friendship breakup lessons

Losing a friend is so painful that it’s difficult to learn any friendship breakup lessons. That comes with time.

I have often marveled at the parallels between friendship and romantic relationships, especially romantic breakups and friendship breakups. Finding new friends can be disturbingly similar to dating, complete with awkwardness, insecurity, and butterflies. Really connecting with a new friend can feel much like falling in love, as you find yourself bringing the other person up in conversation when you are not together. And breaking up with a close friend can be just as devastating as breaking up with a partner.

Jessica and I have been reading Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend by the “Friendship Doctor,” Irene Levine.  In her book, Dr. Levine talks about why friendships fall apart, how to cope with getting dumped by a friend, how to end an irreparable friendship, and how to move forward after a traumatic friendship split.

She pinpoints many of the various reasons that  friendships can disintegrate and also helps shed light on when it is worthwhile to mend the relationship, or better to cut your losses and move on.

Last week Jessica wrote about toxic friendships: how to spot them and how to handle them. This week, I am going to share the story of one of my closest friends, and the painful breakup we experienced.

I met Shannon shortly after I moved to Denver, having completed a post-graduation internship and secured my very first real job. Shannon was interning with the small company of music therapists I worked for, and we found ourselves connecting through our magnetic need to process the intensity and hilarity of the groups we were learning to lead. After co-teaching a music class for toddlers and parents, we would often stand in the parking lot for close to an hour afterwards, laughing at our mistakes and the unexpected turns our session had taken.

I remember the exact day we began to consider ourselves true friends- we met after a monumental work week to celebrate with cocktails at a trendy bar. Over Dreamsicles, we exchanged stories, laughed, and disclosed personal details that further cemented our connection. We continued our “first date” long into the evening, and emerged from this rite of passage as kindred spirits. Each subsequent year, we acknowledged that anniversary by returning to the bar and ordering the same drinks.

Shannon soon became a staple in my life; each Wednesday, along with another girlfriend, we honored Ladies Night, and took turns hosting and cooking for one another. Our raucous evenings included lots of wine, dessert, laughter, and profuse oversharing. We often spent hours on the phone together after our work days, debriefing each other on our challenging clients, commiserating about our incompetent boss, and of course, laughing until we were breathless.

We traveled together, briefly lived together, and were bridesmaids in each other’s weddings. Even after the birth of my first daughter, we maintained our tradition of Ladies Night, though we had a tiny new member who was passed around each week. My transition to motherhood definitely impacted all of my friendships, and also inspired me to seek out new friends who were experiencing similar struggles and challenges.

Girls NightWhen my daughter was about eight months old, Shannon and I broke up. It was not a gradual fade, though I’m certain my transition into motherhood along with my decision to file for divorce from my first husband was a burden on our relationship.

But our breakup happened suddenly, in the most dramatic and unmistakable way possible- a blowout. I will refrain from sharing the details of our blowout, because I don’t believe it is productive or appropriate to rehash it; suffice it to say, hurtful words were exchanged, and both of us walked away from the experience feeling wounded and misunderstood.

We did not reach out to each other. My life was changing significantly, and I was swept along by the inescapable wave of single motherhood, navigating new roles, and eventually, finding a new relationship with my husband. I thought of her frequently; I no longer enjoyed Ladies Night on Wednesdays, I didn’t have anyone who would fully appreciate my music class anecdotes, and her absence was felt sharply at my daughter’s first birthday party.

Months went by, and though I had other friends, I did not have Shannon. I missed her intensely, with the deep ache of someone who has become a refugee from their home. But I clung to my sense of justice and wounded pride, and did not contact her. And then one Christmas I received a text message from her. Merry Christmas. Missing you. It was late at night when I saw the message, and my heart began to pound with shock and elation. I called her the very next day, and we made plans to get together for dinner.

I will always remember where we went, what I ate, and even where we sat. We filled each other in on the tremendous changes and tiny joys that we had missed out on.

Avoid rehashing old arguments.

We carefully navigated the tender details of our breakup, and were able to hear one another, understand things with a fuller perspective, and make amends. That was over five years ago, and we have stayed close ever since. We do not often revisit the context of our breakup; I still maintain that it is unproductive to rehash old arguments, no matter what type of relationship you are in. Unless you have found yourself in an unhealthy pattern that continues to reappear, it is often enough to acknowledge the isolated disagreement and move on.

However, I do think it is possible, and beneficial, to learn from a friendship break.

Think about the balance between honesty and support.

In our case, Shannon and I learned a lot about what lines to avoid crossing in terms of offering advice, appearing judgmental, and speaking our fullest opinions. Dr. Levine refers to the importance of finding a balance between honesty and support. My friendship break helped me to clarify my own opinions and practices when reconciling the role of honesty vs support in relationships.

Severing ties (temporarily) in times of flux can help a relationship.

While it was never my intention to end my friendship with Shannon, when I reflect back on our breakup, I feel that it served a purpose for us both. Sometimes when we are experiencing great flux in our lives, be it the transition of motherhood, career change, divorce, or even a move, we need to temporarily sever ties with a friend in order to fully move forward and reinvent ourselves.

Dr. Levine devotes an entire chapter to friendships in flux, discussing the various life changes and transitions that can take a toll on relationships. I saw this happen with several of my best college friends, many of whom are an important part of my life today; we simply needed to break away from one another, learn who we were outside of the context of our friendships, grow up a little, and then assess whether we still belonged in each other’s lives. And unless the friendship has become toxic, is no longer relevant, or irreparable harm has been done, it is often possible, and even therapeutic, to find your way back after a friendship break.

In an earlier HerStories essay, Nina Badzin shared her insightful perspective in The Case For A Friendship Break. Her piece deeply resonated with me, as I have successfully rebounded from several friendship breaks, including Shannon’s, as well as others that were more gradual. I think that sometimes they are necessary, and provide the space and perspective to grow, process, and reevaluate the role of the friendship.

Wedding shower 419I will be forever grateful that Shannon reached out to me that Christmas night; she was present when I remarried, celebrated with me when my husband adopted my daughter, and supported me after the birth of my second child.

She is the friend who keeps me grounded- the friend who knew me “back when,” who understands who I am at my core, and who knows me apart from my children. She makes me feel appreciated, celebrated, and listened to. Shannon is a friend who brings out my sense of joy, a friend that I laugh with more than almost any other person, and a friend who isn’t afraid to get muddy wading around in the depths of our own psyches.

She is not my fellow mom friend, nor is she a friend of convenience. We have to work hard and put forth a lot of effort to make time for each other. Shannon is the proof that some friendships, the ones that are truly meant to be, can survive a break-up and emerge even stronger.