Breaking Up with a Friend: When It Should Happen & How to Do It
Friendships are relationships. Like romantic relationships, they can be long-term, long-distance, summer flings and even on-again, off-again. Friendships can also run their course or become toxic. When this happens, it’s time for a breakup. Breaking up with a friend is difficult, but if you are confident the relationship should end and know how to approach the process compassionately, we promise you’ll get through it. Read on for some expert advice on how to identify a toxic friendship and what to do next.
How to know if you should end a friendship
Knowing when to break up with a friend may be tricky, but it usually boils down to the fact that the relationship is consistently one-sided. If a majority of your interactions with the friend in question leave you unhappy or unhealthy, an explicit farewell might be in order.
“Simply put, it is time to break up with your friend when you have more bad days than good days,” says Kyle Elliott, MPA, a member of the Forbes Coaches Alliance. Ending a toxic relationship means you are prioritizing your mental and physical health, which Elliott reminds us is a “valuable life skill.”
If you recognize any of the following scenarios, you probably have good reason to break things off with the friend who consistently demonstrates this behavior.
1. They take advantage of you
All healthy relationships include give and take. This means both parties benefit. Parasitic relationships, where one person puts more into the friendship than they get out of it, are unhealthy. Ask yourself how often you drop everything for your friend and whether they show up for you in return. Dr. Beth Ribarsky, PhD, an expert in relational communication and a professor at the University of Illinois Springfield, says if they never have time for you when you need someone to help out or listen, you’re probably in a one-sided friendship.
2. They’re a bad influence on you
Sonya Schwartz, relationship expert and founder of Her Norm, says any relationship in which another person brings consistent negativity into your life is toxic. Perhaps you’re always in a bad mood after hanging out with this person or they shower you with pessimism.
“They might even encourage you to keep up with your bad habits or vices and will discourage you from taking a step in the right direction,” says Dr. Rashmi Parmar, M.D., a psychiatrist at Community Psychiatry. If they add more negativity than positivity to your life, it’s probably time to call it quits or take a break.
Pro tip: Sometimes it’s hard to see this change from the inside. Trust those closest to you who know you well, like your spouse or parents, if they regularly note how disgruntled you are after interacting with this person.
3. They bail on you all the time
How often has this friend canceled plans at the most inconvenient time? Repeatedly backing out of plans at the last minute is rude and over time can become manipulative. Of course, family emergencies and unexpected roadblocks pop up sporadically! Those are legitimate reasons for having to bail. But fishy excuses every single time you make plans? Not OK.
4. They don’t follow through
Another version of bailing on you is failing to follow through on commitments. Unlike canceling plans, the night of, not following through applies to broader gestures like forgetting to pick you up or rescinding promises without a viable explanation. If it’s gotten to the point where you don’t trust them to follow through on anything they say, trust no longer exists.
5. They routinely betray you
Betrayal seems like a dramatic word, but even the smallest deception can do a lot of damage. Betrayal includes everything from sleeping with your spouse to lying about plans. Dr. Ribarsky says if you cannot trust a friend with information because you’re afraid they’ll tell others or use it against you later, the friendship isn’t healthy. Again, this boils down to trust.
6. They say mean things
Whether it’s trash talking you to people behind your back or putting you down to your face, mean words are harmful. Sure, we need friends to be brutally honest with us when we ask for it (“You cannot wear that to your in-laws’ for Christmas.”), but regular cruelty is uncalled for.
7. They make you anxious
Lauren Paul and Molly Thompson, co-founded Kind Campaign to combat bullying and improve friendships among girls. They also want you to listen to your intuition! Do you get anxious around your friend—or even when you see their name pop up on your phone? If you’re unable to relax when you’re near them, it could be a sign of a toxic friendship.
8. They never “lose” a fight
Disagreements between friends are totally normal as long as everyone feels heard. Paul and Thompson are adamant that “healthy, respectful conversations about the conflict” are key to positive friendships. A friend who refuses to hear you out or never apologizes isn’t a true friend.
