When I surveyed more than 1500 women for my new book, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend, I discovered that most of them have an extraordinarily difficult time ending their friendships, even very toxic ones. It's not surprising. Like divorce, the potential losses can be staggering, extending well beyond the friendship per se.
That's because when two women are close, they tend to draw others into their circle: family members, neighbors, co-workers, and other friends. For example, if you're best friends with your neighbor, the chances are pretty good that your school-age children are friends, too. The kids may even be the raison d'etre for the friendship. If you end your friendship, what repercussions will it have on them? Will they still feel comfortable having play dates? How will you feel when you see your ex-friend at a PTA meeting or on the soccer field?
If your friendship was centered in the workplace, there are also substantial risks of collateral damage. If you break off with a colleague, will you lose her support on work matters? Will you feel uncomfortable if you're assigned to work on the same project team or each time you pass her in the hall? Will other people around you, who knew how close you once were, feel awkward or ask questions? Might she say something that would irreparably impugn your reputation? If your ex-friend is in a supervisory role, could it pose a threat to your employment?
Any breakup extends beyond the two people directly involved. The longer and the closer the friendship, the more ties and connections there are to worry about: You may have introduced your friend to your other friends, to your extended family, or to other business associates. She's probably become a significant part of your little corner of the world.
So when you weigh the pros and cons of ending a friendship, don't overlook the possible side effects of the breakup and take them into account in making your decision. If you ultimately decide to proceed, do everything you can to mitigate the damage:
--Leave gracefully without harsh words or recrimination. Treat your ex-friend with respect simply because she once was your friend.
--Let her down easily by distancing yourself gradually. Perhaps, you can cut back on your time together from once a day to once a week, or you can downgrade a close friendship to a more casual one.
--Try to make it easier for the people around you by communicating what's happening, if appropriate, without going into details.
Admittedly, no two friendships are the same nor are the circumstances surrounding a breakup, but going about it with forethought, understanding and sensitivity helps everyone better adjust to the loss.
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. Her new book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend was recently published by Overlook Press. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog and at PsychologyToday.com.
Follow Dr. Irene S. Levine on Twitter: www.twitter.com/IreneLevine