There's No Such Thing as an Easy Breakup Between Friends

In an article entitled -- "IT'S NOT U, IT'S ME :-(" -- in this weekend's New York Times Magazine, Benoit Denizet-Lewis describes a one-day crash-course called "Healthy Breakups," held last month in Boston. Sponsored by the Boston Public Health Commission in collaboration with Northeastern University, the conference was intended to help teen participants learn how to break up nicely -- as opposed to nastily, angrily, or unthinkingly -- when a relationship has run its course. The writer quotes one organizer as saying: "No one talks to young people about this aspect of relationships."

Why now? With the rapid growth of social media, many adults are concerned about how easy it has become for someone to defriend, or to be defriended, with the click of a key on a computer or smartphone -- regardless of the lasting emotional pain it may cause for the person being dumped.

But the truth is that handling a breakup is exceedingly difficult for everyone, irrespective of age. And if kids are looking to their parents for advice, or as role models for how to unfriend or defriend with grace, they may be disappointed.

During World War II, many soldiers received "Dear John" letters from their girlfriends back home, who couldn't wait any longer and didn't want to go into a lengthy explanation about why they had to end their relationships. Neil Sedaka's signature song some decades later, "Breaking Up is Hard to Do," sky-rocketed to the top of the charts because in addition to its punchy tune, the theme was so relatable then -- as it still is now.

After surveying more than 1500 women from the ages of 17-70 for my book, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, I realized why friendship breakups are intrinsically so messy.

1) Breakups carry a great deal of social stigma because our society often judges people, especially women, by their ability to make and keep friends. So when a relationship ends, people tend to see it as a character flaw: Someone betrayed or let the other person down. In reality, this is rarely the case. People change and no two lives follow the same trajectory so why don't we leave room for the possibility that many breakups are no-fault occurrences and that some friendships simply have expiration dates?

2) Sometimes a relationship works for one person and not the other.
If you're the person who has been blissfully engaged in a friendship with someone you thought would be your best friend forever, there's no easy remedy for not feeling like you've been dumped when you're suddenly cut loose summarily, often without any warning. One-sided breakups are especially hard to execute, discuss and accept.

3) We all have a natural reluctance to let go of something we know (even if it isn't particularly good) rather than risk the uncertainty of something new. Many women I surveyed were afraid to let go of toxic friendships because they felt like everyone else is already paired up, like the animals on Noah's ark. Whether young or older, they felt it was too late to meet new friends. This is a strong disincentive to healthy endings and healthy beginnings.

4) As compared to marriages, there are no social rituals to fall back upon that are associated with breaking up with friends.
Not to trivialize the pain and complexities of divorce, but at least there are some rules. Close friends usually encircle the person who is going through a divorce but when someone loses a friend, people are reluctant to talk about what happened. Both the dumped and the dumper suffer in silence, feeling either shame or blame, respectively.

5) Unfortunately, any breakup has consequences that extend beyond the two people directly involved in the breakup. Very often, the friendship involves connections with other family members and friends. In the case of friends in the workplace, the breakup spills over to colleagues and co-workers. When a friendship ends, it may make other collateral relationships more tenuous.

There are no simple rules for breaking up ---except to do so in a way that is graceful and kind. Courses like the one in Boston remind us of that and, therefore, are a step in the right direction.

About the Conference:

From the Boston Public Health Commission
Teens urge peers to "Face it, don't Facebook it

To read stories of friendship breakups and crowd-sourced solutions, visit the forums on The Friendship Blog