Attachments to friends can be similar to attachments to significant others. Given this, it makes sense that the pain from a friendship ending is comparable to the pain that occurs at the end of a romantic relationship.
A close friend’s role in our lives is not undervalued in society, however, the pain of a dissolved friendship is rarely mentioned.
Friend-Breakups Are Unexpected, but They Shouldn’t Be
A Finnish study found that on average, we gain more and more friends until the age of 25. After 25, the number starts to decline quickly. This drop is typically attributed to life changes (i.e. moving, getting married, or starting a new job).
This study shows that losing friends is in an inevitable, although often painful, part of life. When we lose contact with some friends, life continues as normal. However, some “friend breakups” are difficult to adjust to.
The pain of losing a friend can be more unexpected than the pain of a romantic breakup. I think this can partially be explained by the framework from which we view romantic relationships.
When a romantic relationship starts, there is an implied understanding that the relationship will last forever or end—often in an undesirable way. Because of these expectations, we are more prepared for the fallout.
This is not how we frame friendship in our heads. We (or at least I) expect friends to occasionally drift from us, but not disappear entirely.
My “Breakup” Experience
A year ago, I experienced a difficult friend-breakup. My brother dated a girl who rapidly became my closest friend. This was an unusual yet convenient set-up, considering that my brother and I are close, but it did raise the occasional fight between us.
For a year, she and I were inseparable. We connected on a deep level that made me feel completely understood. We made wonderful memories and we even traveled on our own trip to Ireland for three weeks.
Our friendship was everything that I envisioned a perfect friendship embodying. We were always laughing, and having meaningful talks, and challenging each other to be our best. I knew that I wanted her to be in my life permanently.
Unfortunately, when her relationship with my brother ended, so did ours. There were no bitter feelings between us and we made it clear to each other that we wanted to stay friends.
Despite these efforts, we gradually faded out of each other’s lives. We occasionally made efforts to reconnect, but it was a losing game.
No One Knew My Invisible Pain, but They Could Have
For me, there was considerable pain in this friend breakup that no one in my life knew. It was not a sharp pain, but more of an achy, wistful feeling that followed me around for a time.
While I cannot discount the pain of losing a significant other, the sudden loss of a best friend can be similarly agonizing. I lost a person that I never thought I would.
Ironically, I lost the person who I felt could help me cope with their absence in my life. When a romantic relationship is broken off, people often have their close friends to rally beside them. Losing the person who typically picked you up from these incidents, can leave you feeling even lonelier.
In my case, I had other very close friends who would have been more than willing to listen and support me. But, something hindered me from reaching out. I was worried that my complaints would be interpreted as rude. As irrational as it sounds, I thought that talking to a friend about missing my other friend would be insulting.
I realize now that this fear was absurd because it reduced the character of my friends to shallow, which is certainly not true.
The Biggest Enemy of My Growth Was Idealizing the Past
Since this friendship was a central part of my life, adjusting was a process. Similarly to the way that certain places or songs remind a person of their ex, things would remind me of my friend.
Additionally, sadness and frustration would arise at unexpected times. I began to get stuck in an unhealthy state of longing for my old friend.
A couple of months after we lost contact, I noticed that this fixation was unhealthy. I noticed that I had started to disvalue my other friendships, purely because they were not the same as the friendship that I had lost.
I romanticized the relationship so highly that I was living in the past and it was affecting my future. This idealism led me to distance myself from the incredible friends that were still in my life. I knew that this was unfair to them, but it was still difficult to overcome this mentality.
If It’s like a Breakup, Let’s Treat It like a Breakup
Oddly, in our friend-breakup, I experienced some normal phases of a breakup. As described in Psychology Today, there are seven stages of reacting to a breakup. The stages are:
1. Searching for answers
2. Denial of breakup
3. Bargaining (trying to win back partner by an offer to change)
5. Anger at partner
6. Initial acceptance
7. Redirected hope
While I did not experience the need to search for answers or bargaining, I did experience the other five stages. I believe that I did not experience the first stage or third stage because I understood our friendship ended from an external variable therefore, bargaining would be futile.
Throughout time, I eventually could evolve from denial to the final stage: redirected hope.
The progression to the final stage was not without challenge or regression, but time was the best healer. The “time heals all wounds” breakup cliché is annoying, yet true.
While I was waiting it out, something that helped me progress was putting more effort into existing friendships that had potential to grow. This helped me make strides towards redirected hope.
It is rewarding to see growth in relationships that I previously lacked time for. When a person in our life disappears, we have more of our time and energy to spend on others. This is likely the only positive outcome to arise from my situation and so I decided it was best to take advantage.
Stage 8: Reframe the Ex-Friendship with an Expiration Date
While making new friends is helpful, especially in the earlier stages, it did not replace the friend I once had. The best thing I did was reexamine the friendship in my mind. So, I am creating an eighth and final stage in the breakup process: reframe the ex-friendship.
I now see that our friendship was meaningful and significant. This friendship played an important role in shaping who I am today and this friend made me a better version of myself. While acknowledging this, I recognized that accepting our friendship’s expiration date was necessary.
At first, it was challenging for me. With time and persistence, this mentality has swapped my frustration and sadness for gratitude. I still have moments where I feel wistful, but overall, I am grateful.
Now, I am thankful for the friendship that I had, not distressed that it ended.
Written By: Caroline Ingle
My name is Caroline and I was born and raised in Mooresville, NC. I am a junior at Anderson University in South Carolina where I am majoring in psychology with a minor in sociology.
Within psychology, I am interested in a wide-range of things, but specifically: learning, emotional regulation, personality/mood assessments, ADHD, and BPD.
Outside of psychology, I like to do yoga, travel whenever possible, watch criminal minds with my mom, hike, read, and drink chai lattes with almond milk.