When Friendships End

Growing apart doesn’t change the fact that for a long time we grew side by side; our roots will always be tangled. I’m glad for that. – Ally Condie

A friendship that can end never really began – Publius Syrus

relationships 2

As the above quotes show, there are different views about friendships ending. And, depending upon the day (and the former friend?), I can agree with all of them.

But my post today isn’t about whether or not good friendships, strong ones, last forever. It’s about those friendships, the good ones, the strong ones, the forever ones, that did end. It’s about loss, pain, suffering. Or is it about freedom, change, growth, moving on?  Again, depending upon the day . . .

My inner sociologist says they end in one of two ways: external and internal.


#1: The external path

Simply, the outer structure of our life changes
: we marry, we have a child, we get a job promotion, we move. And, as a result, the friendship changes.


Sweet is the memory of distant friends! Like the mellow rays of the departing sun, it falls tenderly, yet sadly, on the heart. – Washington Irving

With each of those structural changes, whether we know it or not, a new identity emerges, a new role. “I’m now married; I’m a mother; I’m an east-coaster; I’m now senior partner.” And, as we go down those different paths, we seek friends, new friends, to reinforce our new identities.

If the old friends adapt, the friendship remains, but different. Habits you shared, patterns of behaviors you developed over the years, automatic responses all must change.

And change always involves loss. But in my experience, it’s a loss that’s felt more deeply by the “Leave-ee,” the person who did not experience the role change. For with those changes I listed — a new job, and new home, a new baby — there is a new focus in the “Leave-er’s” life. For the friend left behind, there is only an empty space.

This is not to say the “leave-er” does not experience loss. I’m only saying that the “leave-er” gets to fill up that empty place with exciting new material. They are busy with new challenges and experiences. They get new friends too, people able to help them navigate this new identity. Other new mothers, new neighbors, new colleagues become new friends. The “leave-ee” does not.

We miss, we grieve, we mourn the loss of the “WE,” and we move on. 

relationships 3

Endings of this sort are typically slow. We try to hang on; try to stay in touch; try to keep things as we knew them. But time wins out. I think the slowness must provide a buffer, a transition period for both members to get used to the idea. To form connections in the new place, to move on with one’s life, to settle into a new routine that no longer includes the friend who left.

The second way that my friendships have ended is faster and as a result, more painful. . .

#2: The Internal Path


We discover that an important value of ours is not shared, after all. Or has been newly adopted. The friend is not the friend we knew.


Perhaps this was the friendship that Publius was speaking of:

A friendship that can end never really began – Publius Syrus

This has happened to me twice. (I’ve changed the names to protect me from the guilty!)

Beth actually “broke up with me” over the phone. I thought we were good friends, as we’d shared many an intimate conversation over the years. And I had wonderful fun with her. But it turned out I did something she could not forgive, and which I didn’t see as something that needed forgiving, we couldn’t break the impasse. I was in shock for months, heartbroken. We both felt invested enough in the original relationship to try and talk it through. But we couldn’t. Neither of us was willing to change our position. In hindsight, I see that “Beth” was interested only in getting me to apologize; she was not interested in understanding why I could not.

Helen was a college friend I’d stayed in touch with for over twenty years, bailing each other out in equal doses in those early years. As the years passed, we maintained a strong bond in the background, based mostly on history. But also as the years passed, we drifted apart philosophically, politically, spiritually. We talked of our different points of view during one conversation, but never of how it might affect our relationship. As I write this, I realize that another twenty years has passed and neither of us has called the other once. And I don’t miss her.

relationships 1
This doesn’t totally fit here; I just like it.

There’s possibly a third Friendship Loss Path I’ve been pondering lately: the friend we want, but will never have.

We find someone we like, perhaps through social media, perhaps at a local event, and we envision the relationship growing into a close friendship. But, the other person doesn’t reciprocate, doesn’t respond to overtures, and simply doesn’t share the same vision. Or we realize we just don’t have the energy to pursue it. There is just not enough mutuality, so necessary for the friendship to grow.

These potential friends that stay just out of reach, these we also grieve. For that too is a loss, the loss of a dream, and sometimes those loses are the most dramatic, for they are the least tangible.


How about you? Have you grieved your lost friendships? 

