It was five days before my 38th birthday when one of my oldest friends announced, via email, that she was dumping me.
“Hi, Laura!” she chirpily began. “Thanks for the invite to your birthday dinner on Friday. I won’t be able to make it, and I actually need to take a break from our friendship. I’m sorry, but I can’t tell you why right now. Have a great birthday! Much love, Brynne.”
I had met Brynne more than 20 years prior, during our freshman year in high school. Together we’d suffered through the endless misfit slog of teendom, lived as roommates in a New York City college dorm for a sticky ‘90s summer, and supported each other through bad affairs, major moves, and spells of depressive malaise.
When she moved to Europe after college, our communication grew spottier, and sometimes we’d go for long stretches without contact as we each built our new, shiny adult lives. But we stayed in each other’s spheres, and when we both ended up living back in our hometowns – me in Washington DC, Brynne in the suburbs about 30 miles away – we became close again.
Now, trying to digest Brynne’s out-of-nowhere email, I reeled with hurt and confusion (“much love?” really?). It had been a few months since we’d last talked; had we had a fight I’d forgotten about? Something I’d said or done or implied that would have troubled her enough to decide she no longer wanted me in her life – and that I wasn’t even worthy of an explanation? I read back through pages of old emails looking for traces of something that could have sparked this. Nada.
According to Diane Gottsman, an etiquette expert from the Protocol School of Texas, my pained reaction was perfectly normal. “I can still think of [a friend breakup] that makes me want to cry,” she says. “It’s that gut-wrenching feeling in your stomach. It leaves you with all these questions about why.”
I had no clue why. But one thing I did know was that Brynne had started intensive therapy a few months earlier when the proverbial sh*t in her life had hit the fan. I reassured myself with the notion that this might just be … her. Maybe it was part of her therapy?
The feeling was as if a serious boyfriend had abruptly disappeared on me for no reason, but … worse. Because I knew Brynne’s vanishing act wasn’t about fighting with in-laws or not having sex enough. It felt even more intimate – like a rejection of who I was at my core. It felt like some searing external confirmation that I wasn’t the person I’d strived to be and believed I was: a good friend, a solid listener, someone who valued her girlfriends above all else. Was this truly about me, or about Brynne, or something murkier altogether? I’m terrible with ambiguity. I could hardly sleep.
It took me a day to determine what I wanted to say in response. I was bitter and hurt, and I wanted Brynne to know that. But Diane Gottsman insists the dumpee must “take the high road,” and I sensed that in my gut. As Gottsman says, “It’s not going to do any good to lash out – then they’re really mad at you.” So I toed the line between compassion and candor; apologizing for, well, whatever I’d done, and asking Brynne if we could talk.
About a week later, she replied, admitting that she was still going through a hard time and was “re-evaluating” some of her relationships. I was relieved to hear something, but her explanation didn’t answer my bigger questions, like why our relationship was among the ones she was re-evaluating.
When Sandy (not her real name), got in a Facebook-fueled mini-fight with a friend, she figured it would blow over. She’d posted what she’d intended as a harmless joke that her friend of 13 years took offense at. Though the two discussed it over the phone and via email, ultimately the friend couldn’t get over what had transpired, writing to Sandy in an email: “Sometimes friends grow apart. I love you… Take care. Goodbye for now.” Sandy has seen her former friend at events here and there, but they didn’t talk.
There are other kinds of breakups, too. Namely, the slow fade or the flat-out vanishing act. Jen, 35, went through the latter when a friend of 10 years abruptly unfollowed her on every social media outlet (“even GoodReads!”) and failed to RSVP to her wedding. “Even though he was a dude, there was never any dating interest” there, she clarifies, and says she has no idea what triggered his sudden silence. Things had grown a bit tense while they worked on a writing project together, she remembers, but she thought it wasn’t a big deal … until she realized he’d ousted her from every online corner of his life and then failed to ever speak to her again. “It took at least two years before I stopped being angry about him silencing our friendship. I still feel hurt every once in awhile,” she notes.
Kaitlin, 27, has experienced various types of friend-splits, and though they’ve all been painful, she feels she’s learned from them: “I like to think … I am a better friend [nowadays], but who knows? Is it OK to ask someone why they suddenly seem to not like you anymore?”
“We invest in [our friends] and think that without them we’ll have a huge gaping hole,” Diane Gottsman affirms. “But that hole fills up. A breakup is a good time to look inside.” She says grieving is one of the most crucial steps not to skip after being dismissed by a friend: “If you bury it under the carpet, you won’t process that loss.” She suggests “writing a letter, getting it all out” (don’t mail it!).
No matter how you choose to work through your friend-divorce, Gottsman reminds, “There’s no valor in holding it in and going through it alone.” You have to express your grief somewhere, whether it’s to another friend or in a journal. And if it’s you who’s considering parting ways with a close confidante, Gottsman suggests doing it face to face if possible. Most importantly, she says, “do it in a kind way.” Though giving someone a sense of what went wrong is essential, perfect honesty isn’t always the best policy.
As for me, it’s been three months, and I’m still grieving. I hope eventually Brynne will resurface and agree to discuss what happened and why. But until – or whether – that happens, my focus is back on myself, and my other friendships.