Thoughts on breaking up with friends and acquaintances (and grieving the loss)

By Jacob A. English, Ph.D.

Introduction

Growing up Black, Southern, and Baptist, I was taught the value of family and community. Let me rephrase that  – I was taught to be loyal to your family and community. I internalized this messaging in a very unhealthy way, I think. What was supposed to be a foundational principle to love your family and community regardless of their faults and yours; I interpreted it as a responsibility to take on the energy and play the peacemaker, the loan officer, and psychologists. I thought I needed to do this regardless of how said family and community treated me. I don’t believe this rearing was intentionally malicious, but the lack of clarity in its delivery caused me to hang on to relationships pass their expiration dates.

Oh, yes friends, relationships have expirations dates. Not all of them, but some of them do. When I decided to write this post, I tried to think back to the first time I realized that some relationships need to end, and you can’t take everyone with you to the next season of your life (shorthand: everyone can’t come with you). I also forced myself to consider the first time I realized that I couldn’t go with everyone. The latter memory was harder to recall because…ego. However, I did it. And I’m not talking about a romantic relationship. I think it is easier (not easy, but easier) to identify when a romantic relationship must come to an end. I’m talking about friendships and acquaintanceships (e.g., coworkers, one-off event friends). Note: Friendships and acquaintanceships can be with family members too. I never learned how to break up and emotionally handle a breakup with a friend or an acquaintance. Until recently, I didn't even think of these relational exits as a breakup. If you didn’t either, then keep reading; I have some insight.

The first time I realized that everyone couldn’t come with me was during my senior year in college. If you’ve been following For Chambers for a bit, you know that I started running track when I was five and continued through college. I battled some injuries during my four years in college (e.g., hamstring and ankle injuries). I wanted needed my last year to go well. I had something to prove to myself, and I wanted to leave my mark. To do this, I had to level up. I had to change my training schedule, my eating habits and be selective about what information and media I consumed. When talking to a teammate one day, I realized that 'people' had to be on the list for my information diet. I didn’t know how to do that without hurting feelings or being called “brand new.” So, I did what any well-mannered Southern gentleman would do – I avoided the situation altogether.

I asked my coach for a different schedule. I went to the track and weight room at a different time than everyone. I think I blamed it on my internship schedule, which wasn’t a lie. I just needed to distance myself from any and all distractions. I wasn’t mad. I didn’t judge what my other teammates were doing. I just knew what I was trying to do, and I had a clear plan for how to do it. I was blessed to find another teammate who was traveling a similar path, and she served as my accountability partner that whole year. We were both very successful that year. We still talk about that year and how much we matured and how that experience reshaped us – refined us. But I did lose a lot of friends that year.

The first time I realized that I couldn’t go with someone into the next season of their life was during my senior year in high school. My best friend of six years and I had grown apart over the years. Once we started to make our decisions about college, it was apparent that we were going in different directions. I didn't think anything of it, and I thought we would keep in touch once we started college. I was so wrong. I wasn't concerned about the first ignored call and text, but the third one let me know where I stood. To this day, I don't know what happened. We didn't have some huge argument. I would have liked to remain friends, because he was like a brother to me. However, I don't think that he saw value in the relationship anymore. 

In college, I didn’t have conversations with my friends about “breaking up” or even let them know what was happening. I’m pretty sure I ghosted my friends, and that’s not OK. In high school, my best friend didn't tell me that he was moving forward without me. I know how it feels when friends go missing all of a sudden. It doesn’t feel good at all. And I get it, sometimes you just need some space to recharge, but I’m not talking about that type of space. I am talking about the distance that you put between you and a friend or an acquaintance because you do not see value in the relationship in the immediate future or ever again. How do you handle the situation? How do you say that you want to break up, and how do you handle being broken up with? And then, how do you go about grieving a relationship? I don’t think there is a correct answer here, but I want to share some lessons that I’ve learned. My insight is not sequential or stepwise. I’ve ordered my thoughts in the manner in which I would process a breakup. If you find these ideas helpful, use them as you see fit.

How to say you need a break or a breakup (without ghosting or gaslighting)

Don’t overthink it and use the platform (e.g., text, call, in-person, Marco Polo, voice note, email, letter) that works best for the person on the receiving end of the breakup. For example, if you have a feeling that something is not quite right in the relationship, chances are, they probably aren’t. If you know that you need to sever ties with someone, then don’t prolong the inevitable; just do it. You think it takes less mental energy to ignore someone or leave them “on read,” but it really doesn’t. Think back to the last time someone you have been ignoring calls you or texts you – you get so annoyed, right? You probably spend a couple of hours talking to your friends about how annoyed you are – “Why can’t they catch a hint?” “If it were me, I would just stop calling and texting.” But they aren’t you – no one is – so save everyone involved the mental anguish and have the conversation. The conversation doesn’t need to be deep. It could go something like this:

You: We need to have a difficult conversation. I'm sure you've noticed that the dynamic of our relationship has changed. 

