Part of the Friendship Issue of The Highlight, our home for ambitious stories that explain our world.
MJ Castile always loved how present Kai, their best friend, was. In high school, Kai (a pseudonym Castile asked to be used to protect Kai’s privacy), was the first friend with a car and was the de facto chauffeur of the group. Later, when Castile moved from Las Vegas to Portland, Oregon, Kai was the only friend from back home who visited them. The two FaceTimed every day for hours when they weren’t together. Kai was even set to move to Portland to live with Castile.
“He was always there in a lot of ways that no other friends were,” Castile, 21, says. “He was there for me in ways that I really needed.”
There were also aspects of Kai’s approach to friendship that Castile didn’t love. Before Castile’s move to Portland, Kai was initially unsupportive, telling Castile they wouldn’t be successful so far away from home. In other instances, Kai was dismissive of Castile’s experience and point of view as a queer Black person when it came to policing and racism. “He just kept on shutting me down and telling me that I’m wrong and telling me that I just don’t want the best for him and just really downplaying and silencing my voice,” Castile says.
Whenever the pair got into arguments, Castile says they both would take a few days to calm down, then carry on as though nothing had happened. These more recent fights, however, were different. Castile felt strongly that Kai’s views couldn’t be swept under the rug. When, after one fight in January, Kai tried to carry on without addressing the fact that Castile felt invalidated, Castile sent Kai resources on white privilege and policing. “I sent him a long text about how I felt about the conversation and how I still want to be friends,” Castile says. “But he just needs to be educated on more things.”
Kai never responded. After seven years of friendship, Kai and Castile were no more.
Friendships are subject to the trials and tribulations, big and small, that plague nearly all relationships. People move to new cities or start families and drift apart; some bonds are broken by differing viewpoints and ideologies, others implode with arguments and hurt feelings. Because friendships are relationships of choice, they can sometimes feel more disposable or prone to the whims of short-term desires than familial bonds. This flexibility, often because friends are not related or legally bound and generally don’t share responsibilities like child-rearing, leads to ambiguity when it comes to ending friendships. Where culture is brimming with images of post-breakup self-help and books on family estrangement, very few guideposts exist for friendship.
This isn’t to say friendships are any less meaningful than romantic partnerships. Friendships are among the most important relationships in people’s lives, says Grace Vieth, a PhD student at the University of Minnesota who studies how friendships end. Thus, platonic breakups can be just as painful as romantic or familial ones. Time spent and memories shared make a fractured companionship all the more difficult to swallow. However, when two people no longer see eye to eye on the fundamentals of friendship, it may be time to sever ties.
The hallmarks of a successful friendship include trust, the ability to have healthy communication, and sharing some common ground, says licensed psychotherapist Akua K. Boateng. Any time feelings of distrust, a breakdown in communication, or a lack of empathy for the other person’s experience emerge, consider it an indicator that some aspect of the friendship has gone awry. Other signs of a friendship in peril include not feeling supported and no longer sharing interests, says psychotherapist Whitney Goodman, author of Toxic Positivity: Keeping It Real in a World Obsessed with Being Happy. Even if you feel like you don’t have many friends to begin with, Goodman says fear isn’t a reason to keep someone in your life who adds more pain than joy.
Vanessa Santos, co-CEO and partner at #WeAllGrow Latina, a motivational speaker, and friendship expert, suggests asking yourself if you’re communicating differently (or not as frequently) with this friend, if they invite drama into your life, and if your desire to spend time with them has changed. As people grow, their communication styles may not align, or one friend may not feel excited to see the other anymore, Santos says. For example, she knew her relationship with a former best friend had reached its natural endpoint when their interests and friend groups diverged so much that they had very little in common. Santos wanted to travel; her friend was a homebody. “We tried forcing it by staying in touch, but then it felt forced,” she says.
You may look at your friendship and decide it’s worth maintaining, but you need some time apart if you’re going through a transition. Goodman suggests saying something along the lines of, “I’m going through a big change [at work/with my family/moving] right now. Know that I love you and I care about you and it’s okay if we don’t talk all the time. I just want to tell you that upfront so you know what’s going on with me.” That way you leave the door open when you’re ready to reconnect. Many people are fearful of rejection and often make no attempt to revitalize a friendship that’s gone cold, Goodman says, but the person on the other end usually is happy to receive a text looking to build a bridge.
Of course, if a friend is verbally abusive — resorting to name-calling, putdowns, or derogatory remarks — or whose views minimize your experience and safety, these are clear indications you should definitely leave the relationship. For example, Kai’s downplaying of Castile’s concerns and resistance to hearing their point of view was a major contributor to the end of their friendship.
