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Friendless Zone: On Friendship Breakups

A therapy client of mine recently spoke about how distancing from a friend after a particularly sordid fight felt a lot like a really gut-wrenching romantic breakup. Similar tremors of emotional withdrawal, the revolving door of anger and ache and, above all, feelings of skulking, ambiguous loss.

In a moving essay, writer Rachel Voronacote writes - “Friendship is not a pale imitation of sexual romance. It is a romance unto itself. I have not always loved as well as I could have. I am sometimes selfish in the wrong ways. There are women I still mourn—and I might always.”

Friendships are possibly the most egalitarian of all relationships we enter in our lives. At least to the extent that a friendship is rooted in a genuine sense of camaraderie, respect and care. We are free to choose friends, for the most part. Unlike romantic partnerships, we have fewer enforced models of what is an “ideal” friendship. When a date cancels on us at the last minute, we question their intentions and our appeal or importance to them. When a friend cancels, we generally tell them they owe us one and grant them their raincheck. Friendships across the span of our lives may not always begin with an intentional or even a destined interpersonal connection, they sprout unevenly like wildflowers whenever and wherever the seeds catch the soil. Like wildflowers, they are more often than not resilient, imperfect and also taken for granted.

For a long time, popular culture mandated romantic and/or familial relationships to be the center of gravity for our existence. Valentine’s day is a big ticket item for the advertising fraternity. We are encouraged to find a life partner to whom, by definition, we are supposed to be romantically attached. This, we are told, should be the anthem of our life. Friendships play out subtly like a background score which embroiders the story with its ubiquitous tenderness.

It is quite possible that friendships are rooted in affective empathy: a mirroring of emotional states, sensations and feelings. Similarly, simulation theory of empathy proposes that human beings anticipate and understand the behavior of others by activating mental processes that, if they culminated in action, would produce similar behavior. In short, empathy isn’t just emotional but also experiential. This is displayed in friendships across age groups. Kids as young as kindergartners can display a deep, caring attachment to friends and peers. My sister’s best friend as a second grader once fell ill and didn’t come to school for a week. My little sister remained despondent and listless throughout that week. When the girl eventually returned, we didn’t need a verbal confirmation; my sister’s evident joyfulness was palpable from a distance. Affective empathy signals our brains and bodies to mirror and respond to another person’s emotional states. When a friend was going through a divorce, we would frequently talk on the phone owing to the fact that we were in two different countries. Still, I almost felt like I was physically present in their physical world and was watching them go through their difficult phase.

Developmental psychology is a field invested in understanding our growth arc from childhood or old age. Several researchers in the field have studied how framing, building and maintaining friendships is a decisive aspect of both individual and social development. Social and interpersonal inclusivity that comes from being accepted by a friend circle is a form of positive reinforcement for our brains. Young children gravitate towards in-group formations and forming close peer relationships. This helps them in developing the skill of mentalizing. Mentalizing refers to comprehending different mental states, both in ourselves and others. Friendships help build different mental models for varying emotional states. This, in turn, helps an individual develop a more holistic and evolved world view of their social environments at large. This includes intentional behavior as well as the expression of emotions. For e.g. If you make friends with someone who is from a different religious background, you might learn to assimilate better in the larger sociocultural encompassment.

Human beings are also what we call “pair-bonded” or “pack-bonded” creatures. We get attached to our coffee mugs and pillows. We build bonds with both material and non-material components of our world. In light of this, it is not that hard to see how close personal friendships also become an integral part of our whole being.

So how does one deal with a friendship breakup?

The first part of it is delving into the realization that sometimes people outgrow a relationship.

It is painful to experience this rupture but, on certain occasions, it is unavoidable.

More often than not, people leave a relationship, not a person.

This is true for friendships as well.

Perhaps you or the other person or maybe both, have drifted apart due to situational reasons.

If numerous attempts to stabilize the equation have led to repeated dead-ends, perhaps it is time to take a break from the situation.

There are also instances where your own personal evolution will liberate you mentally. If, for instance, an old friend continues to make casteist jokes, you might start to feel uncomfortable in their company. The first port of call is to address the cause of this friction. However, you might find yourself distancing yourself from those who are not willing to mature.

In some instances, it takes us years to finally accept that a friendship we once valued wasn’t as sound a support system as we perceived it to be. We take cognizance of the fact that we were either being used as a punching bag or being bullied with a few scraps of attention thrown at us along the way. When we learn to have unconditional regard for our own self-worth, we don’t allow ourselves to become a bait or distraction for other people.

What should you do when you are dealing with a friendship breakup?

  • Pause & Repair - Is there scope for reconciliation? Do we need a break or do we need to separate? Ask yourself where you stand with this person and your friendship. Also ask what kind of groundwork might be needed to enliven this friendship. If the ground seems particularly shaky at the moment, learn to walk away to a more stable surface for the time being and put a pin in the association. It might seem unpleasant but it isn’t unlivable. You both might need time apart for an objective appraisal of the situation. Repair work doesn’t happen overnight in close connections. Give it some time and put in some mutual effort.

  • Damage or Difference - Before we cast a friendship to the burn barrel, we need to take a minute to consider if we are dealing with intentional harm or dissonance about differing ideas, behaviours and habits. If it is the latter, we can at least try to check in with each other whether there is any scope for an intersection where we can sit with each other and not get bogged down by our differences. That said, if we see ourselves being damaged by a friendship, then it is safe to say that it is no longer a friendship and we definitely need to split.

  • Every conflict is not a confrontation - We hold this erroneous belief that ever conflict is a confrontation. Conflicts can be resolved through direct, even if difficult, conversations. We don’t need to attack or decimate another person in order to discuss what is unsettling for us.

  • Mapping back - Have we lost our way to each other? A lot of times as we get older, life simply takes over. And by life we mean responsibilities and routines. We lose touch. Memories wash away. Before we know it, someone we know turns into someone we knew. If there is unintended separation, reach out and try to meet, speak or at least find some form of more intimate interaction that is not just a social media like or a truncated whatsapp text written like a script.

  • Accept the unavoidable - Finalities have to be faced. The longer we avoid integrating them into our awareness, the longer they are likely to leave pin-pricks over our emotional skin. If, indeed, a friendship has come to an end and no salve has sufficed, it is best to accept the predicament for what it. You will go through complex and even contrasting spirals on a psychosocial level. You might find yourself experiencing anger or grief for a period in time. You might either seek a replacement for the friend or even withdraw completely from other friends. Try to seek balance. Admit to the loss. Grief is an indication of value. When we lose something of value, we are grieved by its loss. Eventually, we learn to accept the loss by walking through this wilderness of grief for some time.

Friendships are gentle, spacious, welcoming rooms you can dance in, sleep in, tell your stories in, hold hands in, eat noodles in, make art in, fall apart in, hold & be held in, unfold & surmount in. Make these rooms. Tend to their upkeep. Leave a little light on.

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