Have You Ever Had a Friendship Breakup?

friendship breakup

A few years ago…

…my son’s middle school friends mysteriously dropped him without explanation. Though devastated, he refused to talk about it no matter how gently I poked. But one day, after overhearing a rash of incoming prank phone calls through his closed door, he finally opened up. I held him in my arms, hot tears on my T-shirt. “You will find your people,” I told him.

As I consoled him, my thoughts traveled to my own soured friendships past. My last real falling out, I’d realized, had been about 20 years ago. With age comes wisdom, I figured, with a little bit of pride. I must have gotten better at vetting friends and no longer avoided conflict the way I did when I was younger. Maybe we all just eventually grow up — the rare perk of middle age!

But then a peculiar thing happened, as it often does when you think you have things all figured out. Life, that sly sneak, humbled me with the lesson that the more you learn, the less you actually know: In a brief whirlwind, I, too, lost a few friends mysteriously without explanation.

I came to think of it as Frexit.

And, boy, did it sting.

One friendship ended surprisingly abruptly when our children stopped being friends. Another few were slow drifts whose loss only came into sharper focus under the pandemic’s lens. And one couple, close friends whom my husband and I had known for over a decade, unceremoniously dropped us in a way I can only describe as Middle School Mean.

Making friends, I’ve realized, comes easily to me. It’s losing them I’m lousy at, even — and maybe especially — now.

I wish this could be a How I Got Over Them story. I wish I was one of those people who could shrug and say, Who cares? Their loss! But I’m the kind of person who stares out the window at the burst of birds flying together and apart and thinks, Why? I’ll puzzle over it while shampooing my hair. I’ll walk home from the grocery store singing a snatch of that Liz Phair song to myself, “And it’s true that I stole your lighter. And it’s also true that I lost the map. But when you said that I wasn’t worth talking to, I had to take your word on that.”

One friend loss in particular was impossible to get over because I’d hadn’t even realized I’d been ghosted.

Living in different cities, we were no longer in each other’s everyday orbit, but our decades-long friendship was warm and reliable with a magnet’s pull, like a dog who runs a thousand miles back to her family’s former home.

So assured was I of our bond, I corresponded one-sidedly with her for years, cheerfully keeping up for the both of us in unanswered texts and voicemails until one day, after passing milestones and the absence of a pandemic check-in, it finally sunk in: she doesn’t want to know me anymore.

To be fair, it wasn’t the first time she’d disappeared. She’s a free spirit and a bit of a flake. Forever losing her cell phone. Forever losing my number. The year after we both had gotten married, I had left countless messages with something big to share. When she finally resurfaced, I told her my news: I had had a baby.

“You are having a baby, you mean,” she said, her voice catching.

“No. I had a baby,” I told her nervously. “I have a little boy.”

An awkward silence gave way to tears.

“How could you have a baby without me?” she breathed.

“You stopped calling me!” I said, crying too. “I thought you didn’t want to be friends anymore.”

“How could you even think that, Rubisch?” she said.

We called each other by our last names, as though we were TV cops or people who played team sports.

Jones and I met in high school chemistry. I was the shy, new girl; the only freshman in a classroom of sophomores. She sniffed me out as studious, someone from whom, she later told me, she could cheat. She was the cool girl who dated the best friend of the boy I pined for from afar. There was something in it for both of us, I guess, but soon after, something sparked and we became inseparable.

We must have stood in front of a thousand mirrors getting ready for the concert, the party, passing the shared tube of frosty pink lipstick that practically crackled with mischief. We looked more like sisters than our own, actual sisters: pale skin, dark curls, blue eyes; suburban girls in thrift-store army pants and beat-up Converse sneakers.

The unspoken contract between us was that I would take care of her. I would be the responsible one who would help her navigate through life. She, in turn, would help molt my teenaged caterpillar into a less anxious butterfly. Hands tightly clasped, we pulled one other from girlhood into adulthood.

Our friendship made it through adolescence and the decades that followed. We went to the same college, danced at each other’s weddings and held each other’s children.

The last time I saw or spoke to her, she was in town for work and we talked and laughed so late into the night that she ended up forgoing her lux hotel and slept over.

But that was six years ago.

Now I don’t believe in Happily Ever After in romantic love — for me, that’s about hard work and renewed choice — but somehow when I meet a friend who makes my heart beat, I become giddy, like I found the other half of a winning lottery ticket. Friend loss is particularly wrenching, I feel, because it lacks the ritual of romantic breakups. In romantic breakups, we comfort ourselves with sad songs and movies (mine are Nothing Compares 2 U and all things Nora Ephron — I’m sure you have yours). We pull our friends around us like a weighted blanket to discuss our pros and our ex’s cons. It’s normal, even encouraged, to indulge in tear-smudged journal entries, tarot cards, pints of ice cream, wine and whine.