6 Responses

  1. Nancy McBride
    | Reply

    I have grieved two lost friendships, both women. Somehow the loss of a lover is almost easier.
    In the first instance, there were three of us, my friend and I, and I brought in a third. My two friends bonded and found odd excuses to be with each other without me. I was very confused by their excuses, and was hurt. I realized they weren’t my friends at all, and let it go, but with trust scars.
    The second was a friend who I hung out with. We met through work, and liked to do stuff together. I had a good guy friend, who liked her, and when he’d ask her out, she’d insist on me going along, to keep it casual. He became confused about this and asked me what was going on. I told him the truth, that she was practically living with another guy, but felt sorry for him, my friend, because he had a brain tumor, and didn’t want to hurt his feelings.
    Then, she had an epiphany, and decided she needed to change her life. She got a job, elsewhere, and moved suddenly. Having other plans I could not change, I was unable to help her move, so sent my college age daughter, also her friend, to help. My “friend” never spoke to me again. I learned later that this was her pattern.
    It is work, sometimes, to untangle from expectations of honesty, and wounds of deception, but I worked to let it go, too. I did nothing to rend the relationship, and like any, it is not a relationship when there is only one.
    Friendships are important to me, but like anything, they are with human beings who are complicated. I love my few childhood friends, who when I hear their voices, I am practically back in the womb, but I have no need to be in touch regularly—to keep it the “same”. I have friends and lovers from other times and places in my life, and I remember most of them with fondness, and enjoy hearing what’s up, now, but do not imagine myself back there, wishing it was different. At my 50th HS reunion, I reconnected with a woman who I only knew a little back then, but we hang out, now. Old friends are special because you do not have to learn of their essences or values, they’re old shoe comfortable, but they also have changed and grown.
    I like to live in the now, and love what fills in, like the occasional new friend to share with now and then, and laugh, and be. There is always room for special people in my life.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Nancy, Your comment, “Somehow the loss of a lover is almost easier.” really resonated. What is it about female bonds (straight females, I’ll add) that makes the breaking of them so very painful? I didn’t look closely at my friendships with men (the platonic ones) and compare them with my friendships with women. That would have been interesting. Well, to me anyway. 🙂

      New friends take time and energy, like travelilng to a new land in a way. You must learn the landscape.

      And, as you also experienced, when the bonds of old friendships break, it can result in a fracturing of the ability to trust. I will trust that you will get that back again. The idea that these friends of ours are ones with whom we establish a particular identity (we all have many identities, some more important than others) and if the friendship breaks, a part of who we think we are is also fractured. That’s painful.

      I’ve come to believe that my own trust issues were all about trusting myself again in that situation. That “this time” I’d be better equipped to deal with whatever … Trust is so fundamental to living a full life isn’t it?

      I’m so glad you shared your stories here. Thank you.

  2. Kathleen Pooler
    | Reply

    Janet, this post really resonated with me and got me thinking about my own friendships that have gone awry. Years ago, I had a roommate whom I eventually “outgrew” and I initiated the “breakup”. She did nothing wrong except to be herself and for some reason , I needed to move beyond. I declared the friendship to be over and left but spent years feeling badly about it. I ran into her again at a reunion years later and she forgave me ( I asked for her forgiveness). Girlfriends are so precious and I agree with Nancy’s statement about a break up with a lover being easier in some ways. I do find the older I get , the more selective I have become with who I spend my time and energy on. Thanks for highlighting this important topic. Great discussion!


    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      Hi Kathy. Me too. Much more selective. Or maybe just taking more time in forming new friendships. Social media has the advantage I think of giving us a lot of choices of people with whom we have much in common. I’m enjoying the journey to “good” friendship enough to be content with what is. There’s so much to chew on with this topic. Certainly it’s one we all have experience with.

  3. Terry Bryan
    | Reply

    I recently “was dumped” by a person I considered a friend. Turns out a flaming liberal and an ignorant, gun toting tea party person should not mix.

    • Janet Givens
      | Reply

      You make me smile, Terry. And wish I’d gone ahead with a post on “friendships across differences.” But I’ll save that for July or June. One of them is “national friendship month.” Or Day. I forget. Yes, there are some friendships that are not worth setting our values aside for. I like to think then it’s our adult taking care of our little kid. Thanks for stopping.

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