11/14/2009 05:12 am ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

BFFs Until They Grew Apart

Nine years ago, novelist Adele Parks was dumped by her best friend of 20 years. In a recent essay published in the UK Daily Mail, Adele admits she still hasn't gotten over it completely. Whether you're 7 or 70, it's always painful to lose a best friend.

"Friendship is a form of mutual selflessness, an intricate and delicate exercise in give-and-take and trust-building, through which people who are not related become honorary family," she writes. So when such a special bond unravels, it is as painful as a divorce or even a death.

In reviewing the literature and surveying more than 1500 women for my book, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, I found that women often believe that best friendships will last forever--but that's rarely the case. Trinkets and T-shirts are scrawled with the acronym BFF, reinforcing an idealized notion of best friendships. Yet the large majority of close friendships wither away over time, usually as a result of benign neglect, with neither person caring enough about the friendship to make a go of it.

In Western culture, women are often judged by their ability to make and keep friends, so the demise of a friendship is experienced as a failure. When a friend is tossed aside unilaterally, the hurt is palpable because it is compounded by shame and by having nowhere to turn for solace.

You can't tell your boyfriend or husband because he probably won't understand the intimacy and closeness you shared with your friend. (Generally, men's relationships are far less intimate and revolve around doing things together rather than sharing feelings.) You can't tell your mother; she is likely to blame you for being unable to keep a friend. (After all, she probably grew up with the same romanticized notions of female friendship that you did.) You can't tell other friends because such a loss is embarrassing, and you may worry that they'll assume you aren't capable of being a good friend. And the person you would ordinarily go to first, for support and understanding--your best friend--is the very one who has caused you this pain.

Over time, Adele Parks and her Bestie, Karen, simply grew apart. Their story is not uncommon. By virtue of different life experiences, both women changed in different directions. Then Karen sent Adele an accusatory letter that precipitated the downward spiral of their friendship. After her initial disappointment and anger had simmered, Adele ultimately was able to reach a stage of acceptance. But she still thinks of Karen. "Not many people stay with their first love nowadays," she writes. "We're more likely to enjoy a number of relationships before we settle down and friendship is like that, too."

Have a question about female friendships? Send it to The Friendship Doctor.

Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and her book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend will be published by Overlook Press on September 20, 2009. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog.