Friendships drifting and ending is a common occurrence around times of life transition, such as between high school and undergrad, and undergrad to workplace or continuing education and beyond. One of the hardest sets of lessons I had to learn in my adult life were catalyzed from the sudden end of a long-lasting close friendship.
Last year, a close friendship I shared throughout undergrad came to a painful, confusing, abrupt end.
To this day, the only possible idea I have of what happened is that I made a life decision that went against their best advice, and they felt they could not remain my friend after I did so. Since they never came back to discuss what was really happening, I have accepted that this self-generated idea may forever be how I interpret this situation.
I wanted to write about my experience because perhaps there aren’t many avenues where people can sit and reflect on lost connections. I think this is because it is seen as a normalized life scenario. People come and go in our lives, and sometimes we never get closure. Perhaps it is common, but that does not and should not downplay the pain of the experience.
In respect to this past friend and to my own privacy, I will be focusing on what I have learned from the experience rather than the experience itself in this post. I believe these will be more transferable and relatable than divulging details about my situation.
1. Pure self-blame is often an easy yet harmful way to feel more control over a connection that involved two people.
As someone who has grown up with a fear of abandonment and a strong deterrence to lack of control, letting go of this friendship was incredibly difficult. There was no closure, no further discussion, nor any control I had over the situation. One day they were here, one day they stated they needed space, the next day they were gone for good.
I 100% blamed myself, though there was no reason to do so, because it was never communicated to me that it was because of anything that I had done. Honestly, it was probably the extremely complicated situation that I was stuck in. As I now understand it, I jumped to self-blame because it was an easy way for me to fake that I had control over the situation. I was thinking things like:
You did something wrong. You must have. You don’t deserve a good friend. You aren’t a good friend yourself. You are not good enough.
Even though I was punishing myself mentally for the loss of this friendship, it somehow felt better than accepting that I couldn’t have done anything differently at the time to impact their leave. It literally took 3 months of intensive therapy to internalize this, but in fact, there are many negative outcomes that happen almost completely outside of my control. But I resisted, because admitting this would mean giving power over to uncertainty, the bane of the perfectionist’s existence.
2. Friendships ending are often due to many situational factors, and is rarely “just” a you vs. them situation.
Tossing in your head whether it was your fault or your former friend’s fault is too binary in nature and does not consider all the facts. It is easy to blame yourself because you technically have the ability to control yourself (but not always your circumstances, and definitely never other people). But if you are going through something similar, I want you to know that life isn’t binary. More than likely, there were a myriad factors leading up to your split that you may not be considering.
During my Cognitive Processing Therapy (CPT) sessions, my therapist helped me work through my cognitive distortions around what happened. We found that I was trying to read my past friend’s mind – trying to understand why they left for good, and refused to communicate about it. My mind jumped around ideas that seemed plausible in my head, but will never be confirmed since no one is actually a mind reader. But all of them shared a similar theme: that it was 100% my fault.
She introduced the exercise of making a “responsibility pie”. We found that in response to most negative situations, I tended to blame myself 100% (again, because it is easy to do so and places all the “control” in my hands). She encouraged me to think about all the other factors that were involved in my situation with my former friend, and assign each factor a percentage of that 100% responsibility. She assured me that the time to think about my own responsibility would come afterward.
When I did this exercise, I realized that sometimes when other people don’t want to associate with you anymore, it isn’t always about you doing anything wrong per se. There could be a whole host of reasons, from drifting apart, to not having capacity to support you in a tough time, to differing expectations about the friendship itself. Everyone is entitled to hold their own power to choose what to have and not to have in their lives. That’s part of healthy boundaries.
Once you start thinking about the circumstances and other factors, you can see that in most cases, it does not make sense to make it a purely you vs. them situation. As we go through life, there are things that come up in our respective journeys that challenge the connection.
3. Oftentimes when friendships end, it is a misalignment in expectations which are allowed to and will change over time.
I think if I were to boil down the end of a friendship, it is that there is something that shifted in expectations from either or both friends. One or both friends don’t have the capacity to deal with reconciling it right now, or worse, it is doing harm to stay in that misaligned friendship. These are of course all enveloped in those situational factors I talked about before.
