A Therapist’s Script For Breaking Up With a Friend
It can be harder (and more awkward) than breaking up with a partner.
As much as we’d all like to believe in the teen trope of BFFs, sometimes that second F needs to be “fuck off.” Maybe you’re in a friendship that was toxic from the start. Now you’ve grown healthier and are ready to cut them out of your life like a suspicious mole. Maybe your friendship started out healthy and now your friend has morphed into one of those people who makes you feel like a loser every time you’re together.
Breaking up with a friend can be even harder than breaking up with a lover, asserts Sharon Saline, Massachusetts-based psychologist and lecturer at Smith College School for Social Work who has experience as both dumper and dumpee. There’s a lot of information and advice out there about breaking up with someone in a romantic relationship. “And those break-ups seem to be more expected and accepted socially,” she says. “With friends, the structure and boundaries are much less clear. It's often harder because we expect those relationships to last.”
Of course, it pays to take time and think about whether a friendship is worth taking some serious effort to mend. But if you decide that ship has sailed, capsized, and sunk, Saline offers up a sample script to help you negotiate the awkward conversations that come along with consciously uncoupling from a friend.
IF: They say things that make you feel bad about yourself
THEN: Say, “It really hurt me that you said X,Y, and Z and this isn’t the first time it’s happened. I don't want to be friends with someone who acts this way towards me.”
Using concrete examples of your lousy friend’s behavior shows them specific instances of how they’ve violated the “friend contract” that you entered into together. “Friendship is a mutual agreement, and one person can choose to opt out of that agreement,” Saline says. Focusing on behaviors that are dealbreakers for you makes the reasons for the breakup more tangible and clear.
Saline says that when she had to dump a friend, she was guided by the wisdom of her beloved aunt Patsy, who told her: “Sharon, I don’t keep people in my life who don’t bring me joy.” Amen, aunt Patsy.
Watch this from VICE:
IF: You argue with this person half the time you’re with them
THEN: Say, “It seems like we've been arguing a lot. I'm sad about this but I think we should take some space. It's just too hard.”
While Saline agrees that many healthy relationships include some occasional conflict, she says you need to look at the “intensity and frequency” of the arguments. “If one out of ten times you get together you exchange some words, that’s one thing. If every other time you get together, you get into it, that’s something else. That’s 50 percent.” Friends are supposed to be supports and companions, not people who bring more stress into your life.
IF: They talk about you behind your back
THEN: Say, “I was really hurt when you talked about me to X after I asked you not to do that. Remember when you talked about me to Y? It really doesn't work for me that this keeps happening and I don't think I can continue to be your friend anymore.”
Again, calling out specific behaviors for the breakup keeps the conversation grounded. It might also cause your soon-to-be-ex-friend to lash out, which leads me to the next scenario.
IF: The dumpee gets defensive, lashes out, cries or otherwise tries to guilt you into remaining friends
THEN: Say, “No, this isn’t working for me.”
The hardest part of dumping a friend will likely be having to deal with the resistance, sadness, and anger they react with. It’s especially hard if you’ve let yourself be manipulated by the friend in the past.
“Your job as the so-called breaker upper is to be able to tolerate their anger, which is lying on top of their hurt and disappointment. You have to stay clean with yourself,” Saline adds. “Put on your Teflon suit and go into the conversation and realize that whatever they’re throwing at you is because they’re hurting, they’re disappointed, or maybe they feel ashamed. So they’re trying to control it to be a different outcome. If that’s not the outcome you want, you get to choose that.”
IF: You need to dump a friend that you’ll still have to see like a coworker or a neighbor
THEN: Say, “Sometimes friends drift apart. I wish you well and there's no hard feelings. We can say 'hi' and stuff but don't have to feel pressured to spend time together.”
Saline says that if you’re dumping a friend you’re still going to have contact with, it needs to be more of a “distancing” than a “dumping.” While some may choose to go the straight-up-avoidance route, that won’t serve you in the long run. “When there’s a lot of avoidance, there’s a lot of assumptions about what’s happening.”
If you can be clear with the coworker/neighbor/classmate that you’re not feeling anger or hatred towards them, you may be able to avoid potential drama that comes from their own insecurities about the “distancing.”
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