Them: Yes, I have. When I text you, you are dismissive. Or if I call you, it takes a long time for you to respond. But then I see you active on Instagram – so…idk.

You: Yeah. I have been doing that, and I think we are growing apart, which is not bad. I think we are in two different spaces of our lives right now. Should we give each other some space? I’m not trying to be extra. I just can’t give you what you need and deserve as a friend right now.

Them: Wow. That’s a lot. I understand, though. Yeah, space is good.

Now, of course, this is the best-case scenario. Some folks are going to be livid, and they may not respond. However, dialogue like this is open and honest. You can choose to answer follow-up questions, or you can choose not to engage. You know what you need, and you have to stick to that. Also, you have to be prepared for the consequences. There is a chance that if you do want to continue the relationship in the future, but the other person does not, then you have to respect their decision.

Sometimes you won’t get to say goodbye

Many of my friends are the type of people that need closure at the end of a relationship. They want to schedule a meeting or a final conversation to gain a clear understanding of what all went wrong. I hear you, friends; however (comma) sometimes you won’t get to say goodbye. Sometimes you won’t get to have that final conversation, especially if you are on the receiving end of the breakup. You may be ghosted and possibly even gaslit.

The person could pretend that they don’t know what you are talking about when you say, “I tried to text you, what’s going on?” or “I have a feeling that something is off.” To which your friend or acquaintance may respond, “Everything is all good over here. I’ve just been busy.” This may happen, and as soon as you accept this type of response for what it is and move on, the quicker you can heal from the situation. Oh, and it’s going to hurt, and it’s going to be frustrating. But please don’t take it personally. Accept this person’s lack of communication as a gift. Is this the type of person that you want to call a friend, anyway? Think about what you need from a friend. They may engage in this behavior not because they are a horrible person (maybe), but because some people really (really) don't like confrontation. So, no, sometimes you won’t get to say goodbye to the person directly, but you can wish them farewell in your own way if that helps. Saying goodbye could be writing a letter (that you don’t send), journaling, therapy, role-playing, talking to a friend or family member, blogging, or vlogging. Find a way that works for you to process how you feel. 

It’s upsetting. It’s OK to be upset.

Don’t let your ego get in the way of your healing. No matter what part, big or small, a person plays in your life. Their absence will leave a void. There will be a grieving period whether you are the initiator or not. The depth of the relationship will determine the extent of the void and the level of grief that you may feel. It is in your best interest to not ignore those feelings of loss, sadness, frustration, and anger. It will be uncomfortable, but it is important to feel those feelings for you to move forward and grow from the relationship. Acknowledge and honor your emotions because these moments enhance your emotional intelligence.

Packing their boxes

Of course, I’m talking about proverbial boxes. Unless this is a friend that lives with you, then there might be some packing of boxes. I’m talking about removing anything that reminds you of them that will be a trigger, impact you negatively, and prevent you from moving on. So, if you need to block or mute them on social media – you should do that. If you need to block their number – you should do that too. If you need to change your gym membership so you won’t run into them when you’re working out – change that membership. You need to do whatever brings you peace of mind. Maturity is not behaving in ways that publicly demonstrate your ability to face adversity sans emotion. Maturity is being self-aware and knowing how to keep your energy tank full. I think some people want to keep these lines of communication intact to keep the window of opportunity open. It could stem from a fear that you won’t find another friend. But, close that window – board that window up! You will continue to cultivate new relationships, but you can’t do that if you hang on to the past.

Final Thoughts

In the past, I approached breaking up with friends and acquaintances with avoidance techniques, and I handled being broken up with by demonstrating anger or feigned apathy. None of it worked for me. Those emotions have always found a way to creep back into my life when I least expect it. I now understand the importance of being honest about how I feel about these situations and allowing myself to grieve the loss of the relationship.

When you allow yourself to grieve, you find clarity and accept the purpose of a particular relationship. People enter your life for various reasons – 1) to teach you a lesson, 2) to challenge you, 3) to help you grow, 4) to lead you to another relationship, 5) to remind you of who you are, 6) to remind you who you are not, 7) to introduce you to love, 8) to introduce you to pain – the list goes on, and then 9) sometimes the relationship is not for you at all, and it was for the other person. It is important to understand the purpose, function, and timeline of a relationship. And please don’t be afraid to be vulnerable in these relationships (preparing for the worst), because in engaging fully you will understand their intended meaning. Please be brave enough to discuss when it’s time to go and pray for the strength you need to manage the emotions from your departure.  



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