Conversations of heartbreak—and how effects of it can physically hurt, lead you to think mean-spirited thoughts, and even make you smell worse—are popularly centered on the end of romantic relationships. But that leaves out a whole genre of breakup-related pain. Anyone who’s ever dealt with a friend breakup knows that variety can be just as tough to weather. When after months, years, even decades of being someone’s confidante, something cataclysmic or, even worse, hugely insignificant drives you apart, the feelings of heartbreak are certainly real. Beyond that, the situation is oh-so common and commonly ignored. Though a friendship dissolution comes with a lot of the same baggage as romantic breakup, when things are platonic, less sympathy abounds.
“I often hear from female clients they are feeling devastated because of a recent girlfriend friendship that broke up,” says counselor Deborah A. Olson, LPC, author of The Healing Power of Girlfriends. “Some women have a lot of guilt that they should have done something different to prevent it—the ‘woulda-coulda-shoulda” thinking. Others have anger they were treated unfairly or taken advantage of in the friendship or the breakup.”
Sounds reminiscent of a romantic breakup, right? Given this reality, Olson provides some tips about how to handle a friend breakup, and possibly even salvage the relationship.
1. Communicate, but know when to let it go
In a situation where you think the friendship is worth saving, take some time to discuss and listen to each other. “In some cases healing and reconciliation is possible if both parties can be honest and open with each other,” Olson says.
Emphasis here on “both parties”—because without that baseline understanding and willingness to work together to pinpoint where things went off the friendship rails and then move forward, progress likely won’t be made. In this case, don’t force anyone’s hand. “Often it’s best to just let it go and not try to play detective and search for the clues that we missed along the way,” Olson adds.
2. Celebrate the friendship for the role it played in your life story
As Olson says in her book, some friends are built for a “season or a reason.” “If the season is over and the friendship ends, it is important to celebrate what that friendship gave to us and the part it played, even if that season is now over,” Olson says.
“If the season is over and the friendship ends, it is important to celebrate what that friendship gave to us and the part it played, even if that season is now over.” —counselor Deborah A. Olson, LPC
For instance, let’s consider your work wife, the colleague with whom you dish ad nauseam on Slack daily. You’re completely inseparable regarding office goings-on, and then it happens: She leaves the company. Suddenly you go from seeing her five days a week to having sporadic text exchanges and constantly broken plans (“Sorry, things have been crazy!”). Of course, this isn’t emblematic of every born-in-office friendship—but sometimes, when you no longer have your day-to-day in common, there’s not much left. That’s okay. You’ll always have Slack.
3. Remember that friendships may mean different things to different people
“There are different types of connections with our girlfriends,” Olson says. “Some are more intimate, like a BFF/sister/soul mate relationship, and, some feel more like a casual friend or an acquaintance-level of friendship. We relate differently in these different levels of intimacy.” A problem can arise when two people perceive their friendship at two different levels, and expectations aren’t equivalent. It’s like when someone calls you their best friend, but they’re not your best friend. (It’s also part of the reason I’m reluctant to call anyone my best friend anymore—because I’m not 12, interviewing possible recipients of the other half of my “BEST FRIENDS” heart necklace.)
“Being honest and open with a friend about the disconnect in the level of commitment and connection can potentially bring some new awareness and change into the equation,” Olson says. “Friendships tend to operate smoothly if both people are on the same page with expectations and definitions for their relationship.”
4. Realize that sometimes, a friend breakup can be productive
If we don’t feel like our needs are being met, or someone chooses to end a friendship because of XYZ reason, there’s going to be hurt, there’s going to be confusion, and then there’s going to be a hunt for a larger reason.
“If we find ourselves getting knocked to the curb by the ‘friendship boot’ then we need to take a deep breath and redirect our eyes to the future of endless friendship possibilities that are still out there in the universe waiting for us,” Olson says.