You Don’t Need To Break Up With A Friend: You Need To Stand Up For How You Want To Be Treated
I’m often asked by patients in my therapy practice, as well as by friends and acquaintances outside of the office: How do I break up with a friend? In fact, you might be surprised by how frequently this question comes up.
I used to give a two-part answer. The first part involved examining the process of making that decision to break up with a friend, looking at issues like acceptance, reliability, and mutual respect of needs and feelings. The second part was execution–figuring out what sort of conversation is right for approaching the friend and delivering the bad news.
Now, I think about this question of breaking up with a friend differently. In fact, it might be the wrong question altogether. In practice, breaking up with a friend doesn’t need to be about making a decision about them and then breaking the news. It’s about being clear with yourself about how you want to be treated and making that clear. In other words, you don’t need to break up with a friend. Instead, you need to stand up for yourself, your values, and your time.
Rather Than Wondering When Enough Is Enough, Asserting Your Needs Tends To Resolve This Question By Itself
When examining how to break up with a friend, people get stuck in knowing when enough is enough and also wanting to leave room for a friend to grow. In contrast, when you focus on sticking up for yourself, asserting your needs, and tolerating poor treatment less, those questions resolve themselves.
For example, a patient may tell me something like “We always go to her neighborhood,” “It feels like I always pay,” or “He’s constantly complaining about his boyfriend, but never asks how I’m doing with my brother’s death.” The patient here could decide essentially to just stop participating. They could tell their friend: “I’m down to hang out, but I don’t feel like going uptown. I would enjoy hanging in my neighborhood this time,” “I think it’s your turn to pay since I got it last time,” or “You know, I’m sorry you’re having a rough time in your relationship, but I’m worn out from helping you with it.”
After standing up for yourself, it’s sort of magic in how it plays out. Maybe they disappear. In this case, verdict clear, problem solved. Or maybe there’s some useful conflict (for instance, your friend gets mad, you double-down, you open up about the way this doesn’t work anymore, and the relationship is reorganized). In any event, you don’t have to guess whether the relationship can be fixed or how much you’re really valued. You’re also not left worrying that you overly interpreted past interactions or that you’re the one shutting the relationship down unfairly. Instead, you can be clear and find out rather than worrying that maybe they would change.
Beyond Dropping A Bad Friend, You’ll Learn How That Bad Friendship Happened To Begin With
Asserting how you want to be treated changes the decision from “Is this a good friend?” to “How did I participate in building this friendship I’m not happy with?” and “What do I want relationships to look like?” This is harder and more meaningful work.
We have a saying among our team of therapists: Be careful of just solving the problem. In psychotherapy, when someone has a problem (and most problems brought into therapy are relationship problems), it’s usually not just incidental that it happened. Yes, some bad relationships are incidental, but in many cases, a given subject participated in creating that problem, even when it’s clear they’ve been wronged. In romantic relationships and friendships, we see this in the process of picking that partner or friend and continuing to be in the relationship.
While this isn’t universal, these experiences tend to function as a kind of repetition of past problematic experiences. As therapists, we badly want to help people resolve a conflict or move out of a bad relationship, but we also understand that these conflicts also provide insight into problematic repetitions. At the very least, when such a conflict or bad relationship is laid at our feet, we want to be sure learning happens.
When a friendship isn’t working, there’s really two problems–the friendship and that you participated in tolerating or building the friendship as it was. So when you stand up for yourself and your needs, you won’t just drop a bad friend; you’ll learn how that friendship happened to begin with. Among other benefits, this makes it less likely you’ll have a repeat.