It might be challenging to think that a friend you’d made a promise to stay with until you are old and grey would have left, or maybe you are the one choosing to leave, but we make these promises with our current situation in mind, rarely our future. How could we? None of us have crystal balls that can see into the future. As people grow, we undertake our own personal and professional journeys that mould and reshape who we are, where we live, and how we choose to be. It is natural if not all friendships survive these changes.
Giving ourselves and others we interact with the autonomy to choose paths that make most sense for them is respectful and healthy. This includes in life decisions and personal journeys, as well as in choosing your parallel companions and situations that you give your energy toward.
Essentially… no one is entitled to take another’s power of choice, in any capacity. Conversely, everyone is entitled to choose what and who they want in their lives.
Of course, there are certainly more compassionate ways to close a friendship than a doorslam, and if you are considering leaving one of your close friends, I highly encourage that you consider their emotions and healing process as well in how you choose to do so.
4. Sometimes the way the split happens is a striking match to enlighten that the connection was unhealthy.
I realize now that healthy friendships generally don’t end in an abrupt, one-sided cut-off, followed by stone cold silence, even after attempts at opening a low-pressure dialogue. Something went seriously wrong on both sides, or again, situationally.
I’ve had many occasions since last year to speak with friends, mentors, and my therapist who let me know with their own anecdotes that in fact… healthy friendships look very different.
One highly respected figure in my life let me know that when they went through something very similar to my situation. Their close friends let them know exactly what they thought and what they would advise, but let them make their own decisions and supported them even when there were repeated negative aftermaths. Their autonomy was respected. Their friends were comfortable with the fact that their advice may not be acted upon in the way they hope. Their friends did not cut them off; they trusted them to make decisions in alignment with their current self. And, when needed, they communicated when they needed space to fill their own cup, as a continual dialogue. There was a healthy balance that did not exist in the situation I was in.
It was a vicarious corrective experience to hear their story. Yes, there are friendships that work out through tough situations, and involve healthier communication. It does require both parties to make a commitment to building that relationship.
5. At the end of the day, being a healthy friend and being able to see healthy friendships is rooted in awareness of healthy boundaries.
Good boundaries are kept when we respect decisions that others make that are different from those we would make. When we accept that the way we see reality may not match up with someone else. When we communicate our needs and engage in continual dialogue about our expectations for the friendship. And, when we honour others’ ability to walk away at any point if your connection is not what they want in their lives.
As I’ve learned, these are paramount to a truly healthy friendship.
If your friends are too attached to the way that you choose to live your life and their influence on it, that isn’t necessarily a positive sign of how much they care about you. It is a sign that the connection is unhealthy for both of you; that there is an outcome expected from their presence in your life that is not happening and is fatiguing them, and also that your autonomy is not being respected.
In the same way, if you, like me, was too attached to the notion that the friendship would last for a long, long time when clearly the friend jumped ship from that path, that is understandable, and, it is not healthy either. Friendships are a give and take, and one cannot force someone to see things from one’s own perspective.
Whatever your differences in values and experiences are, a healthy friendship involves communication and keeping of personal boundaries, which only you and your friend can define together. And hey, if that friendship is no longer serving you (or is harming you), then you have the right (and perhaps the responsibility to yourself) to leave.
Be kind to yourself – losing a close friend IS hard. It is valid to be feeling upset about it. There is no right timeline to be ‘over’ what happened.
Another friend of mine shared that they lost some friendships abruptly recently as well, and that it took them a very long time to feel alright again, similar to me.
Without even sharing too many details of our respective situations, we discussed that healthy friendships and the end of those friendships involve respect that both people are on their own, parallel paths. And that perhaps when they diverge, neither are lesser or greater for it – it just is what it is.
I spent years mourning this friendship after my initial reach out was ignored, and expended much emotional energy into trying to process it. I think different people will respond differently to the loss of a close friendship, but it definitely hit me hard. Those dang abandonment issues.
I want to let you know that if you’re experiencing pain after your close friendship ended, that I’m there with you. It’s not easy. It’s not something you can toss into the back of your head. It’s not something you can ‘just get over’. When you had a really close bond with any person and they chose to leave (or perhaps you chose to leave), it sucks. Plain and simple.
Some days will be better than others, and maybe you won’t ever fully forget or lose the pain. But maybe you don’t have to, since you will have learned from it and through it to take forward into new connections. That’s all we can really ask for in this crazy ride called life.
Always remember to BKTY (be kind to yourself),