By Seth Meyers, Psy.D.
Everyone has probably had the experience of a friend no longer wanting to be as close or wanting to end a friendship altogether. As the parent of young children, I see firsthand how the friendships of young children can be especially capricious—strong and united one minute, cold and distant the next. Adult friendships are often fleeting as well. If you think about a friendship in which you started to notice that other person no longer wanted to be close to you, the experience was probably fraught with a mix of emotions—sadness, anger and envy, especially if you then witnessed the ex-friend develop a bond with someone new.
What’s interesting from a psychological perspective is how the experience of a friendship breakup also leads to significant confusion.
In my clinical work, I find that the confusion has to do with the following differentiation: You know exactly why it hurts so much when you lose a lover, but you tell yourself that a friend leaving you shouldn’t be as painful. Because we don’t have sex with our friends (usually), we tell ourselves that not having to lose the sexual intimacy should make losing the friendship less painful than when we lose a romantic relationship. Plus, there is massive cultural acknowledgment of how painful the loss of romantic love can be: Tell someone you had a romantic breakup and everyone pours on the sympathy, and every other song on the radio speaks to the pain that comes from a romantic breakup. Where’s all the hoopla when a friend breaks up with you?
Even though friendship breakups don’t include the loss of sex, men and women experience a similar sense of loss when a friend cuts off a relationship. The bottom-line feeling between is the same: “He or she doesn’t want me anymore.” No matter what type of relationship it was, triggering that feeling of being unwanted is hard to bear for anyone who has trusted an attachment. It’s also worth noting that the emotional intimacy in a friendship may be just as strong as the intimacy shared with a romantic partner. In my practice, for example, I often hear from men and women that the emotional bond they feel with a close friend is as close or closer than the bond with their romantic partner.
When a friend breaks up with you, it’s undoubtedly painful. Popular films largely have it wrong in their portrayal of friendship, as so many of them flaunt the idealistic notion that friendship lasts forever. The popular 80s film Beaches is an example that comes to mind, the story of two girls who sustain close friendship over the course of many decades and life changes. But I ask you: How many people have a friend who is so devoted over two or three decades? Sure, such friendships exist, but they are far from the norm.
In mid-life, which I have now officially hit with firecrackers and sound effects behind me, I can see in my own life how relationships—with a spouse, family, friends, whomever—can change or even vanish over time. At this stage in life, one begins to see how the notion of lifelong friends is absolutely a rare commodity. While your teens and 20s are filled with so much hope and emotional energy, mid-life pulls the cover back on the true nature of friendship: Even the closest ones may be circumstantial or temporary, regardless of how connected two friends feel at one point in time.
Many factors determine whether a friendship lasts, diminishes or even implodes. Geography, for example, can facilitate friendship or make it harder to sustain. Specifically, if you live in a rural area, it may be that people tend to stay there over time, which facilitates greater consistency of long-term friendships. In cities, however, the population is often more transitory, which may mean that people come and go with regularity, making friendship more challenging to sustain over the years.
As a psychologist, I have studied—and witnessed among my clients—the benefits of having a friend with whom you feel close. Having a close friendship provides an incredible sense of security, and a long-time friend acts as a crucial archive of one’s past life experiences. It’s equally important that not having friends is associated with major disadvantages. For example, Luo and colleagues (2005) found that feeling lonely is actually associated with greater mortality risks.
So, how can you cope when a close friend no longer wants you? Acceptance is the key to recovery from the loss. Understand that friendships—just like romantic relationships—can be fleeting. You must also keep in mind that some friendships formed when you were young or in an unstable or impressionable point in your life may not fit you as you evolve and grow over time. In other words, though it is painful when a friend stops wanting you, you may have outgrown the friendship without even realizing it.
Our culture places a much higher value on nourishing romantic relationships than friendships. Entire bookstore shelves wave the Improve Your Marriage banner, but isn’t it just as important for your overall happiness to nourish your closest friendships? Shouldn’t those books get published and promoted with the same fervor?
I wonder if friendships are even more fleeting than romantic relationships over the lifespan because we have less societal support or reminders to carefully cultivate and nurture those bonds. The next time you’re tired after work and you postpone responding to a friend’s call, pick up the phone and talk for a minute anyway. Perhaps if we learn to feed our friendships as much as we feed our romantic relationships, we could spare ourselves a few painful breakups.