Ways To End A Friendship
Not every friendship is lifelong. People grow apart or do things that put them off of each other. If you want to end one of your friendships, whether you've known the person for years, or only a few months, there are two main ways to do it: You can formally 'break up' with them, or you can 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. I'll note that we often don't want to hurt people'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 get angry or defensive, and that there's probably no special way to phrase your rejection that will let you get around that.
- If you need to tell them what they've done to make you want to end the relationship, let them know in as constructive a way as possible.
- If you don't want to tell them why you're ending things, because you think they wouldn't understand, get angry, or drag you into a discussion you'd rather not have, then use vague platitudes like, "It's me that's changed" or "I can't give you what you want right now." Don't give out more information than you'd like to. Stick to your guns even if they aren't accepting the vague statements. 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.
- It's an awkward 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've become an addict and tried to steal your stuff).
When the break up approach is less appropriate
- You haven't known the person very long or 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.
The fade out approach
This is when you gradually phase the person out of your life. It involves becoming less and less available, because you're often 'busy'. If you're hanging out with them 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': Whereas before you'd go 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. You may make a point of drawing attention to opinions and values you disagree on.
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 remove them from your Facebook friends list. 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 closer and more 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 approximate that process.
- Sometimes, sometimes it can ultimately be kinder for your friend. They'd take it really hard if you formally 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.
- 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 uncomfortable confrontation you were hoping to side step 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 really haven't known them for long you're not even ending a friendship so much as acknowledging 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.
- If the person has done things to harm your relationship and you just want to be done with them with a minimum of effort on your part, and don't care about explaining anything to them.
- 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).
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.