How To Know When It’s Time to Break Up With a Friend (and Advice for Ending Things Smoothly)

friends breaking up

Zackary Drucker, The Gender Spectrum Collection

Haley Baird Riemer
Haley Baird Riemer57

Breakups are never easy. If they were, we wouldn’t have countless songs about heartbreak to stream in the wake of the end of a relationship or a myriad of sad movies about love to binge watch when we’re going through it. We acknowledge and understand the pain and grief that often comes with ending a relationship, the time it takes to readjust your life without them in it and the fact that often, breakups actually happen in our own best interests. 

We talk less about breakups that happen between friends, yet they can be as hard and as monumental as those with romantic partners. We all have friendships that fade through life transitions or time apart, but we don't generally think about dealing with faulty friendships the way we do with relationships. We are expected to re-evaluate and, if necessary, end a relationship if things are going poorly. Shouldn't we apply the same standards and practices to our friendships?  

How do you know when it's time to break up with a friend?

Sometimes, friendships reach a place where one or both of you recognizes that you would be better off without each other. Maybe you had a falling out over a specific issue or you feel like you're growing apart in a mutual way. Maybe you realize that a friendship you have is getting to be toxic, bringing more anxiety and unhappiness to your life than good things. In any of these cases, a breakup might be in order.
No friendship is without conflict or disagreement, so it's important to determine if an issue that's bothering you can be worked out or if it warrants a full break. This is up to you — no one knows your friends or your own needs, better. We all have dealbreakers and personal lines we draw, standards for how we want to be treated and valued by our friends. Admitting that you need to break up with someone you care about is hard. Just as in romantic relationships, we put a lot of time, energy, and personal stock into our friendships. Endings are never easy, and the end of a friendship can sometimes feel like the end of an era or version of yourself. 
That being said, change and growth are inevitable. The time to end a friendship is when it's clear to you that it's no longer serving your needs or is consistently crossing your boundaries. If you are often left feeling undervalued, annoyed, self-conscious, or attacked after hanging out with this friend, or if you just feel like you have nothing in common anymore and have stopped having good times together, it's time to make a change. 

How do you end a friendship?

How you go about ending a friendship both depends on the kind of person you are and your reasons for ending it. While there are more passive ways to distance yourself from a friend, a full breakup often requires some level of confrontation, and it's easy to put it off for as long as things are manageable. The urge to avoid an uncomfortable situation with a person you have a history with and care about is totally understandable. However, being as direct as possible is the best (and most mature) route. 
No matter the level of formality with which you choose to call things off, make sure you know what your intentions are going in. Be clear and specific about what is bothering you about the friendship and what you want to change. The better you can pinpoint the problem, the easier time you will have deciding how best to approach the breakup, communicating the issue to the other person and addressing your needs directly. 

Set new boundaries articulately.

If you're not quite sure you need a full-on friend breakup, you might try setting new boundaries in your friendship first, to give you the space or parameters you need. This approach requires a direct dialogue with the other person about the issues you're having with the friendship. Say you have a friend who demands your time in a manipulative way, ignoring your commitments and plans when they need something from you and making you feel guilty for turning them down. You still value the friendship, but you need to address the specific issue of not feeling like your time is respected. If you want to try and preserve the friendship, you should have an honest conversation about how you want things to change going forward. 
Actually bringing up the issue can feel vulnerable and awkward. Depending on the relationship, you run the risk of being pulled back into the dynamic you're trying to change or being made to feel like you are overreacting or over-dramatizing a real issue. This is why it's important to have a clear objective and understanding of what bothers you up front. Best case scenario, your friend sees where you're coming from, apologizes and pledges to go forward and do better. If it goes the other way, and you are invalidated or demeaned in any way, a full breakup with this friend may be what you need.

Let the relationship fade.

