When I broke up with my ex-boyfriend, I had all of the support, understanding, and literature in the world to help me sift through the sadness and complex emotions that inevitably followed. But when my best friend cut me off? Suddenly I was left to my own devices. We haven’t spoken for a few years, and to this day, I’m still surprised by how much her absence wrecked me at the time. But what struck me the most was how painful it was: It easily eclipsed any sorrow and regret I felt from my past romantic relationships. To date, my friendship breakup has been the biggest heartbreak I’ve ever experienced.
“Unlike family, friendships are chosen relationships. We make a conscious decision to foster friendships. These decisions are often based on variables such as mutual interests, trust, honesty, and loyalty,” Dr. Jaime Zuckerman, a licensed clinical psychologist who specializes in relationship issues and grief, tells HelloGiggles. “Friendship breakups are often the result of the erosion of these factors, which can result in a myriad of emotions, including feelings of betrayal, anger, and sadness.”
We often hope romantic relationships last forever, but we aren’t totally oblivious to love’s fickle nature. On the other hand, friendships exist in a more nebulous place. We are aware that romantic love can bring us suffering, but the same complexity hasn’t been afforded to friendships. Friends can seemingly assume a static role of eternal understanding and unconditional acceptance, making it hard to bring up conflict and even harder to know how to let go when it’s beyond repair. If you’re dealing with the unexpected end of a friendship, here are a few tips from experts to help you move on gracefully.
1. Acknowledge what happened to begin the mourning process.
According to Dr. Zuckerman, there’s a reason why friend breakups feel so psychologically painful, and it comes down to science: “From a brain chemistry standpoint, neurotransmitters play an important role in breakups. When we are enjoying the reciprocity of a healthy friendship, our brains release several ‘feel-good’ chemicals. When a breakup occurs, we lose this particular source of neurotransmitters.” Dr. Zuckerman notes the loss of a friendship may result in increased sadness and anxiety and can even put us at risk for depression.
Our brain metabolizes grief all the same, which is why it’s fundamental not to minimize or gloss over what happened. Physically, it doesn’t feel much different. With my former best friend, we assumed we always knew what we were thinking and, worse, what was best for each other. It felt nice to be understood, but that dynamic became suffocating over time; it didn’t leave any room for different versions of ourselves to exist. We didn’t know how to address what was going on and instead drifted away from each other until the distance became too much to overcome.
After everything happened, I felt embarrassed and ashamed for taking such a long time to get over the friendship split, which slowed my post-breakup healing. To completely move on, though, I realized that I couldn’t keep discounting the role she had in my life. She was a safe harbor to lean on during an intensely tumultuous and formative time in my early twenties. For years we were like family and relied on each other for everything. Once I acknowledged her significance, it released me from self-judgment and allowed me to finally feel those feelings.
2. Practice compassionate self-care on yourself.
Breakups of all kinds, no matter how big or small, take an emotional toll. Friendship losses can be especially jarring if your ex-BFF, who used to represent unconditional comfort and support beyond measure, has now become a source of distress and dysfunction. Dr. Zuckerman suggests doing self-care practices to help improve your mental state.
It may sound self-explanatory, but friend breakups are not taken as seriously as romantic breakups are. We’re expected to move on and simply get over it, which diminishes how powerful platonic love can be. So don’t be afraid to go inward and use whatever coping strategies and feel-good rituals you need to feel better, like journaling, meditating, etc. It’s essential to treat yourself with compassion as you’re processing. Reminder: Your feelings are valid.
“Do something enjoyable for yourself. What can you do that involves only you? Maybe go shopping, take a day trip to the beach, get yourself a good book and new comfy pajamas,” Dr. Zuckerman advises.
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3. Write a letter to get closure and learn something from it.
If your friend breakup didn’t have the cleanest ending, it can leave you scrambling to figure out the reasons behind the rift. If it’s still weighing on you, writing everything out—the good times, bad times, and everything in between—may be helpful. It can prompt you to look for beneficial takeaways for the future and grapple with any messy, residual feelings that might still be there. “I always suggest a reflection period once the strong emotions have somewhat settled,” says Dr. Zuckerman. She recommends a few questions to guide you: “What happened? How did it get to that point? Did you miss red flags? Are there toxic relationship patterns you continue to gravitate towards because it’s familiar?”
To truly express yourself without any self-editing, I recommend keeping the letter for yourself since it’s being used as a vehicle to sort through your own grief. This is your opportunity to seek catharsis and say goodbye. If you send it, you won’t be able to fully get closure because you’ll be too preoccupied with their response (or lack thereof). It’s better to find your own meaning of what happened, say everything you need to say, and move on with finality.
4. Apply key takeaways to your relationships and look forward to the future.
I used to take my friendships for granted. I didn’t put enough work into co-creating a mutual relationship that could tolerate discomfort, clear boundaries, and the ups and downs of life. My ex-best friend taught me a stinging lesson about the beauty and fragility of platonic love: They’re magical and profoundly life-enhancing, but they need tenderness, maintenance, and upkeep. Now more than ever, treating my best friends with equal love, affection, and understanding is of great importance. I’m more thoughtful about putting in the time and energy in developing a deeper, honest connection with my close friends that can sustainably withstand potential hiccups, tension, and conflict if needed.
But before all of that happened, there was a period of time when I was afraid to get close to new people. If you’ve been burned, it can feel challenging to reinvest in another friendship and do it all over again. That anxiety is a perfectly normal reaction. “It’s likely that we may question or doubt our ability to judge another’s character accurately and maybe convince ourselves that people can’t be trusted. Feelings of loneliness are quite common post-friend breakup, especially if it’s someone who you’ve spent a significant amount of time with or have known for most of your life,” says Dr. Zuckerman. As you heal, it’ll become easier over time to open up to others.
It’s typical to make friendship breakups mean something negative about you or them instead of what it is; nothing lasts forever, and people naturally grow apart. Life gets in the way, and lots of things (distance, mismatched expectations, unaddressed tension, and other countless reasons) could have contributed to the end. While it’s disappointing it couldn’t work out, you can take what you’ve learned to other relationships and find new meaning there.