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Why Friendship Breakups are so Painful, and How to Move Forward

On the surface, it may feel like a friendship breakup isn’t as significant or painful of an event as ending a long-standing romantic relationship. However, the truth is that having spent months, years, or even decades sharing a close bond with someone, the ache of their absence can bring about intense feelings of grief and sadness.

No matter the cause of our breakups, it’s important to take the time needed to process your emotions in order to help you discover closure along the way.

Read on as we explore the impact of losing a friend due to breakups, moving cities, or transitioning onto different stages of life.

What Are “Friendship Breakups”?

Friendship breakups is a term used to describe the ending of a platonic relationship. No matter if you’ve been best friends for your entire life, even the longest friendships can come to an end.

Although there are no romantic feelings involved in our platonic relationships, this doesn’t make their endings any less painful.

According to a study published by the American Psychological Association, researchers conducted a short interview with 20 participants aimed to understand why people end friendships. Their findings suggested that friendship breakups fall into 4 distinct categories.

  1. Selfishness – when a friend is not supportive, dishonest, manipulative, betrayed trust, unreliable, etc.
  2. Infrequent interaction – when there has been a loss of touch, a friend moved or is living far away, when you no longer share any common interest, having different priorities, incompatibility, misunderstanding between one another, etc. 
  3. Romantic involvement – when a friend shows a romantic interest in your partner or yourself, when a friend becomes romantically involved with someone you were interested in, etc.
  4. Perceptions – when your family does not approve, when your partner does not approve, when a friend is inconsistent with your life, etc.

Why Are Friendship Breakups so Painful?

There are many reasons why a friendship breakup can be an emotionally painful experience.

A lost friendship comes with the loss of shared joys and sorrows, an emotional support system, inside jokes, and a long inventory of fond memories.

Friendships are built on trust and understanding. When that bond is broken, it leaves us with a void in our hearts that’s difficult to fill. Perhaps one of the toughest parts of this transition is having to accept that things won’t go back to normal; that the deep, meaningful connection we once shared is lost.

Author and educator, Dr. Pauline Boss brilliantly classifies a friendship breakup as a type of “Ambiguous Loss”.

Ambiguous loss is a form of grief that happens when something or someone important to an individual has been lost or taken. As a form of unresolved loss, ambiguous loss can result from losing a friendship, becoming estranged from a family member, or a sudden departure of someone close in our lives, either physically (i.e. moving to a new city) or psychologically (i.e. suffering from mental illness, addiction, etc.).

With ambiguous loss, it’s oftentimes unclear why or how the friendship came to an end. No matter the cause of loss, it’s natural to grieve. Though there are many societal pressures advising us to “move on”, our grieving process is highly individual for each of us.

How Your Attachment Style May Influence Your Feelings

Your attachment style in either romantic or platonic relationships can influence how much pain or sadness you experience after a breakup.

1.    Anxious attachment style

Though breakups of any kind are difficult for most people to process, those who have an anxious attachment style may find it more complicated to navigate. For example, the loss of a relationship can affirm their fears of rejection or abandonment, creating a sense of intense distress following a friendship breakup.

2.    Avoidant attachment style

Individuals with an avoidant attachment style are characterized as being independent, distant, and refraining from emotional expression. When faced with a friendship breakup, they are more likely to try to rationalize their emotions, or in some cases even suppress them entirely.

3.    Secure attachment style

Someone with a secure attachment style is often the best equipped to process their emotions during and following a friendship breakup. This is because they are more likely to rely on social support, engage in self-reflection, and create space to grieve and process their emotions in a productive way.

5 Ways to Help You Manage a Friendship Breakup

Though friendship breakups can feel incredibly destabilizing, there are plenty of things you can do to help you process and recover from these difficult emotions.

Here are 5 effective strategies to help you cope with the heartbreak of a friendship breakup.

1. Acknowledge your grief and give yourself permission to mourn

The first step towards moving forwards after a friendship breakup is acknowledging and accepting your grief. In other words, it’s important to be kind to yourself and to give yourself permission to feel sad, angry, or hurt.

Fighting these emotions can only give them more power over you. Though the actual feelings of hurt and pain are not easy to acknowledge, giving yourself the space and understanding to experience them can be integral to bringing you more peace and relief after the fresh wounds have healed.

2. Establish your boundaries and focus on self-care

Establishing boundaries after a friendship breakup is an essential step toward maintaining your mental health as well as setting yourself up for success in future relationships.

As a part of self-care, boundaries can offer us the space we need to regroup, collect our thoughts, and gain back the energy we lost throughout our grieving process. A beneficial way to practice this is by unplugging from social media or avoiding events that you may run into your former friend.

Take this time to explore new activities or hobbies that bring you joy. Making yourself the priority, whether that be getting enough rest, spending time outdoors, or restoring your balance giving your time to other quality friendships can provide the foundation for positive growth and self-compassion.

3. Avoid ruminating over your past friendship and/or the events that led to their dissolution

After experiencing a friendship breakup, it can be difficult to avoid overthinking all the mistakes and interactions that led to its dissolution. However, repeating these negative or unproductive thoughts over and over can only fuel more sadness or resentment.

Instead, a healthy way to work through these emotions is by engaging in activities that bring you joy, such as grabbing a coffee with a good friend, practicing mindful meditation, or taking your dog out for a hike.

Refocusing your energy on things that bring you happiness rather than ruminating over the loss can also improve your healing journey.

4. Talk to someone about your friendship breakup

Surrounding yourself with a strong support system is one of the most beneficial ways to process a friendship breakup. Quality friends can help lift your spirits by reminding you of your value as a friend, providing comfort and strength, and offering advice from their own perspective.

Keep in mind that every situation varies in its severity. If you’re struggling to cope with the loss of a deep friendship, it may be helpful to seek professional guidance. A qualified therapist can be especially helpful in navigating the confusion or ambiguous emotions that come with the end of a friendship. Therapists are also helpful in offering strategies that allow you to reclaim your confidence and happiness.

5. Create new opportunities for personal growth and joy

The best time to explore new hobbies and experiences is after a breakup. Not only can this help you process your emotions and heal from your pain a lot faster, but oftentimes new hobbies will help you create new friendships!

Find activities that can help you grow. For example, the gym or library or both are great spots to work on yourself while also potentially making connections with other like-minded individuals.

This is also a great time to reconnect with an old friend from your past. Remember, losing touch is normal. For the most part, many people will encourage the invite with open arms.

The Bottom Line

Friendship breakups can be an incredibly painful and devastating experience.

As a form of ambiguous loss, the ending of a friendship is bound to bring up a ton of inner conflict and upset. No matter the cause of a friendship breakup, it’s important to give yourself the patience and ability to grieve over this loss.

If you’d like to connect with a professional about your loss, we are happy to help. Reach out to us today by booking a free 30-minute consultation.

Written by Laura Anderson BA, MA, MSW, RSW

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