossed it at the second.

The second little girl didn’t like this and said very simply, “Don’t do that.”

The first little girl ignored her playmate’s complaint and tossed a few more pebbles her way. So the second girl said again, “Don’t do that. It hurts, and I don’t like that.”

The first little girl either didn’t understand or didn’t want to stop, and so she threw a few more stones, this time with even a bit more force. With the final toss, the second little girl got up abruptly and said, “Okay, if you aren’t going to play nice, I’m not going to play with you anymore.” And she walked away.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we adults could end all problems as quickly, or all bad relationships so effortlessly? Wouldn’t it be terrific if we would speak our minds so freely or state our needs—calmly and plainly, and then commit to an outcome?

A friendship isn’t a well-defined entity, and therefore, when we end one, there isn’t a formal definition or standard process to how this ending is supposed to play out. Although we eagerly (and often, too quickly) pronounce ourselves “friends” with someone, we don’t have an opposite procedure on how to downgrade a relationship to “acquaintance” status, or for when we simply don’t want to be friends anymore.  

The Reason:
The list of reasons for the ending of a friendship is wide and varied. Some friendships end due to geography: one of you moves to a new city and as a result, the friendship fades. Some friendships end due to a significant life-change: perhaps a new child, a more demanding job, or a new marriage that keeps you busy or otherwise occupied and not able or wanting to socialize as you once had.

Some friendships end for no other reason than a change of interest: you like Mexican cuisine, she likes Thai; you play golf, she’s into badminton; you read the book, and she goes to the movie. You just don’t share the same interests or activities anymore so you move on to new friendships and circles that are more appropriate for you.

And of course, some friendships end in conflict, which can be really painful. If the issue is clear-cut, this can help ease the pain, as you both understand what happened and why the friendship is ending. And while it still might sting, at least all parties have clarity around the situation.

Unfortunately, some times the conflict is difficult, and not something that we can easily define, nor want to discuss because how we are feeling isn’t very nice. For instance, you think your friend isn’t always the kindest or most supportive of people. Or you feel that the friendship is more taxing than relaxing, and you need more of the latter—a lot more of the latter. Often it is hard to put your finger directly on the reason, but your enjoyment of and regard for the friendship has soured, and you’ve decided that the best think for you is to part ways with your former friend.  

The Players:
In the worse of cases, there is one party to the friendship who wants out, while the other is left stunned or hurt or both. An alternative situation occurs when, while both gals may be sad that their friendship ended, neither is terribly grief stricken and if circumstances were to change (say if one moves back to town) the friendships would resume easily.

When contemplating the end of a friendship, many women mistakenly believe that their decision only involves the two friends. But the reality is that most friendships revolve around a group of friends. And when you alter the relationship with one member of a group, by default, you also alter the relationship between yourself and the entire group. The stability and livelihood of any social circle requires that all the members adhere to an informal and unspoken set of rules of conduct. When one member acts to breach those requirements by treating another member poorly, the group has to react in order to maintain itself. Often the response is to expel the offending party.  

The Method:
Although there might be “Fifty Ways to Leave a Lover,” there are really just a few ways to end a friendship, and the method that you select can have various ramifications. Endings can be simple or difficult, hard or soft.

As mentioned earlier, some friendships just dissolve due to circumstances where no one party is really at fault nor is either party essentially harmed. This is a simple ending: the friendship “simply” ended. Other friendship’s endings can include much drama and a lot of hard feelings, thus we label these “difficult” endings.

Other nuances to how a friendship ends include full or soft endings. The simple ending to a friendship typically happens very softly. The time between calls increases, and the frequency of get-togethers decreases. You can’t place a date on when the friendship ended, as it does so slowly—or softly—over time. Alternatively, sometimes you’ve decided that the friendship needs to end, and end fully—you don’t intend to have any further contact with your former friend. This is what we call a hard end of the friendship.

You also have the choice as to whether to have a conversation about your reasons for ending of the friendship, or to leave your reasons unspoken. Many people like to “clear the air” and talk with the other person about their reasons for ending the friendship; they believe it is best to end with no question as to why the friendship has died. Others view these types of conversations as completely uncomfortable and simply unnecessary. Some folks say that out of respect to your former friend, you should at least have a conversation before ending a friendship. Others advise that silence is the better method, as it prevents even more hurt feelings. Like the other factors, there isn’t a right or wrong decision to be made here, rather it is merely a personal choice.  

The Outcome:
Before ending any friendship, one should consider carefully all the possible outcomes and ramifications. Will you be ostracizing yourself from your extended social circle? Do you feel that you gave the relationships a fair shake? Are you comfortable that you are showing respect and have adequately explained your reasons for terminating the relationship? Do you think it is possible at some point in the future you may feel differently and be open to resuming the friendship again?

Cicero, the Roman philosopher, wrote extensively on the subject of friendships and offered the following advise if you should find yourself needing to end one: Disengage (or untangle) carefully, rather than cut all ties. Cicero believed that any type of break to a friendship should be done gradually, so as to avoid unnecessary animosity. Why? Because at one point you did considered this person a friend, and they not only deserve kindness now (as all people do), but if you begin to treat them harshly, others may reconsider a potential friendship with you.

Over the course of our lives, all of us will enjoy many, many friendships. And while the hope is that each of these friendships will stand the test of time, the reality is that many will blossom and ultimately fade as part of a natural cycle. So, when we do find ourselves needing to trim back on a particular friendship (or change a whole circle), it is best to consider the approach that works best for you, for your intended outcome, and for all the players involved.

And if you find that you are needing to replenish your supply of female friends, of course SocialJane.com is a great place to start. In the meantime, if you've ever had to end a friendship, was it difficult, did it happen gradually, or do you regret the decision? Tell us about it.

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