Earlier this week, we talked about friendships ending: Signs for toxic friendships that need to end, potential reasons for why some friendships end, and how patriarchy can negatively impact our friendships. In Part 2, we continue this conversation by sharing our advice, based on our own experiences, when dealing with the pain and grief that comes with the end of a friendship. We also tackle societal myths about friendship that only make breaking up harder, and we share some positive media representations of friendships for some good vibes.
Once again, we start out with brilliant Ray Sonne who hits it on the head: “What a lot of people don’t understand is that ending friendships feels very similar to ending romantic relationships. It leaves a traumatic mark on your emotional structure, you obsess over it (and the person) for weeks…”
Cycles of Grief
All of us have experienced, and often continue to experience, grief over the end of friendships. Melissa Brinks explains:
“I have definitely been friend-dumped before, and because I am a bitter grudge-holder, I’m still bothered by it. I don’t think there’s much that will ease the hurt when you’re on the receiving end other than focusing on what you have that’s positive. Looking back at the friends I’ve lost over the years, I can see that I’m undoubtedly better off without them in my life, but that just raises questions of why I wasn’t good enough for them, you know?”
Even when friendships end over things beyond our control, as they often do, these wounds can become permanent scars. In Part 1, Alenka Figa shared her experience of two friendships ending as a consequence of the pervasiveness of rape culture in our society: “Both [friendships] are casualties of rape culture. We spend much more time discussing instances of sexual assault than we do the aftershocks, the pieces that affect survivors’ lives as they move forward. It’s hard, it’s complicated, and it’s a silent battle that destroys friendships in ways you would not predict. If you think you are not connected to rape culture, you are.”
“What a lot of people don’t understand is that ending friendships feels very similar to ending romantic relationships.” –Ray Sonne
In this way, friendships ending have a much wider impact than between the two or so people directly involved with the break-up. In Part 1, Stephanie Tran shared the story of how a middle school friendship that ended over a silly crush ended up dividing her and her sister, and Stephanie still feels that division to this day:
“I also have a lot of bad feelings associated with the ending of that friendship, because I feel like it’s tainted my relationship with my sister with whom I am very close. The way I saw it at the time was that my sister betrayed me by not putting up a fuss at my best friend locking me out of her own room. I do acknowledge that my sister is not as assertive as I am, never has been and never will be, but having one relationship end so bitterly and another relationship tested for the first time in my life in one single event has affected me even now. I go into friendships a bit more hesitantly now, and I sadly view my sister with somewhat distrustful eyes. The first time I brought this issue up my mother and sister were both incredulous. I’ve never brought it up again.
I don’t begrudge my ex-best friend for being immature, but I am still angry at her for exposing this weakness in my relationship with my sister. I also still feel angry, betrayed, and heart-broken that my sister didn’t stand up for me, but I don’t want to cause her any pain by bringing it up again. I also don’t want to be hurt again if she waves the issue away. I think I can claim that my heart was broken that day from that one relationship ending and the other being slightly fractured.”
Being the One to End It Sucks, Too
In most cases, we have been dumped and done the dumping. Very rarely is it ever easy for either party. Continuing the parallel with romantic relationships, Ray explains: “People drag out romantic relationships past their due date all the time as well. There’s nothing you can do to make the dumping less painful. If you postpone the end, the only thing you’ll get is more of the same kind of grief that has you considering the break-up in the first place. Save yourself further trauma and just do it now.”
This doesn’t necessarily mean being unnecessarily cruel, but it may mean being straightforward. Romona Williams recommends:
“…it’s best not to just cut people off. It’s hurtful as well as confusing. The people never know if they did something particularly offensive that caused the rift, and it gives them a sense of abandonment. If someone has become toxic in your life, you don’t need to sit down and explain the many ways they’ve failed you. But, if they keep attempting to contact you, be decent enough to tell them you will not be hanging out with them anymore. Be blunt and honest, and maybe you can both grow from the experience.”
That being said, it can be hard to determine where that line between cruel and blunt is. Melissa was generous enough to share her own struggle with this:
“…I don’t want to be cruel. I don’t tell people they’re annoying me or that I don’t want to be friends anymore if I don’t think they will handle that well (and to be fair, I haven’t yet had a friend I thought would handle that well, so I think there’s some cowardice at play on my end). I make myself unavailable. I respond to texts with as little invitation to continue as possible without being rude. I don’t make plans to hang out. I remove myself from situations that will make me or the former friend uncomfortable, whether that means leaving early or not attending at all. I talk with mutual friends about what’s going on, not to try to get them on my side, but because I don’t want them to feel awkward about tension between me and somebody else.
I’m definitely the long, slow, pulling away type, in part because I’m afraid of direct conversation that I know is going to upset somebody (at least I’m aware of my faults, I guess?), and also because I like to leave a little opportunity for them to try to make amends. A friendship breakup is a last resort for me, usually because some nastiness has built up over time–if they make an effort to fix it, I’ll honor that to an extent, but I’ve also stopped letting myself be a doormat. If it has to end, it has to end.”
I have been in that boat, too, and it caused much debate in the WWAC Slack when we discussed whether or not you provide an explanation when ending a friendship. Some folks don’t mind the phase-out, because they don’t want to hear about why they “aren’t good enough,” while others need an explanation for a sense of closure. There’s no easy answer here, and it hurts either way. You are going to grieve.