With friends, there are no such sad songs and routines. You might confide in a few people about this breakup but chances are, you ran in the same circles and can be met with embarrassment and loaded silence. A romantic breakup feels like grabbing a scalding pan from the stove with your bare hand — a searing pain that eventually heals and subsides. A friendship break is more of that creeping dull ache in your side that, although mostly ignorable, never fully goes away. There is secrecy and shame in admitting you were dumped by a friend. Even writing this right now, I’m imagining some of you reading it and thinking…what must be wrong with her?

My husband has bumped into the Middle School Mean couple a handful of times but I have not. He said they just pretend like nothing happened and gush about how much they miss us, as though we had moved to the last village on Earth without internet, and he just plays along.

But I can’t small talk and pretend we didn’t cry-laugh together on a thousand Fridays. Didn’t share years of parental worries, personal triumphs, work vents, takeout tacos, holidays, vacations. Didn’t expose our most vulnerable underbellies to one another on a weekly basis. I’m the kind of person who would run into them and say something so awkwardly grievous, I would play it on a loop for eternity. No, I needed to have a plan if and when I ran into them. A prophylactic retort-at-the ready, like George Costanza might. Because I want them to know that what happened was hurtful, but that I am okay.

My sister once told me about a Yom Kippur prayer, that, if not curing me of this friend loss heartache, certainly ameliorates and it is this:
I forgive you. I forgive me.

This is so simple but it stopped me in my tracks and I return to it often when I need it.
I forgive you. I forgive me.

For losing interest in you. For outgrowing me first. For anything offensive, annoying, deceitful or dumb thing either of us may have done or said. For just being our flawed, human selves.

I still haven’t run into those friends who dumped my husband and me and I don’t actually miss them, not anymore. I’m not going to lie: occasionally I’ll fantasize about them having, like, sudden onset couples alopecia. But in forgiving them and myself, I’m at peace with our break. We had a good run.

I did, however, figure out my George Costanza line.

I stumbled on it one day at random and it’s just the most shockingly ribald thing I could ever cook up. It’s nothing that can be published in an essay and I can’t even say it out loud without falling off my chair. I doubt I will actually say it if I do cross paths with them, but that’s ok. Just thinking of it grounds me, takes the thumb off the bruise. It’s exactly the kind of humor that would have once had us doubled and over and gasping, clutching each other in peals of laughter.

Lisa Rubisch started her career at MTV and now directs commercials and music videos for major brands at Park Pictures in New York. She also contributes writing to websites, anthologies and books, and has written other essays for Cup of Jo.

P.S. A small kindness I’ll never forget, and 11 reader comments on friendship.

(Illustration by Alessandra Olanow for Cup of Jo.)

  1. annemarie thomas says...

    i just stumbled on the blog so i’m 2 or 3 mos late in commenting. but as soon as i read this i knew i had to comment.
    i had a friend for 40+ years, from college on. while we were friends i just didn’t notice anything and after a dinner my other friend said ‘didn’t you notice that she was always criticizing you?’ no i hadn’t. for the majority of those years i didn’t notice much.

    slowly i saw things. she and i were talking on the phone and at the same time she was talking to her 4 yr old son. we did things when it was easy for her but when she was living on the west coast and i was on the east, she saw no problem calling me at 9 her time midnight mine.

    at one point she got really angry at me and stopped talking to me for, get this, fifteen years! then she sent me a card and we started being friends again. from that point on i began to notice things and it took me a while longer but i saw that she was toxic for me. a new way of looking at it.

    i think at maybe 5 years i decided to break up with her. and i was so happy. of course being me i wrote her a treatise on why it was happening. i told her that her friendship wasn’t giving me the things i needed and thought a friendship gave: support, love, acceptance, empathy, forgiveness, honesty, and understanding. i gave her examples of all the times she hadn’t shown me any of these so she could really understand.
    at the end i quoted something i had read “if a friendship can end, it never really began.”
    i kept a copy of the email and as i just looked at it i was amazed that the date was november 11, 2011. ten years ago and i have never missed her.
    why miss her, she took so much from me and gave back so little.

