There is no shortage of songs, movies and television shows depicting the difficulties of breakups with a romantic partner. But when it comes to navigating the end of friendships, it can feel like we’re on our own.
We learn how to make friends, how to share and how to cope with bullies when we’re young, says Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical therapist who specializes in young adult and adult friendships. Those kinds of conversations stop in adolescence, despite the fact that, as a 2017 study published in Personal Relationships noted, friendships become increasingly important as we age. Friendships can be an even stronger predictor of well-being than familial relationships as we get older, the study showed.
If friendships are so vital, why don’t we talk about what to do when they end? “There’s this expectation that friendships should be easy for adults,” Kirmayer says. “And that obviously isn’t true for many people.”
The ups, downs, and — when necessary — ends of friendships, can be just as difficult to handle as those in romantic relationships—if not more, Kirmayer says.
Here’s why friendship breakups can feel worse than breakups with significant others.
We don’t know what to say
“We tend to think about breakups in friendships as happening because of some kind of big betrayal,” Kirmayer says. In those situations, it’s easy to pinpoint the reason the friendship ended, and communicate it to the other person.
But more often than not, she says, friendship breakups are the result of people gradually growing apart, which means there isn’t a standard conversation that ensues. The relationship may need to come to end because of factors outside of the friendship — like distance or differences in lifestyle — or because one or both friends have strained the bond by mistreating the other.
Whatever the reason is for the dissolution of a friendship, the common thread is that we often don’t know if we should have a conversation with that friend, says Kirmayer. And if we do decide to address it, it’s hard to know what to say.
“This can create situations where we can end up feeling hurt,” she says. “Whether it’s handled inappropriately or simply because it’s unexpected, we really don’t know what [friendship breakups] should look like.”
In romantic relationships, there’s often a conversation that signals the official breakup, which, while painful, leads to a sense of closure. But since we don’t have a model for this kind of conversation at the end of friendships, Kirmayer says it can feel even more difficult and confusing.
We feel ashamed that we couldn’t make it work
“People feel like they should have this figured out, and assume that everyone else has this figured out,” says Kirmayer. “They feel like they are doing something wrong going through friendship breakups.”
Since friendship breakups aren’t discussed nearly as often as romantic ones, Kirmayer says that people in friendship breakups can feel like they’re the only ones struggling to make their friendships work. Rather than seeking support and advice from other friends, people are more likely to keep it to themselves. This can make them feel even more isolated, she says.
There is also a common expectation that not every romantic relationship will last forever, and Kirmayer says we need to expect the same of friendships in order to normalize the experience. The end of a friendship doesn’t mean one or both friends are bad people or bad friends, she says; it simply means the relationship wasn’t working.
We have mismatched expectations with our friends
There’s a key difference between friendships and romantic relationships that can make friendship breakups worse, says Marni Feuerman, a psychotherapist in Florida. “The expectations are different in a romantic relationship,” she says. “People declare themselves ‘a couple,’ or the relationship is very defined: we’re dating, we’re engaged, we’re married.” There may even be a legal document or ceremony that spells out what the relationship means.
Conversely, that’s not the case in friendships. Because it is harder to define expectations in platonic relationships, friends are more likely to be on two different pages, which in turn can contribute to a separation—and make it more difficult to process post-breakup, according to Feuerman. We don’t communicate our expectations during the friendship, she says, because “we don’t want to express our needs and have them rejected.”
Instead, a friend who doesn’t feel like his or her needs are being met might stay silent. That person may realize the friendship isn’t working and is more inclined to allow it to end naturally, according to Feuerman. And that lack of communication can hurt the other friend just as much, as they’re left wondering what they did wrong.
We don’t know the terms of the breakup
After the end of a romantic relationship, it’s standard for exes to discuss the parameters of their breakup. They usually decide if they’ll remain friends, completely cut ties or respectfully smile and talk if they see each other in social situations, according to Feuerman. That type of conversation is a lot less likely to occur after a friendship breakup.
“There’s a lot of confusion about what a friendship breakup means,” she says. “Are you still planning to communicate in certain contexts? Are you open to seeing each other in a group setting if you have mutual friends?” When these questions are left unanswered, what may follow are awkward encounters at best, and at worst, unnecessary pain for a friend experiencing radio silence with no explanation, according to Feuerman.
The grief process is unexpected
We’ve come to expect prolonged heartbreak after romantic relationships end, and often brace for the inevitable pain of parting ways. But since friendship breakups are less spoken about and at times, more unexpected, we aren’t always prepared for the despair that follows, according to Feuerman. This unforeseen trauma can make the pain all the more palpable.
“You’ll actually go through a bit of a grief process with it, and that’s okay,” she says. “If you feel like you can’t change the toxic friendship situation, it’s okay to mourn it, move on and find relationships that are much more satisfying.”
After a friendship breakup, it’s common to feel anger, sadness, loneliness and anxiety about seeing the person and fearful of mutual friends picking sides, Kirmayer says. Understanding that all of these feelings are normal will help you start moving forward.
What it all comes down to is cutting yourself some slack. “Recognize the language you’re using when you’re talking about yourself, instead of jumping to labels like calling yourself a bad friend,” Kirmayer says. “Speak to yourself the way you would a good friend.”