When you find yourself growing apart from friends, how do you know when to work at it, and when to call it a day?
Sometimes Kelly pops up in my Facebook feed. Smiling and bright-eyed, leaning into her young son with a hug.
Sometimes it feels as though she’s looking directly at me. Sometimes I smile back. More often, I just feel a twinge of sadness. Kelly and I haven’t talked in years. We’ve grown apart as friends.
Once, though, we shared an intense friendship forged in the fire of young adulthood and bonded through impulsive road trips, late night confessionals and the kind of daring bravado you feel when facing the world with a ride-or-die friend at your side.
My friendship with Kelly is essentially past tense. I moved across the country and she started graduate school. There were emails and late-night telephone calls but it wasn’t enough, even when we eventually ended up back on the same coast, separated by less than a hundred miles. The distance might as well have been the deepest ocean for how much we’d drifted apart and found ourselves growing apart as friends.
All those nursed heartbreaks, hair-holding sessions in the bathroom and spontaneous adventures had paled into faded mental snapshots. Today, we’re basically just social media acquaintances.
Where did we go wrong? Nowhere, actually.
Friendships come and go. Some dissolve thanks to geography or changing interests and obligations. Others die a slow death, poisoned by bad behavior. Not only is this normal, understanding how growing apart from friends occurs is an essential part of learning how to deal with personal boundaries, says Natalie Lue, a London-based writer and founder of the relationship website Baggage Reclaim.
In fact, Lue says, it’s healthy to let go of connections that are harmful or have outlived their use-by date. And there are ways to do so gracefully and without guilt.
Solid friendships require a sense of balance built on even ground. If that foundation seems to be cracked or shifting, then it may be time to move on. “A friendship should be a mutual relationship,” Lue says. “If it’s unbalanced, then you have to pause and think about what the friendship is based on.”
This could mean (among other things) that one person puts more work into the relationship. We’ve all had the friend who seems to dominate the conversation with her own problems—rarely, if ever, pausing to check in on ours.
Or, there’s the friend who constantly cancels dates, never pays her fair share of the bar tab or goes radio silent for weeks or months at a time—only to resurface when she needs something. Then there’s the super-bossy kind who passes judgement, instead of support. So not cool.
Whatever the type, it may be time to ask yourself one really important question, Lue says: “Is this a friendship where I can like myself and be friends with this person at the same time?”
But what if there’s no drama, just a friendship that’s dulled over time? Don’t guilt yourself, Lue says. Feeling distant from your best friend from high school? He or she just might not be the right BFF for you now and trying to pretend you haven’t grown apart as friends could be emotionally harmful for your both.
“You meet a person in one phase of your life and now you’re trying to still behave like you’re 14 [but] things evolve and change,” she says. “We grow as people and we have to acknowledge that. Not every friendship is supposed to go through until the end of time.”
It’s time to stop blaming the other person and look inward. “Friendships require self-examination,” Lue says. “This doesn’t take away from anything that the other person might be doing, but we should acknowledge our own side of the street.”
Think about why you wanted to hang out with this person in the first place, she says. For example, does this friend boost your social status? Is she always down to hang out—even though you don’t seem to have much fun together? Do you keep making dates out a sense of nostalgic obligation instead of true kinship? None of these are good enough reasons to keep a relationship going.
“Sometimes we’re motivated to stay friends with someone not because we want to, but because we’re lonely,” Lue says.
So, you’ve been honest with yourself and you realize it’s time to say goodbye. Great, but don’t write that kiss-off text just yet. Even if the friendship in question is toxic, it’s not necessarily smart to blow up bridges.
“Sometimes we’ve got to bless and release these friendships,” Lue says. “What I’ve learned in [these situations] is not to get angry, but instead remember all the fondness and the good times.” And, she adds, it’s essential to reflect upon that which has been lost too.
“Grieving is healthy and, obviously, depending on the [friendship] it can take different forms,” she says. It’s OK to be pissed and cut off that toxic frenemy—just be sure to do it with honesty and self-awareness.
“If we don’t grieve then the next thing you know, you’re doing something really destructive like sending angry, drunk texts,” she says. “[But] if you grieve properly then it can be a nice, clean break rather than a messy thing.”