Ending a friendship
The most common way friendships end is largely unceremonious: by ghosting. Because the contours of friendship are more amorphous than those with a romantic partner or family member, letting a text from a friend go unanswered might seem less egregious than never again speaking to your live-in spouse. Life changes that disrupt friendship routines are largely to blame for passive dissolutions of friendships, Vieth says. A work friend gets a new job and you both slowly lose touch, a college pal has a baby and their attention and free time are limited, your errand or hobby friend isn’t into the same activities you initially bonded over and the relationship fizzles. However, ghosting can have profoundly negative impacts on the ghostee: Research shows those on the receiving end of ghosting feel rejection, confusion, and low self-esteem. So consider how the other party would feel if you suddenly avoid all communication.
The second and less common avenue for ending a friendship is an active breakup, “which is more representative of a romantic relationship breakup where we have an actual clear conversation and we may know that the relationship is ending,” Vieth says.
An active breakup should ideally be multiple conversations, Boateng says. As soon as you notice issues in the relationship — you and a friend are constantly arguing, for instance — address the problem in a healthy way. Boateng suggests saying, “I find that we’re arguing more than we’re actually having a conversation. That’s something we need to talk about. What is that like for you? What is that like for me?”
“You’re starting to have conversations that reveal the challenges that you’re having, the concerns that you’re having,” Boateng says. “Over time, after you have several conversations, if you come to a point where you have to end the relationship, it’s not a surprise.” A friend might act defensively in return and may not want to engage in the conversation, but what’s important, Boateng says, is you’ve given them the space to respond.
If, after multiple fruitless conversations addressing problems, you still want to end the friendship, Boateng suggests telling your friend that you no longer have the capacity to put effort into the relationship given the challenges you still have and that you need to step away from the friendship. Ideally, this should be done face-to-face, but can be expressed digitally. Santos wrote an email to a now-former friend explaining how she felt the friendship had changed, how her feelings had been hurt, and how she needed some space. If you feel up to it, both Boateng and Santos recommend expressing gratitude toward your friend and wishing them well.
Vieth wouldn’t classify one method of ending a friendship as being more ideal than the other, but says it’s largely dependent on the desired outcome: Do you want to avoid conflict? Do you want to give a formerly close friend some closure? Goodman says to consider the relationship to determine how to end it. If you want to cut a person out of your life who says hurtful things, a clearly defined breakup conversation might be preferable. You may not want to ghost a childhood friend whom you’re still fond of but don’t have much in common with anymore. A friend who was in your life for a short time and under specific circumstances — say, you both were single at the same time, or both took a dance class together — might get the passive fade-out treatment.
Sometimes an active breakup might be necessary when both parties aren’t on the same wavelength. Santos attempted to ghost a friend after she had “snapped” at Santos’s aunt and grandmother at a party. The friend noticed Santos’s silence and asked why they hadn’t hung out, opening the door for Santos to explain how she was shocked by the friend’s attitude toward her family members. The friend stood by her actions, and a passive friend breakup turned active. “The kind of closeness that we perceive with one person can be very different from the closeness they perceive with us,” Vieth says. “You always have to keep in mind that with any kind of interpersonal relationship, you have two options and two people shaping how this friendship breakup might play out.”
Managing the fallout
Just like a romantic split, filtering someone out of your life is both emotional and logistical. Humans struggle with the notion of impermanence in their relationships, Boateng says, and it can be helpful to accept you’ve hit the limit of what the friendship could offer without feeling the need to change the outcome. Allow yourself space to grieve the loss, just as you would a romantic breakup, and validate the fact that you lost someone who was once important or with whom you no longer have anything in common, Goodman says.
Because friendships don’t exist in a vacuum, it’s quite possible you two share friends and might both be invited to, say, a mutual friend’s birthday party. While the breakup is still fresh, you may have to step back from group activities with mutual friends, Boateng says. If the split was fairly amicable, feel free to engage with mutuals who support your moving on from their friend after you’ve healed a bit, including larger get-togethers attended by your former friend. “If there hasn’t been abuse or serious harm, I think it’s appropriate and doable to be in groups together where you don’t have to associate one-on-one,” Goodman says. “If both parties are able to be cordial and respectful, you can just say hello and move on.” However, if things ended with hostility, you may need more distance from the group, Boateng says. In Santos’s experience, once she parted with a longtime best friend, she stopped hanging out with a larger circle of women whom she had largely met through her former friend. Whenever she sees them out and about, she’s cordial and friendly.
MJ Castile, who recently ended their friendship with their friend Kai, also fell out of touch with another best friend who was close to Kai. “We were all just like a trio,” Castile says. “That best friend, she and I never had any problems, but that best friend just dropped me even though there wasn’t an issue between us.”
Castile frequently fights the urge to FaceTime Kai. In the hours the two would’ve spent on the phone, Castile now focuses on themselves, on their work as a baker. Castile wishes things had transpired differently, that Kai would’ve told them he needed space to process instead of cutting them off. Castile doesn’t anticipate reconciling with Kai and is now at peace; the weight of sadness has begun to subside. There are far more supportive friendships worth fostering.
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