  2. Maggie says...

    I stumbled on this post in a daze of sadness and confusion this morning. I have been feeling so lost and sad with a friend’s sudden withdrawal from me. I’m not sure what happened, what I said or did wrong. I know the pandemic has been really hard for her and me. She has struggled with intense anxiety about infection, COVID, the state of the world, and she is not able to keep perspective on much despite my best efforts to try to keep her grounded. Over the past months, the friendship has felt like torture in terms of walking on eggshells around her. And also feeling like I cannot predict what mood she will be in on any given day. When she is having a good day, it is the best time with her. When she withdraws, I feel like I am in a hole. She has pulled away completely of late, and I have given up trying to reach out for the nth time. This truly feels like a divorce.
    Thank you for this space to process these thoughts, reading your comments also helped normalize this situation for me.

  3. Lee says...

    Couples alopecia! 🤣

  4. Deirdre says...

    This is beautifully written and relatable. I do think sometimes we slowly grow apart from friends without noticing and physical distance allows us the chance to let go and drift into our fond friendships of past. I’ve also agonized over the couple who “dropped” us.. thought we were no longer cool enough or shiny enough. I learned they were having their own issues and we were simply collateral damage. It helped but I still miss them. I have learned the one sided where you always reach out is bound to fail eventually.. so I pull back quickly when that pattern emerges with a new friend. My wise Mom always told me” keep making new friends .. younger ones.. they keep throwing parties when you old friends can’t be bothered!” Wise words. So think of your frexit as making room for some new fun friends!

  5. Thank you thank you thank you for this post that helps me to process what is happening to me. My (now former) BFF is dumping me and I have tried to start a conversation about it but it’s so hard to connect due to the pandemic. It’s very hard for me to let go and not obsess over the details, but I am trying. I deeply appreciate this part of friendship being named and examined with all the messy feelings. THANK YOU

  6. Jules says...

    I confess that I ghosted a friend after realizing, over the course of a couple of years, that I felt like I was coming down with a bad cold every time I saw her. (Energy vampire.) I realized that I was performing a friendship and for my own well-being, I needed to let it go. A mutual friend has mentioned that our friend is confused by my sudden distance which makes me feel ashamed. I don’t want to hurt anybody. And she is a good person. But whenever I’ve thought about re-establishing the friendship I know in my heart that it would be a decision made out of guilt and shame, not of love. Is there a good way to end a friendship?

    • Jules,
      Thanks for bringing up being the “ghost” in a friend breakup! I think that’s a really important perspective. I wonder if you could write her a letter saying that you don’t think you can be a good friend to her right now and that you haven’t felt “in sync.” I think even when we are “performing friendship” excellently, we aren’t really being good friends if we resent the other person.

      I’ve had friendships wax and wane when I don’t think that people are listening to me or when things seem to go only one-way (e.g. I’m always making the effort to make plans, and I realize I’m tired of spending so much energy). We’ve reconnected later when we were both in more generous, stable places, and it’s been really nice.

      I think acknowledging the shift and discussing it in terms of how you feel (not how you want the other person to change––especially if you’ve already decided you don’t want to be friends right now) would be a kind thing to do without disrespecting your own boundaries.

    • S says...

      I want to reply to Kristy and say this is such incredible advice. Acknowledging that things are out of sync is a great place to start. Both parties can feel when something is off, even if one person instigated it. It’s perfect neutral ground. And thank you so much, always, for Cup of Jo talking about and helping us thought the messy parts of life. These comments helped me directly today. So much love for this community. x

  7. Beth says...

    I’ve been through several friendship breakups where I’ve been the ‘flakey’ ghost. I’ve had friends who I thought would be friends for life where the friendships felt forced to me once we went through major life changes. Sometimes it’s just that I feel I’ve grown apart from people, sometimes it’s something deeper. I had a friend breakup this year with a dear friend who was getting married and became incredibly demanding–criticizing other bridesmaids, demanding we travel during the pandemic, demanding we travel to where she lived for a full week to prep for her wedding and travel to a separate location for a bachelorette weekend when she knew that I was on a very low income. I’d seen other people ghost her in the past and always thought it was a bit odd but then she would completely eviscerate them over texts and phone calls to me afterwards. Ranting is sometimes necessary, but I always felt like it was odd to be so cruel about someone that you’d previously considered a close friend. Then, when her most recent ‘best friend’ ghosted her she started viewing me as her ‘best friend’ even though I’d never viewed her as that close of friend (close but not THAT close) because I’d always known my place on her friendship hierarchy. She became extremely manipulative toward me–her expectations changed. We didn’t live in the same time zone, but she expected me to be as available to her as I would have been in a close relationship with someone nearby. I expressed to her that I wasn’t available to talk as frequently as she liked, I tried to explain how I felt manipulated, tried to be a good friend to her throughout it. But eventually I asked her for space, totally intending to reach out to her in a few weeks when I’d had some time to think. She had her fiancé contact me and then other friends. Technically SHE wasn’t contacting me but I was upset and I made the decision to ghost. This, and a few other experiences, drove home to me that she didn’t respect my boundaries and wouldn’t learn. I know it probably seemed like it came from left field for her, but I’d been trying to express myself for a long time, and it was really upsetting to me that even now she never expressed any concern for me during our breakup. It was always about her and her feelings, which makes it breakup even sadder for me, as it feels like she never wanted to be my friend, but the friend of some fantasy person that she could project on to.