9. They want you to be someone else
Some friends expect us to meet certain criteria in order to please them. It can be fun to venture out of your comfort zone (oftentimes friends are ideal cheerleaders as we push ourselves to try new things). But, being a phony version of yourself to please someone else every time you see them isn’t genuine friendship.
10. They are always jealous of you
Your friends should celebrate your successes! Jealousy is a natural human emotion everyone is allowed to feel. However, when a friend’s consistent response to good things in your life is anger or envy, it’s clear they care less about your happiness and more about themselves. (Their jealousy can also cause you to feel guilty when you accomplish a goal, which is not healthy. You should feel proud shouting your success from the rooftops.)
How to break up with a friend
Breaking up with a friend can be more difficult than breaking up with a lover because the labels and boundaries we use with romantic partners are clearer and more specific. Randi Levin, a Transitional Life Strategist and coach, says, “Often, friendships are left without this more formal closure, which may make it difficult for one or both parties to move on without feeling hurt and abandoned.”
One thing to keep in mind is some friendships organically fizzle out. If this is the case, there’s no real need to have a formal break-up conversation. In fact, it’s possible the friendship will organically reignite years later. According to Jason Lee, a Relationship Science and Data Analyst with Healthy Framework, “The only time it needs to be a more formal discussion is if you expect just going your own way naturally will have a negative effect on the other person.”
1. Voice your concern
If you’re torn over relinquishing a friendship, it’s worth trying to salvage it first. “Discuss your feelings before making any final decisions on where to take that friendship,” says Nicole Sbordone, LCSW and author of Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. “It's possible that your friend doesn't even realize he or she is treating you in that way.”
It’s important to use “I statements” and express how your friend’s actions or words have made you feel. Use this opportunity to set boundaries moving forward.
“If you talk to her and nothing changes, then it's definitely time to decide whether to keep this person in your life,” says Sbordone.
2. Rehearse what you want to say
Winging it is risky because emotions accelerate quickly. Dr. Ribarsky suggests thinking about—or writing down—what you’d like to say to your friend before approaching them. Beware of coming in with many accusations right away. Start by addressing how that person made you feel.
3. Do it yourself
Whatever you do, do not ask someone else to break up with your friend on your behalf. Even if you’ve been treated unfairly, it’s unhealthy to pass off the confrontation to someone else. You may miss out on enlightening information that would otherwise improve your relationship with your friend.
4. Speak over the phone or in person
Breaking up with anyone via text is more trouble than it’s worth. Intonation and facial expressions are completely lost in that medium. Ask to meet in person, give them a call or set a date to FaceTime. This isn’t easy, but it’s worth it to express fully what you need.
5. Be honest
Avoid empty promises and don’t make excuses for the other person. Dr. Cassandra LeClair, relationship expert and Communication Studies Professor at Texas State University, says, “If you wish to end communication, don't say you'll talk to them in a month…don’t blame it on being busy.” Honesty also lets them know exactly what went wrong; they may be able to avoid similar mistakes in the future.
6. Be gracious
Honesty and grace can co-exist; remind them of a good memory you share (if there is one) and wish them well. It’s also a good idea to refrain from trash talking them to others or fueling gossip about this person, especially if you have mutual friends.
7. Be firm
Since your friendship with this person was toxic enough to end, beware of letting them guilt-trip you or change your mind. This is manipulative behavior. If you find yourself unable to firmly say, “No. This is over,” request an indefinite break from each other and let this person know you will be the first to reach out should your mind change. Do not let them control your decision.
8. Unfollow them on social media
After any break-up, removing the other party from your social feeds is one of the healthiest things you can do. It won’t make you feel any better to see what they’re up to (or a highlight reel of their life). It might even be wise to block them from seeing your profile or sending you messages.
When in doubt, remember these words from Dr. LeClair: “It doesn't matter if your friend didn't do anything ‘wrong.’ You are allowed to leave any relationship that makes you uncomfortable.”