Ways To End A Friendship
Not every friendship is lifelong. Friends grow apart or do things that put them off each other. If you want to end one of your friendships, whether you've known them for years, or only a few months, there are two main ways to do it:
- Formally "break up" with them
- Do a fade out, that is slowly wind the relationship down by pretending to be more and more busy and unavailable, until eventually you aren't keeping in touch any more
We don't want to hurt anyone's feelings, but sometimes that's inevitable, and is going to happen no matter what tack we take. I'll go into more detail comparing the two options below:
The formal break up
This is when you explicitly tell your friend that things aren't working any longer, and you want to stop hanging out with them. Depending on the circumstances you may tell them in person, or through writing. A lot of the standard romantic break up advice can be applied to this situation:
- Accept your friend may be hurt, angry, or defensive, and that there's probably no special way to phrase your rejection that will let you get around that. Aim to be as respectful and sensitive as you can, but know you can't magically stop them from feeling a certain way.
- If you need to tell them what they've done to make you want to end the relationship, try to let them know in as constructive a manner as possible.
- If you don't want to tell them why you're ending things, because you think they wouldn't understand, get mad, or drag you into a discussion you'd rather not have, then use vague lines like, "It's me that's changed" or "I'm going through some stuff and in a weird headspace right now." Don't give out more information than you'd like to. Stick to your guns even if they aren't buying your hazy platitudes. You're not obligated to tell them the unvarnished truth, or even explain yourself at all.
- Once you've let them know you want to break off the friendship, and have maybe given your reasons, don't feel you need to stick around forever just because they still want to discuss it or are trying to change your mind. At a certain point you can tell them you've got to go.
Here are the pros and cons of the approach:
- It ends the relationship in a quick, clean, unambiguous way.
- It's considerate to your friend. They may not like that you're ending the friendship, but at least you're telling them what the deal is and not leaving them hanging.
- If you're ending the relationship because of something your friend did to damage it, you get the satisfaction of telling them how you feel, and why you want to stop spending time with them.
- If you now find your friend annoying or toxic, as opposed to feeling a bit bored and disconnected around them, this gets them out of your life as soon as possible.
- It's an awkward, uncomfortable confrontation, something most people will do anything to avoid. We all hate breaking off romantic relationships, and that's something we have to do. With friendships a formal termination isn't universally expected, so there's always the option of picking the fade out route.
When the break up approach is most appropriate
- When you've known your friend for a long time, had a close relationship, and want to give them the courtesy of formally cutting ties.
- You've known your friend for so long, or are in touch with them so often, that even if you wanted to do the fade out they'd quickly know something was up and call you out on it.
- When your friend has does something blatantly horrible, and you need to tell them why you're axing them (for your own emotional health and/or to help them learn for next time).
- When it doesn't feel awkward for you. That is, when your friend has done something wrong and you're easily able to confront them (e.g., if they made a pass at your spouse).
When the break up approach is less appropriate
- You haven't known them very long or don't have that close of a bond with them. Formally breaking up would seem inappropriate or like overkill.
- The friend is tied into your life somehow (same social circle, classmate, co-worker, relative), and it would be messy to explicitly tell them things are no longer working.
- You suspect they'll take it very poorly if you formally reject them.
The fade out approach
This is when you gradually phase your friend out of your life. It mainly involves becoming less and less available, because you're often "busy". Sometimes you can coordinate the start of a fade out with a life event that truly makes you harder to see, like a new job, a move, or starting a family, but usually your busier schedule is a lie.
If you usually hang out with your friend in a group, you act polite, but give them less and less individual attention. A fade out could also entail purposely making yourself less satisfying and accommodating to be around, to force a sense of "growing apart", for example:
- Whereas before you'd head to a bar that wasn't your scene just because they wanted to go, now you'll refuse
- Up until now you'd listen to them talk about their troubles for an hour, now you'll change the subject after a few minutes
- If you used to text back and forth with them all day now you'll take longer to reply, and give short, boring answers
- Before you'd try to keep the peace, but now will make a point of drawing attention to opinions and values you disagree on
If your friend depends on you for something, like emotional support, you may help them find it elsewhere, so you don't feel like you've left them hanging. You certainly don't have to, but could as a courtesy. For example, you encourage them to see a therapist.
There's a fade out spectrum. At one extreme there's no "fading out" to speak of. You just suddenly cut your friend off with no explanation. You stop answering their texts and emails and act distant if you ever run into them in person. That's really more like a clumsy break up. The opposite is when you very slowly, imperceptibly wean them off you.
These days the final step in the fade out is often when you Unfriend or Unfollow them on your social media accounts. However, some people don't delete their ex-friend, to maintain the ruse that they still have a relationship, but just don't talk nearly as much as they used to.
On occasion the fade out may not be used to end a friendship, but to downgrade it from a relationship that's close and intense to a more tolerable acquaintanceship (though if you truly want to end a friendship, don't fool yourself).
Pros of the fade out approach
- It's not noble, but people often prefer this approach because it's easier and less awkward for them.
- Friendships naturally end all the time because two people grow apart or don't have as much time for each other. If done with a light touch a fade out can mimic that process.
- Sometimes, sometimes it can ultimately be kinder for your friend. They'd take it really hard if you directly rejected them, but cope much better if you slowly removed yourself from the equation.
Cons of the fade out
- To be straight up, it can be the cowardly way out, and more about your own desire to avoid any discomfort than what's right for your friend.
- If you're sick of your friend, you still have to interact with them for a while as you withdraw from their life bit by bit.
- It's not always simple and painless. Many friends will take months before they give up on you, or realize what you're doing and unhappily accept it. It can get tiresome and stressful to continually try to dodge someone and make excuses as to why you're not as available as you used to be. If they call you out on your tactic it can lead to the exact unpleasant confrontation you were hoping to sidestep in the first place. If you still care about your friend's feelings it may be hard for you to watch them become more and more hurt and confused as the process drags on.
When the fade away is more appropriate
- When your relationship isn't that close and/or you haven't known them that long. If you've only been hanging out a few weeks you're not even ending a friendship so much as confirming one didn't get off the ground and moving on.
- If you've already started seeing them less, due to outside circumstances.
- They're entangled in your life and gradually creating a distance is the only way to avoid a lot of tension among the people you both know.
- You have nothing against them as a person, and they've done nothing wrong. You've just grown in different directions and don't enjoy hanging out with them as much. You feel it'd be too harsh and sudden to break up out of nowhere.
- If they've done things to harm your relationship and you just want to be done with them with a minimum of effort on your part. You find winding things down easier than directly cutting ties.
- If you don't really like your friend much anymore, and don't really care if you'll hurt their feelings by phasing them out (e.g., they've become really arrogant and condescending ever since they got that new high-paying job). Again, you're willing to do this, but can't be bothered to arrange a proper break up.
When the fade away isn't as appropriate
- As I mentioned earlier, this approach doesn't work as well when you've known your friend for years and years and they'd quickly figure out what you were up to if you employed this strategy. Also, if the friendship is longstanding you likely feel you owe it to them to give them a proper send off.
Sometimes there's not a clear cut answer as to which approach is best for your situation. Like I said, you may just have to accept ending the friendship is going to be emotionally difficult either way, and pick whichever one seems slightly less-crappy than the other.