01/30/2012 07:57 pm ET Updated Mar 31, 2012

How To Break Up With A Friend


Is there a right way to end a friendship?

That's the question Alex Williams raised in the New York Times this weekend.

One 40-year-old woman she spoke to who had realized a friendship was over "took the 'bad-boyfriend approach' and just stopped calling," Williams reported. "After the friend made a few spurned overtures -- and after some awkward conversations about why Ms. Brunner was always too busy to get together -- the friend got the hint. Years later, however, the breakup still feels unresolved."

Unlike virtual act of "defriending" on Facebook, phasing out a friend in real life, Williams wrote, "plays out like a divorce in miniature -- a tangle of awkward exchanges, made-up excuses, hurt feelings and lingering ill will," Williams wrote. And there's no set formula for going about it.

I've heard this complaint before. Just the other night, a friend of mine in her late 20s told me that she was invited to a mutual friend's wedding -- someone she hadn't spent real time with in over a year. The bride-to-be cornered her at a group gathering and asked if she'd received the invitation, telling her she was one of the "only friends " she included on her list from New York. My friend, mortified, couldn't bring herself to tell the bride she wasn't planning to attend -- she has two other weddings to travel to that summer, and, at the end of the day, just doesn't feel as close to the bride as the bride feels to her. She's eventually going to have to tell her no but feels like she's in uncertain territory. Where's the script for this? Where's the "Breakup Bible" for friendships?

In her Times piece, Williams suggested it's normal -- even natural -- to desire to let go of friends over time, and noted there's even a sociological term for it: socioemotional selectivity theory. She reports that the psychology professor who minted the phrase, Laura L. Carstensen of the Stanford Center on Longevity, has identified ages where we increase and decrease the number of relationships in our lives, According to Carstensen, we trim down our list for the first time after age 17, allow our social circle to widen in our 30s and tighten it again when we reach our 40s. Carstensen told the Times: "When time horizons are long, as they typically are in youth, we're collectors, we're explorers, we're interested in all sorts of things that are novel."

Today on Role/Reboot, blogger Kerry Cohen wrote a moving depiction of a breakup from the vantage point of the woman whose "novelty" has worn off. Her friend withdrew after they were both married in a move that Cohen never understood -- a fact painfully driven home through a series of awkward exchanges brought on by chance encounters, where Cohen's efforts to reach out and reconnect with the friend she missed were met with scorn:

I barely made it home before the tears came.

"What is wrong with me?" I asked my husband. "Why did she do that?"

He held me. "Shhh," he said. "You didn't do anything."

But I didn't believe him. All my life I'd assumed -- as so many of us do -- that there was something unlovable about me. It's why I'd had those issues with boys. She knew that. All my life I'd held that shameful belief, had trusted her with it even, and then, in my mind, she had confirmed it as true.

What do you think: Is it best to bring things to a head and force a clean break from a friendship that's no longer bringing joy to your life? Or do you prefer the passive approach of phasing out a friendship, potentially dragging out any awkwardness but avoiding direct confrontation?