What I’ve learned from painful friend breakups

Like many people in their twenties I am, unfortunately, no stranger to friend breakups. Read any magazine or site aimed we young women of the world and you’ll spot at least a few articles dedicated to this topic. Whether we’ve named them or not, we’ve all been through these friend breakups before. And we all know they suck. But until recently I didn’t know that, much like romantic breakups, there are many different kinds of friend splits. I also didn’t know that, surprisingly, some good can come from these parting of ways.

Let me tell you a story. I had a best friend I met at camp when I was a kid. From the ages of about 13 until 18 we were like sisters. Through a series of events involving one natural disaster and my very generous mother (that’s a story for a different time), my friend ended up coming to live with my family for a year. We had our great moments and our rocky ones, and we eventually realized that we were terrific as friends but kind of awkward as faux siblings. At the end of the year, we had a falling out. I thought it was minor; she didn’t. For reasons I still don’t fully understand, we never spoke again once we left for college. I thought we could recover from our issue, because of our shared history and the sheer amount of time we had spent together, but we didn’t. Over and over I tried to get back in touch with my friend, but she wanted nothing to do with me. It was devastating.

Eventually though, I moved past the split, which was the first real friend breakup I had ever experienced. After a while, I was able to realize that sometimes friendships fall apart, and that trying to dissect the end of our relationship doesn’t do any good. It was an important lesson, and it helped me cope with a different kind of friend breakup I would experience several years later.

My next friend breakup was much longer and slower than the first, and it happened when my former BFF got a boyfriend. A shift in the friend dynamics when someone gets into a serious relationship is normal. People get caught up in building a life with their significant other, which leaves less time for friendships. Our situation felt like that, but on steroids.

Over time, the long, lazy Saturdays my pal and I would spend together wandering around Target, talking on her couch, or sipping coffee started to taper off. It wasn’t like one day we were downing lattes and the next day it was donezo. In fact, I was busy too, so sometimes I forgot about our separation — other friends and work were filling the space she once did. But then someone would ask about her or I’d pass her car parked in front of her boyfriend’s place on my way to run an errand and I would feel her absence. It felt like when you have a big bruise on your arm that someone accidentally presses.

The worst moments were when I’d run into my slow breakup friend at the grocery store or at the gym, and we would both pretend life was totally normal.

“I miss you!” we’d say. “We seriously have to make plans!” We would both be sunny, but there was an unspoken understanding that this would probably never happen. We wanted to see each other. There was no ill will. But things were just . . . different. We were out of each other’s orbits.

Eventually it got to the point that we were so disconnected from each other’s lives that we didn’t even really know what to ask about when we saw each other. She would inquire about a guy I hadn’t dated in weeks. Everyone else in my life knew what had happened, so it felt strange that she was totally out of the loop. Normally she would have been the one getting the play-by-play as the crash and burn unfolded in real time.

Now enough time has gone by so that the slow split friend has become like the quick breakup friend in the sense that sometimes it feels hard to believe that we ever existed as such major parts of each other’s lives. I’ll look back on pictures and think, “Wait, she was there for that?” and feel surprised. But fortunately, what was initially bitterness or hurt over our crumbling friendship has become acceptance coupled with an appreciation for the new friends I’ve made, who also happen to love going to Target when neither one of us needs anything.

Regardless of the speed and/or varying level of suckage, friend breakups are one of those things that usher you into adulthood. A necessary evil, you could say, sort of like getting kicked off the “family plan” and having to pay your own cell phone bill. And though it may feel like there’s no positive side when you’re in the throes of a split, there actually is. It’s like Louis C.K.’s famous rant about how no good marriage ends in divorce: if you had a strong, two-way-street kind of a friendship, it wouldn’t fizzle. When a friendship ends, whether abruptly or over a longer period of time, it’s sad, but it ultimately wasn’t a stable, healthy connection, or perhaps it was a strong friendship for a very specific time in your life. With that “meh” friendship gone, you’ve cleared out space and energy so that you can grow connections with people who are willing to put in as much time, effort, and concern as you are. You have space for the friendships that are right for you right now. Plus, when you’ve been through a friend breakup, it makes you even more aware and appreciative of the relationships you have that are long-lasting.

[Image via Shutterstock]