Making new friends is such an enjoyable part of life, and we often pick them up as we move through our adult years. You may have gotten to know some friends through work. You may bond with others while raising young children. Still other friends, you may have met on the bike trail or playing poker.
But even your once closest friendships may not hold up beneath the test of time, says Sarah Epstein, a marriage and family therapist in Philadelphia. “Because we’re changing and other people are changing,” she says. “Our interests, our circumstances all can shift over time. That can have a really big impact on who we want to spend time with, and what kind of effort we’re willing to put into it.”
Still, pulling away can be a difficult shift to navigate, says Irene S. Levine, PhD, a psychologist in Westchester, NY, and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend.
“When friendships end, it’s not like a divorce, where there’s a piece of paper, everything is written out,” she says. “But because friendships are so important, it’s really prudent to think through why you want to end it, how you’re going to do it, and to do it in a way that feels good for you and hopefully is as good as possible for the other person.”
Signs of a Shift
Sometimes, friendships are rooted in a season of life, says Gina Handley Schmitt, a marriage and family therapist near Seattle and author of Friending: Creating Meaningful, Lasting Adult Friendships. “Obviously as time goes on, we grow and sometimes we change in big and small ways,” she says.
Or your life circumstances may change, she says. “So we might find that as time goes on, we have less and less in common. We’re able to spend less and less time together.”
Or you may realize, Epstein says, that a childhood friendship has never quite grown into adulthood. When you catch up, it’s always about your past experiences and little else.
“Maybe you become an outdated version of yourself,” she says. “You find yourself slipping into kind of your old skin. It might be that the friendship has run its course, or it’s not going to grow anymore.”
Do you wonder if you have outgrown a friendship? Some other situations where that can occur:
The depleting friendship: You no longer look forward to hanging out with a friend, Epstein says. “You kind of don’t want to go. You get that sinking feeling in your stomach.” Maybe it’s because you are doing all the emotional work, she points out, listening to your friend gripe endlessly about work or only talk about themselves. “That’s not a mutual relationship,” she says. “So over time, it can be really depleting.”
The lopsided friendship: Epstein sees this a lot in her practice, working with clients. “It’s not unusual to hear someone describe a friendship and say, `I take all of the initiative.’ ” Or you may be the one who is hanging back, and don’t want to meet up for dinner every week. “Both sides are challenging,” she says.
The less interesting friendship: Too few hours in the day can crowd out some friendships, Schmitt says. As you get older, there are often increasing demands on your time. “It does come down to just taking a really honest look at how we’re investing our time,” she says. “And asking the question of, ‘OK, If I have this many emotional dollars to spend, where do I want to invest them?’ ”
Making the Transition
Sometimes a friendship just fades away, at least for the time being, and that keeps the door open to reconnecting at a later stage of life, says Levine, who also authors The Friendship Blog. Or if you are the one who wants to pull back, you can try to see that friend less often or only in group settings, she says.
“I don’t think there is anything wrong with saying that you’re distracted, you have other things going on,” Levine says. “It might very well be true that you have less time for social relationships right now, you’re busy with work. I think a white lie is OK too, especially if it’s not a bosom buddy.”
But if your friend keeps persisting and asking to get together, you may need to be more direct, Levine says. “And tell them that you need to withdraw from the friendship right now.”
There are ways you can call out the shift in your friendship, but couched with kindness, Epstein says. For instance, she suggests, “`This has been such a meaningful friendship for me for so long. And it’s feeling like we might be in different places.’ ”
With options like texting or email, it’s too easy to hide behind technology, Schmitt says. Or even worse, to ghost a friend entirely. “Just kind of disappearing without ever really communicating why.”
“But if you had a meaningful connection with someone at some point, I just feel that they deserve better than that,” Schmitt says. “And we deserve better than that.”
When her therapy clients have spoken more directly with a friend, they often say that it went better than they anticipated, Schmitt says. Until you have that difficult conversation, she points out, you may have been carrying around two burdens.
You realize that a friendship has gone sour and that it needs to end. But you’re afraid, Schmitt says. Once you talk to your friend, you get to lay down both of those emotional burdens.
Giving Yourself Space
Even if you were the one ending the friendship, you may still grieve, Epstein says. Along with grieving the loss of the friendship, you may also mourn the vanished future with that friend, she says.
Give yourself time, she advises. Perhaps create some rituals, such as gathering photos or mementos in a special place. Or write a letter to yourself about the friendship and its role in your life.
Tell others what happened, Epstein says. You may learn that they have had their own friendship losses.
“Maybe part of it is giving yourself permission to feel as bad about this as you would a romantic breakup,” she says. “Sometimes it can feel even worse. Some of these very closely held, tight-knit relationships that can’t stand the test of time and life — that can be a huge loss.”