  8. Lynn Morales says...

    What a great article! My first great friendship I lost was in 8th grade, I am still not sure what happened. I still can’t find myself to become FB friends with her because of the hurt and misunderstanding. Later, I met the best friend of my life, we are only born 11 days apart and even look alike. We stayed close for twenty plus years and then it was my fault for ghosting her because she was gay and I was in a fervent religious phase and having children. I regret this immensely. We are still friends but I was not invited to her wedding and I know I deserved that. I know we still love each other but it is not the same. I miss her and her entire family because they welcomed me into their family.
    I have had many close relationships afterwards but never again like i had with my friend, never as intimate and I realize how fortunate that I had one like this,
    The next worst FREXIT was my husband and i were in a very tight knit small group in our church that was supposed to be a life group-sharing our lives. About 9 months in, we asked to switch up a schedule and most of the group started turning on us and making nasty comments. They apologized but then did it again. It really shook my husband and I up that who we had entrusted our personal lives too could turn so quickly over such a small subject. We quit the group and no one called to apologize or to ask us to come back. Very hurtful and especially since one of the ladies said she was so thankful to God for sending her this friendship. No one has followed up with us either and one of the members was a therapist!
    However, I have made a new friend last year and we walk together every morning at 6 am and have since June 2020. I am resolved to stay positive and be open to new friendships. I like how the author says forgive yourself and forgive them, words of wisdom!

  9. kate says...

    Thank you for posting this! It’s clearly a hot topic that I’ve honestly not really seen covered before. It seems from the comments that a lot of people haven’t had a good outlet for the pain and confusion that friend breakups cause – myself included. With that said, I’ll use this comment box to tell my story, which I honestly still think about to this day even though it happened 11 years ago (!!!!).

    I had a couple of girlfriends in college that I met when I needed a place to live, and moved in with them. They had known each other since freshman year and were very close, but were generous in letting me into the group. After college we all moved home to get our bearings and earn some money while living rent-free, but eventually moved back in together to live that post-college city life. A couple of years in things had started to sour – they stopped inviting me to happy hours, etc – small things, but when you used to make plans as a group (not to mention you lived together) it was noticeable. I had other friends from college in the area and work friends, so I often had other plans independent of them, but it got to the point where I remember being upset about it. Things around the house became passive aggressive – I remember one particular instance where I had washed some clothes, but one of the other girl’s towels were still in the dryer, so I took them out to dry my clothes – and she yelled at me about he towels getting wrinkled. And it seemed so ridiculous to me and like it was clearly about something else. It all came to a head at my birthday – and I truly do not even remember what sparked this – but one of my other friend’s brothers got into a fight with one of their boyfriends and that was it. The beginning of the end. I was made to feel so uncomfortable in my own house that I moved out. But they wouldn’t let me sublet my room, so I paid double rent just to get out of there. One of the girls was friendlier to me than the others, but it was very clear where the loyalties were. And when I moved out, I really didn’t ever see them again. I often felt like I wanted an explanation, but I didn’t want to give them the satisfaction of knowing that I was in any way affected by how they treated me and how things ended; I just forced myself to move on. The living situation at the end was so hostile and gave me so much anxiety that for years afterwards I was just really angry about it – and hurt.

    To this day, I still have dreams about them. I feel like my life isn’t worse without them – in many ways, it’s probably better. But I also don’t have a close knit group of girlfriends like I had when I had them – which I think is what I miss. Not them as people, but the idea of that type of friendship. And what I’ve come to find out as I’ve gotten older, is that type of friendship is hard to come by and hard to have and hard to keep (as illustrated in these comments!). Any maybe that’s ok!

  10. Lynda says...

    i had a who i thought was a best friend break up with me by not inviting me to her baby shower. she had a hard time getting pregnant, and she went through a miscarriage, so i thought the baby shower was a big deal. but nope, i had texted her to let me know when it was so that i could request the day off work (i used to work weekends back then), and she had said okay, but a few weeks later i saw from FREAKING FACEBOOK pictures of her joyous baby shower. i pretty much got the point and stopped contacting her thereafter. the sad thing is that she “took” a few friends with her. to this day, i still don’t know what it is that i did wrong. or maybe it was a culmination of things. she’s always talked about getting rid of toxic people in her life, but i had never thought that she meant me.

    i also lost a few friends along the way because they didn’t like my husband. and that they didn’t agree with my decision to have a child. i just don’t understand but if they don’t want to be friends anymore, then so be it. i can’t waste my time moaning over “why why why” when i have little humans and my life to get together. it’s sad but if they decided that i am not worth their time and emotions, then they shouldn’t be worth mine. right???

