Divorcing A Friend: 3 Things You Can Do if This Happens to You
By Laura Hull, LMFT
When we think of or speak of divorce, most often we are talking in terms of firing a spouse. The dissolution of a marriage is heartbreaking, as assumingly former best friends are choosing to walk away from a life commitment to each other. As a Marriage and Family Therapist, I could write a lengthy blog describing the ripple effect of divorce and the fact that it changes the fabric of that person’s life forever. But you could read that same type of blog in many places on the Internet. I want to challenge you to consider a different kind of divorce…when a long term, close friendship ends. Of course, a friendship divorce is not a legal act, in the way that a divorce ends a legal marriage contract. But an emotional divorce is a parting of ways between two people who were once very bonded and the feeling of loss can be profound.
If we accept the statistics as true, that 50% of marriages fail, then a divorce article would not apply to a lot of readers. But I am willing to bet that way more than 50% of people who read this have lost a close friend at some point and were devastated by that loss. The loss of a long time friend can feel like a divorce or perhaps even a death, particularly if the split was not a mutual decision. Most of us would like to believe that those friends we surround ourselves with would always be there for us. Ideally, we hope that our inner circle of friends will remain lifelong friends. But in reality, it often does not happen, and that can be a hard thing to accept if the relationship ends.
A few years ago, a renowned Dutch sociologist conducted a large study to determine, among other things, how friendships are developed and how long they last. The study concluded that while a person’s friend base (the number of friends in someone’s social group) stayed relatively stable, the actual friendships themselves turned over quite often. According to this study, the average friendship lasts around seven years. Are you surprised by how brief that seems? Seven years in relation to a normal life span may seem short, but a lot of life can be lived in those seven short years, and our memories are tied to the people who were major players in our lives, during that period of time. For women, the end of a close friendship can be particularly hard. Many women develop close relationships with other women that can be as tight a bond as a sister should be. When these types of friendships end, it can leave a hole in the soul…at least that’s how it feels. It’s an awful feeling, for sure.
Why do friendships end? Sometimes friends begin to drift apart. People change over time, some more than others. Sometimes friendships can adapt to the changes; sometimes they can’t. Sometimes one person outgrows the other…ouch! The sting of that revelation can be hard to hear. But it happens. Life takes us in directions, at times, that make it hard to maintain relationships that don’t fit our current needs. A friendship that consists of one person who is a full time working wife and mother of four children under the age of 10 might have a hard time maintaining a close relationship with her single, childless girlfriend who has the freedom to come and go without responsibilities to a family. The circumstances of life would make it very hard to navigate those waters. It certainly can be done, but often those types of relationships drift apart over time, if not dissolve completely; not because we “like” the person any less, but realistically she does not fit in easily to the daily life we live. It’s sad, but it happens. In therapy, I have had couples tell me they have “drifted apart” and they want to divorce. It can happen in the best of friendships too. These are often significant loses in our lives and the pain is very real. What can you do if you find yourself in the middle of a friendship divorce?
1. Perform A Relationship Autopsy. Take a long, detailed, honest look at the relationship. Be honest about the strengths and weaknesses of the relationship. Over the duration of the friendship, has it been a stabile relationship or a volatile one? Is the relationship based on the viability of it in your current life circumstances, or is it based mostly on memories of the past? Is there still enough common ground to build on? Do you still like and respect each other or has the relationship become a habit based on the nature of the relationship from the past? Is the friend a real friend or has she/he morphed into a frenemy? Is the work involved in maintaining the relationship worth the cost in time and energy (physically and emotionally)? When answering these questions honestly, you may come to a conclusion that changes the nature of the relationship or perhaps even brings it to an end. This can be a hard thing to accept and I am not suggesting it’s an easy process. Sometimes the truth hurts…a lot.
2. Try To Save The Relationship. If you have searched your heart and truly feel after taking a real assessment of the relationship that it’s worth saving, then go for it. But brace yourself for an answer of “no” should that be the response to your efforts. If you have a friend that is trying to divorce from his/her relationship with you, be honest about the reasons why. Were some things said in the heat of anger that your friend cannot get past? Were boundaries crossed or terms of the friendship betrayed? Ask yourself what was your role in the breakdown of the friendship? What was hers/his? If you find yourself guilty of things that contributed to the loss of goodwill, try to right the wrong. Be humble. Verbally accept responsibility for what you said/did without qualifying it by pointing out what your friend did wrong too. Ask for forgiveness. Give your friend time and space to process and then pray that her heart (and yours) will be open to forgiveness and the ability to move forward with each other. It may be enough to repair the relationship in time, but be prepared to accept it if the relationship is beyond repair.
3. Grieve and Move Toward Acceptance. A friendship divorce is tough. If you have done everything that you can reasonably do to try to save a friendship and nothing has made a difference, then it’s time to accept the fact that the relationship is over (at least for now) and walk away. Give yourself time to grieve. If you have literally lost your best friend, it will take some time to heal. Allow yourself to cry and work with a therapist if you find yourself stuck in the grief. Keep yourself busy by engaging with others. Don’t expect new friends to have the same meaning to you as the long-term friend that was lost. Deeply rooted friendships take time to take hold for real and that’s not a process that can be forced or sped along. Be patient for them to develop. Do not allow bitterness to become consuming. Even if you did not want the friendship to end and you feel angry, do not allow this to take you over. Forgive. It’s a process and it does take time, but in the end it will allow you to move on with your life without having a chip on your shoulder. Resist the urge to continue contacting someone who has made it clear that she does not wish to continue a relationship. And by all means DO NOT stalk your former friend on social media sites and resist the urge to speak negatively about your former friends to others. You never know what the future holds. Relationships that end now may be revisited at some point down the road…. you never know. Be smart and do not burn bridges. The intensity of the loss and the feelings that go along with loss will most likely wane in time.
Here’s a great truth: Not all friendships/relationships we invest in are meant to last forever. Friendship divorces happen. People come into our lives for a reason, and when they leave, they leave for a reason. Recognize the significance of this statement and be wise in applying this principle to your life.