We've all had friendships that fade out organically, due to distance, conflicting schedules or simply falling out of touch. It happens, and often it's the result of a mutual feeling that a friendship just isn't working like it used to. It's definitely a more passive approach to ending a friendship, but it can save you the trouble of ending something formally that is already unfolding on its own. It's important to be mature about it — losing touch over time happens, but if you're fully ghosting your friend, that's something else.
Often, the fade-out breakup only works if the feeling is mutual, and both parties have lost interest in maintaining the friendship. Also, this solution usually only works when the problem at hand is a result of growing apart – losing the commonalities that brought you together, not enjoying the time you share, or simply not 'clicking' anymore. If the problem is more active or insidious, involving an incident or clash of some sort, it's harder to make this distancing subtle, and there will likely be a more concrete falling out.

End it formally. 

After reflecting on your friendship and the problems you have with it, you may decide that what is best for you is a full breakup with your friend. This might happen if you feel like this person is having a negative effect on your life, or if you disagree with them fundamentally on major issues that are important to you; maybe you realize your political views and social values conflict. Ending a relationship formally is difficult. Again, you need to be very specific with how and why you are ending it and the terms of your interaction from then on. 
Be as respectful about it as possible. Meeting in person is ideal; if you wouldn't break up with a partner over text (and maybe even if you would) don't do it to a friend. Receiving essay-long text messages listing grievances and explaining intense, complex feelings is anxiety-inducing and never fun; plus, things are rarely interpreted accurately over text message. 
Be as genuine as possible. You may be met with defensiveness or anger, but the more honest and mature you are about the situation, the better the outcome will be. After having a conversation, you will probably have to be articulate about what you want your relationship with this person to look like moving forward. They might misinterpret your intentions, and if you have mutual friends or regularly interact in your daily schedules, it's a good idea to talk about your ideal boundaries from that point on. 

Use 'I' statements.

Making the breakup about you and your needs, rather than your friend's flaws, will help you move the situation forward without causing unnecessary hurt or defensiveness. When explaining your issues with the friendship, use 'I' statements. Frame it as a movement forward in your life that is pulling you away from the relationship, not a response to their shortcomings. 
If you feel like it's necessary to call out a specific behavior, it's okay to do so, just be aware of how they might react and prepare accordingly. If you feel wronged or hurt by a specific incident, or need to stand up for yourself when you haven't been previously, do. You might face some animosity, but in the case of toxic friendships especially, staying on good terms might not be your priority. 

Identifying a toxic friendship

Toxic friendships are the friendships that probably require a full-on breakup. They are also sometimes the hardest friendships to get out of, as their problems are deeper and often more persistent. A lot of the time, we normalize the more toxic elements of our friendships, due to personal issues or denial for one reason or another, and it can take a while to realize a friendship is bringing more negativity than anything else to your life. 
You can identify a toxic friend through these signs:
  • You dread hanging out with this person.
  • They are mean or derogatory toward you.
  • You don't like who you are when you're around them.
  • They make you feel bad about yourself or the things you like. 
  • You don't feel like you can be yourself around them.
  • They promote hateful or discriminatory rhetoric or ideas.
  • They routinely push your boundaries or push you past what you're comfortable with —  in a destructive, spiteful way. 
  • They're not interested in your life or achievements. 
  • They use you more than they show up for you. 

How do you end a toxic friendship?

Toxic friendships are often best handled with a formal, full breakup. These relationships can be manipulative or have harmful power dynamics, so they can be hard to get out of if you don't stick firmly to what you want when laying out the terms for calling off the friendship. In some cases, you can remain in touch with toxic former friends in a peripheral way, on your own terms, and avoid a massive fallout of calling things off fully. Other times, it's best to have as little contact as possible. The first step is figuring out the toxic elements of a relationship, what you need, and going from there.

How do you get over a toxic friendship?

It's hard to come to terms with the realization that a friendship was toxic. Admitting and accepting what's best for you is an ongoing journey for most of us, and it's easy to get into a routine of normalizing or looking past behaviors that might be harming us — particularly when they're coming from our friends. To move past a toxic friendship, take action to distance yourself from the person, and surround yourself with people who lift you up, add positivity to your life, respect your boundaries and meet your needs. 
With the end of any relationship comes nostalgia, sadness and pain but also some elements of relief and freedom. The end of a friendship can be difficult to navigate and awkward to address, but having a greater understanding and conviction about your relationship standards and values will help you understand yourself and seek out better, more enriching friendships in the future.

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