  11. Yuna says...

    Wow, crazy the timing of this post. The phrase “friendship breakup” completely captures this feeling I’ve been experiencing lately.

    The pandemic has concentrated most of my friendships into what they are actually made up of. Some worth everything while others borderline toxic and flakey (like a cheap pie crust all bitter and bland with the illusion of being… pie).

    Ghosting is painful, but sometimes the length of the silence is only confirming the validity of a fallout. I often replay conversations I’ve had with ex-good-friends when I do something that reminds me of them. A cynical side of me wonders if my family is truly the only unwavering foundation of support in my lifetime. HOWEVER, I’m starting to realize in my 20s that things really do come in seasons where more doesn’t necessarily mean better. Each friend who I’ve drifted apart from has helped me realize something about myself or the chaotic ride of life. I do quietly daydream that I’ll run into them unexpectedly at a grocery store or concert 10 years from now (hopefully I’ll be you know… thriving ;).

    Nothing is guaranteed in life. Savor the presence of those around you in the present. Quite literally, the past is the past. Live on. Only if it helps: It’s their loss anyways.

  12. Jane says...

    This resonates with me completely. The ghosting/one-sidedness. It’s so strange after SO much time together. Took me about a year and a bit to really truly move on from how heartbreaking it was to me.

    Time is so funny like that where it does begin to heal, or at the very least you are forced to move forward.

  13. Katie says...

    I feel this so deeply. I told my friend again and again how hard the shut down was on me: at home with my 3 kids, trying to manage virtual school, etc. She was super cautious, which I respected. I waited for 7 months before she started getting together w another friend in person. I told her that I was jealous and that I missed her. She just wanted a phone relationship, and the few times she agreed to do socially distanced dates, I had to go to her, get the food, make all of the arrangements. It was all about what she wanted and needed. I couldn’t carry that burden anymore.

  14. Erica says...

    This hit me in the gut. My best friend of twenty years “broke up” with me just three years ago and it felt like a divorce even though she had avoided me for a few years prior. I spent a long time beating myself up over it and trying to analyze how and why it happened. And while I still miss her deeply, I had to just let it go the same way she had. My door’s always open, Ji. ❤️

  15. Kris says...

    I broke up with a friend who could not be there for me through infertility. Even though I asked her to be upfront about her pregnancies and that it would mean a lot for her to ask me how IVF was going, she hid her pregnancies from me, never asked how years of IVF and uterine surgeries were going, and then said I was the problem for not supporting her when her daughter was born. I tried for a long time to make this friendship work, even hosting a baby shower for her while I was starting fertility treatment (literally I had a blood draw the morning of her shower). This woman hurt me so much in her selfishness and I realized she was completely incapable of supporting me through such a nuanced and complex situation. I was the “dumper” and told her how I felt and why I wanted to end the friendship. I felt I at least owed her that closure.

    Infertility is so rough on relationships and while most friends have done hurtful things to me (complain about two months of trying, offer me their leftover raspberry leaf tea, tell me incessant stories about other people who had success with IVF) I have sucked up a lot of hurt to maintain most of my friendships. As another commenter said, though, it’s so hard to watch people get babies from sex when I have done 6 surgeries, 4 frozen embryo transfers, and have experienced nothing but failure. And now that I am pursuing gestational surrogacy, some of the few friends I’ve told respond that it’s “exciting,” as if every other intervention hasn’t failed, and I want to scream!

    Fertile people will probably think I am whiny, but I wish so badly people could be better about this. There are great resources, esp. on this blog, for supporting a friend through infertility. I often ask my husband, is this how bad people are at supporting friends through difficult things? Would people be this dismissive and toxically positive if I were going through cancer treatment? I fear the answer for most people is yes :(

    • Benedicte says...

      Hi Kris,
      I allow myself to respond to this post because what you wrote resonates strongly in me. I am very sorry for you and find you very brave. I also have a complicated story with infertility. Several of my friends were recently afraid to tell me about their pregnancy and several have moved away from me. Maybe because I am not going through the same thing, or because they are uncomfortable with my experience. Losing their friendship seems like a “double punishment” to me, but sometimes it’s less painful for me to walk away – even if I may seem cold or not caring. xxx