“One of the most harmful myths about any relationship, not just friendship, is that the break-up is proof that it was all garbage. That’s not true.” –Al Rosenberg
Further, because friendship break-ups share so many similarities with romantic relationship break-ups, a lot of the same myths about the end of relationships still rings true. Keep in mind that just because a friendship ends, doesn’t mean said friendship was a failure. Al tackles this problem head-on: “One of the most harmful myths about any relationship, not just friendship, is that the break-up is proof that it was all garbage. That’s not true. A friendship can be meaningful and real and loving, and then it can be over. As an old partner once said to me, ‘Divorce doesn’t mean failure; it succeeded for a long time first.’ The rest of the team chimed in with agreement. Melissa says: ‘You can be respectful and kind to one another even if you’re not as close as you once were, and a friendship’s ending doesn’t have to be a screaming match or a slow freeze.’
So What Can You Do?
The fact that friendships ending is equivalent to a break-up is a myth we all agree that should be shattered, and because of this Ray suggests: “…the only thing that helps the wounds is time. Accept that this is both normal and okay. Maybe the week of your friend break-up treat yourself the same as you would after a relationship break-up. Eat ice cream, watch your favorite movies, but most importantly (if you can, I didn’t necessarily have anyone to turn to after my friend break-ups in high school) hang out with other friends.”
For Melissa, it is a matter of focusing on new friendships:
“I know that a friendship that isn’t working isn’t good for either party. A friendship of obligation breeds unhappiness, which is what I tell myself when I see people I used to care about hanging out with one another without me. It wasn’t meant to be, and that’s okay. I have people in my life now who treat me better, who have completely changed what friendship means to me. I might not ever get over the friendships I’ve lost, but focusing on what I have now helps ease some of the pain.”
While for Ray, she chalks it all up to a learning experience:
“I’ve had to do this [end a friendship] several times throughout my life, and I am now really, really good at both pinpointing the problems I have with the person and using it to motivate myself to burn down that bridge. It’s also a matter of knowing what kind of people you want to have around you because then you can use them for comparison. If you take more than you give in our friendship, if I have to chase after you every time you pretended to wanted to hang out with me (you clearly didn’t if you’re not showing up the day-of, don’t lie), or you’re being outright toxic, get the hell out of my life. I don’t need you now, never mind months from now…
It takes awhile for some of us to find the right people to befriend and demand a higher standard for ourselves. I’m years out of school now, but I’m still learning a lot of lessons about what I want in my friendships. Figuring out what kind of friend you don’t want inevitably results in a hurtful experience, or several. But the lesson you learn because of those experiences is invaluable.”
As you go forward with new relationships, having learned from past ones, both good and bad, keep in mind this excellent advice from Alenka (with a great example from Steven Universe):
“There was a recent Steven Universe episode in which Jenny was dumping all of her work on Kiki, her twin, and Kiki was accepting it without question, because she was afraid Jenny would lose respect for her. Being a friend does not mean you are there 24/7 no matter what to do what your friend asks; that’s called being manipulated! It means that, like Jenny, when your friend (or twin) says no for their own sake, you understand that. Relationships are about compromise and balance, not giving unconditionally.”
Finally, I asked the team for some “great” examples of friendship in the media, and this is what they had to say:
Laura H: Anne Shirley and Diana Barry. Ann Perkins and Leslie Knope. Jessica Jones and Trish. (I sort of hesitate to list some great male friendships, because I know those are often fraught with queer-baiting or are queer-coded and many fans have very strong feelings about those relationships being sexual rather than platonic or romantic.) The Sailor Scouts. Raleigh and Mako.
Al: All the people on Moesha (especially Kim), the main characters on Avatar: The Last Airbender, Nana and Nana in Nana. I loved the friendship between Sticky and Penny on The Proud Family, and I thought the way Penny’s friendship with Dijonay developed was important. Current stuff? I don’t know. I feel like competition between women and dramatic friend fights have become some a standard in show plotting now.
Romona: The Golden Girls.
Sonne: Buffy and Willow!
Stephanie I second Laura H.’s nomination of Anne Shirley and Diana Barry, but I also want to nominate Anne’s relationship with Leslie Ford (nee West). Anne met Leslie when both were adults and…relationships and friendships started when both parties are adults tend to last (I also suggest that these are deeper and more meaningful). Leslie also met Anne at a time in her life when she was very alone and very depressed and Anne’s influence helped to make her into a different person who was able to love and be loved. Leslie’s tragedy also helped to comfort Anne after the death of Anne’s first baby. Anne put it herself that she had never had a friendship so strong with any other woman and I think that each woman’s maturity and tragedies helped to strengthen that friendship.
Alenka: Gaby Dunn and Allison Raskin from the YouTube show Just Between Us. I adore them! You can tell they are genuinely supportive and wonderful, plus both are great comedians. I’ve been watching Static Shock, a superhero cartoon from the early 2000s, and Virgil (a.k.a. Static) and Richie have this adorable nerd friendship that involves talking about serious issues in a loving way, even if it gets a bit after school special-ish. Alison and Felix from Orphan Black are great; we see Felix supporting Alison onscreen quite a bit, but there are little scenes that reveal Allison is also supporting Felix behind the scenes. He tells her about finding his bio sister before he tells anyone else, even Mrs. S and Sarah! Obviously, Steven Universe is all about healthy relationships, but Steven and Connie especially are exploring what that looks like. It’s really heartening to see two kids work to create a relationship that is balanced and positive.
What about you? Do you have stories, advice, and examples of your own to share?