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How Do We Know It's Time to Say Goodbye to a Friend?

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Image Source via Getty Images
Image Source via Getty Images

Now that we're on the brink of December -- a month of endings and new beginnings in several respects -- I'm spending a lot of time reflecting on a year in many ways gone wrong.

It's a year I've known a distinct degree of heartbreak and devastation, and paramount in that journey has been the unique turmoil of ending friendships.

Every friendship is different, and every end is thus unique. But how do we know when to say goodbye? And does that goodbye need to be accompanied with ensuing "breakup" drama?

It must be said, though, there's different types of friendships. And each type of relationship -- from beginning to end -- gets its own degree of life cycle experience.

The BFF breakup

Earlier this year, someone I'd considered pretty much a sister for over a decade randomly disappeared from my life. We'd had our ups and downs in the past, but of recent we'd been closer than ever. The last time we ever hung out, I took her as my date on a press trip, where she was wined and dined and met her celebrity idol. Soon after, she started to cancel plans repeatedly. Until, one day, she just went her separate way.

It was complicated, of course. Our lives had begun to go in directions we both didn't identify with. She didn't really understand or respect my career and life choices -- and she had begun to make choices I couldn't understand or respect as well.

Nearly a year has gone by, and I still can't keep thinking about the heartbreak of how things went down. I try to consider our scope of our relationship. Did we drift apart? Was there some bigger picture that we were both ignoring for much longer? I wonder sometimes if people end friendships out of fear of confronting way bigger issues that need confronting. It's so much easier to avoid hanging out than tell someone something big. Something you really can't stand about them, or are scared to have them believe about you. Something that will end your relationship anyway.

But then, that sense of wondering haunts you. Did our friendship end from a misunderstanding? Maybe she was angry at me about something I didn't understand and couldn't possibly know about or appreciate. Maybe I was pissed at her continuously canceling plans. Mostly, I just miss her most days, but at the same time, I'm so incredibly angry and hurt over something I simply don't understand because the option to understand was never provided. So many simple misunderstandings could potentially be cleared up with honest communication. Maybe an apology was in order. Maybe there was something one of us should have said, or done. "I'm sorry I said that," or a "I was hurt that you missed my party," could make a difference. Imagine the alternative ending a 10-year friendship over a simple unintentional mistake. The wondering can be deafening.

Friends gone bad

Sometimes, friendships just hit a wall, so to speak. Just like when you are dating that really special guy -- and at first's incredibly sexy and romantic and passionate -- eventually, the honeymoon sort of ends. And that doesn't mean that the friendship is over, either. But it changes.

However, those changes are worthy of examination. When problems keep reoccurring, no matter how hard you try to make things right, maybe it's right to end things. Or at least take a break from each other. (A friendship sabbatical, if you will.)

It's so incredibly hard, but the healthiest goal is to not focus on the blame, but rather examining all the strengths of your friendship and seeing if that can carry you through. Sometimes breaks have opposite results for this reason. A more recent "break" with someone once incredibly dear to me ended up cataclysmic -- the sabbatical created a rift we couldn't come back from. Remember that song about lovers needing a holiday? I think all types of relationships sometimes do. I can't even imagine a relationship that never has ups and downs and is always perfect. (Certainly no friendship I've ever been fortunate enough to enjoy.)

People change

But be prepared, like I've seen happen in my own relationships, that sometimes that sabbatical will end up being permanent. People change, and sometimes we only see what we want to see in each other. It's rare, that as we get older and our lives take new directions that in any relationship, all of the directions our individual lives take will be compatible.

Sabbaticals don't have to be forever. Last year, I was gravely ill and several friends I hadn't spoken to in years reached out. Others I thought myself close to, didn't. In some cases, our friendship was rekindled and we were closer than ever. In other cases, we were never again the same. Sadly, it's times like that that you realize who really cares -- and who doesn't. And those lessons hurt, especially when you are already hurting in so many ways. But they are important lessons that you need to learn.

Time to say goodbye?

How do you know it's time to say goodbye, no matter how much it breaks your heart?

For me, I knew when I was experiencing constant arguments -- often the same arguments -- over and over. When the misunderstandings and resentments never go away, they tend to be the emotional equivalent of a cancerous growth. If you love someone with all your heart, and yet feel anxious and nervous every time you are about to see them -- or worse, when you are with them. If your friendship is destructive to your own self-worth and self-esteem.

Even if the problem is just that you never see each other, that in itself is an issue. I get several hundred emails a day and am always juggling a half-dozen deadlines -- but there'll never be a time I don't make time for the people who matter to me. If one of you gives more priority to the friendship than the other, that's a problem. And it'll ultimately become a bigger problem.

That's not to say it's not hard
Even when you know relationships are bad for you -- even when you know it's unhealthy and detrimental to both of you -- it's incredibly hard to say goodbye. One formerly dear friend requested a "break" via email. It was the day after someone I was very close to died, so I was emotionally raw at the outset. I was so blindsided I responded with a dozen livid texts, making the damage done yet worse.

Now that I have time to reflect, I wonder if email wasn't actually the kindest way to go. Sometimes an email can give someone time to think and react to the bad news. In my case, it just happened at such an emotionally raw time I reacted incredibly badly.

Remember though, even if you are the "breaker" and not the "breakee" just because you've had time to consider and discuss this move, and made a decision, that doesn't mean that the other person is psychologically prepared to react. Be careful what you say and how you say it though. Over email or text message, no one can see your empathetic face or your caring eyes. This is extra reason to be extremely cognizant of the words you choose.

No matter what you do and how you do it, remember this person was someone who was very important to you for a large chunk of your life. They were the ones that you met for drinks every Friday, or called when you needed someone to talk to in the middle of the night. Whatever is going on now doesn't mitigate the times you had in the past, and those memories deserve that respect. The worst thing I've been going through is feeling as if all the good memories in all my lost relationships this year were lies. Mutually avoid the blame game, the defensiveness, the attack. Friendship itself is a gift that should never be taken away. But if you have to end it, if you have made that awful, hard choice, try to use it as an opportunity to be a better, truer friend in the future.

I know I will.