How to Leave a Friendship (Gracefully, and Without Hurt Feelings)

published Oct 12, 2016
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(Image credit: Melanie Grizzel)

Raise your hand if you’ve ever been dumped and heard the words “just friends.” We’ve all been there—and we’ve probably all used the same lame excuse to break up with someone, too. “Just friends” is such a common way to let someone down gently, but when you really think about it, it doesn’t make much sense. There’s no such thing as “just friends,” because that implies that friendships don’t mean as much as romantic relationships, and that friendships don’t require work—and that couldn’t be more untrue.

Friendships are about love and commitment, too, just a different kind of love (you know, without all those crush-induced stomach butterflies) and they require just as much effort to keep them going as romantic relationships do.

Fights are normal, but not all friendships have to last forever. Sometimes, people just drift apart, or come up against issues that they just can’t work out, and that’s okay. But dealing with a friend breakup can suck just as much as a romantic breakup—honestly, sometimes they’re even worse, because often your friends become even more ingrained in your life than romantic partners. So, what do you do when you just can’t deal anymore?

If you feel comfortable talking about it…

Do it in Person

You wouldn’t want your partner to break up with you over a text message, right? If a text (or worse, email—been there!) breakup has happened to you before, you know how awful it can feel, and ending a friendship—or confronting an issue with your friend—should be no different. So, if you’ve got something to say, whether you’re open to resolving things or it’s simply time to move on, make sure you say it to their face, in-person.

If this is a long-distance friendship, try to get on video chat or the phone before you rely on other less personal methods of communication. That way, your words—and theirs—can’t get twisted or taken out of context, and you can discuss things respectfully. And if you do it in person, you can let them know ahead of time that you want to talk about things before you tell them what’s on your mind, so they’re not totally blindsided when you say how you feel.

Make Sure the Timing’s Right

The absolute worst thing you can do is tell your friend you need to talk when they’re in the middle of something important or stressful. Don’t send the “we need to talk” text when you know they’re at work or out with other friends, for example—try to save it for a time when you know they’re home so, if they don’t react well to it, you’re not messing up their entire day.

The same goes for actually having your in-person conversation—if you know your friend is dealing with something major that they’re already upset about, wait until it passes so that you’re not just piling more problems onto their already full plate. You may be upset with them, and you may not want them to be an active part of your life anymore, but think about it this way: This person was your friend for a reason, because you cared about them. The least you can do is to give them a little room to breathe and deal with the other tough things in their life before you try to have a heavy conversation, whether or not you believe they’re in the wrong about whatever conflict has gone down.

Be Open and Honest (and Gentle)

The way you communicate your feelings will have a lot to do with the outcome of your conversation, so make sure you think about the delivery of your words. Rather than saying things like, “You did this and that was wrong,” try phrasing things in a way that is less accusatory and more about how you feel. “When you said that, I felt hurt,” is a much more effective and gentle way of getting your point across. And along with being considerate with your words, make sure you’re open and honest about how you really feel, because if you leave things out, you won’t feel better about the issues at hand.

Hear What They Have to Say

You need to be open and honest with them, but that also means you need to be open to hearing what your friend has to say, too. You’re not obligated to forgive them or to continue the friendship, but if you expect them to listen to you, you need to be willing to give that same courtesy back. When you listen, you might learn that what you thought was a friendship dealbreaker was actually a misunderstanding and your discussion will clarify that and patch things up so you can go back to being BFFs—or, you might not, and that’s that. But at least consider both sides of the story before you make such a big decision.

(Image credit: Sophie Timothy)

And if you don’t feel comfortable talking about it…

Some friendships—like romantic relationships—can get so toxic that there’s no getting through to the other person. You absolutely do not have to put yourself through the emotional exhaustion of trying to have a conversation with someone who actively makes you feel bad, who doesn’t listen, or who is otherwise abusive. If you feel unsafe, by all means, cut off all contact and don’t feel like you have to put yourself in a position that could lead to you getting hurt.

Don’t Just Ghost

If the reason you want to go radio silent is that you really can’t handle confrontation, or because there are fundamental differences that you just can’t get past—and that talking about definitely won’t solve—you don’t have to have the conversation. But don’t cut off all contact with someone (e.g. blocking them on social media) immediately just because you feel weird about talking to them about what’s bothering you. You can leave your friendship if you want to, but just like you wouldn’t want a romantic partner to up and disappear from your life without an explanation, at the very least, you shouldn’t just ghost your friend like that right away.

Transition Slowly

For the record, I still think the best thing to do is have a thoughtful discussion, but I also know sometimes that doesn’t feel possible. In those cases, you may be able to slowly distance yourself instead. You know those friendships that just slowly die down over time because neither party puts in the effort to keep it going—and neither party gets offended when the contact just sort of… stops? Sometimes it’s because you’re both busy, or you live far away, or maybe you were friends when you were younger but you’ve grown apart as you’ve gotten older. It’s like ghosting, but without all the weird drama and bad feelings associated with it. You simply used to be friends, and over time, you moved on—no hard feelings. You can employ this strategy by slowly backing away, and eventually, your friend might fall into the same habit, too. No harm, no foul—no major blowout fights, either.

Know it Might Backfire

You might be able to get away with slowly distancing yourself from a friend that you no longer want to be in touch with, but you also have to know that that plan is not at all foolproof. Your friend may be totally oblivious to whatever conflict or differences are between you, and might ask you why you’ve been so distant. And when that happens, it’s time to go back to Plan A—have the discussion, even if it’s uncomfortable for both of you, and hear out what they have to say as well. Even if you walk away from it with both of you knowing your friendship is over, at least you’ll have closure.