The Friend Breakup: When To Hold 'Em And When To Fold 'Em

Today's Wall Street Journal has some reasonable, if cynical, advice on how to break up with a friend (example: "lie"). But when is a friend breakup truly necessary?

The friend split has popped up occasionally in the media in recent years, perhaps because later marriage has increased the importance of platonic friendships — or perhaps because writers have simply run out of romance-themed trend pieces. Whatever the case, is to be some consensus: friend breakups are painful, but sometimes necessary. In the Journal, Elizabeth Bernstein writes,

Some of the worst breakups in our lives are not with romantic partners. They are with friends-the people with whom we often share our deepest thoughts. Friends provide guidance, encouragement, laughter and a refuge. Losing a good friend can be one of the saddest experiences in life.

And yet, many friendships just don't last. Some simply fizzle out, victims of routine life events such as moves, job changes, divorce or a divergence of interests.

Bernstein offers a variety of tips on initiating a friend breakup, from lying about how busy you are to "foist(ing) your unwanted friend on another friend." But she doesn't really explain how you know when it's time to cut a friend loose. And deciding this may be far more difficult than making the break.

Some friendships can actually be bad for us — if a friend is manipulative, untrustworthy, or intentionally hurtful, self-preservation pretty much demands a split. But what of the pal who's simply annoying, who has objectionable political views (one of Bernstein's examples), or with whom we just don't have as much in common as we used to? This friend might be occasionally fun but often grating, or might make us angry and happy in equal measure. What to do?

On the one hand, some traits that would be intolerable in a partner are permissible in a platonic friend. We often don't have to see our friends as much as we see our significant others, and we (mostly) don't cohabit or procreate with them. It's not so hard to temporarily flee a friend, and as a result friend conflicts can take up less space in our brains than lovers' quarrels. On the other hand, a truly traumatic friend spat can bother us for days, and friendships that include a lot of these can take up more than their fair share of headspace. Sometimes the worse a friendship is, the more important it seems.

I'm generally a fan of pulling back, rather than cutting off, in these situations. As I mentioned above, if a friend is actively cruel, the course is clear. But for conflicts that fall short of malice, a breakup seems extreme. A close friend of mine recently opined to me that all relationships — friendships, marriages, family bonds — go through good and bad phases, and that these phases are sometimes best measured not in days or weeks, but in years. It rang true — I've gone through periods of little contact, or even of chilliness, with some of my oldest friends, only to see the relationship revive and become just as fulfilling as it ever was. And often this revival is the result not of conscious effort, but the simple passage of time — we reach a point in our lives where our similarities outweigh our differences and it's fun to hang out again. Pulling back can be harder than breaking up — you might have to, for instance, endure periodic catchup sessions that make you mad all over again. But when a good year rolls around and you have someone to share your favorite in-jokes with, you may be grateful that you didn't take Bernstein's advice to "issue an ultimatum" or "become a Facebook pest." At a certain point, old friends become more like family members — they're important to you even if you don't necessarily like them at that moment. And hopefully, they'd say the same about you.

How To Break Up With A Friend [WSJ]