How to break up with a friend (and not feel guilty)

  • Jan. 30, 2018 2:24 p.m.

Do your closest five friends reflect the real you — your goals, ambitions, values?

You’d be surprised how often the issue of friendships timing out comes up in my sessions as a life coach. It surfaces in the form of questions like, “I find myself wanting to spend less time with my BFF. Why is that?” or “I don’t want to do happy hour with my co-workers anymore. Is that cool?”

So why is this such a common topic?

Because I work with a lot of people who are making changes in their lives. They’re starting businesses. They’re leveling up in their careers. They’re moving cities, changing their bodies, adopting a new spiritual practice. Whatever it is — it’s change.

And in life, change begets more change.

What does this mean for lifelong friendships, office spouses and college buddies who don’t follow along on your journey as it continues to unfold? It can inevitably mean a change in your relationship too. And that’s OK!

Here’s how to deal when you change but the people around you don’t:

1. ACCEPT IT’S NORMAL

When you were a kid and joined the swim team, moved to Chicago, joined a ballet class or a Sunday school service, did you meet more people a little bit more like you? And as a result, did you spend more time with them? The same thing happens whenever you change jobs, become a parent, join a new fitness tribe or actively pursue a hobby or a side hustle. Life will attract more people like you to you.

Time changes people. That’s natural and positive. And as the months and years pass, if the only thing you have in common with your friend is your past, it’s probably not enough to sustain you in the long term. You can still support and love each other and spend less time glued at the hip. Friendship is about shared experiences and joy, not pressure and stress.

2. DON’T EXPECT OTHER PEOPLE TO CHANGE

There’s nothing worse than not feeling supported by the people you love. But just because you might be going through a personal shift doesn’t mean other people have to come along with you. I’ve seen it countless times. People get fit. Decide to save for a big investment. Start freaking out over personal development and want to preach their new ways to old friends. It doesn’t always land. And it doesn’t have to. All you have to worry about is yourself.

3. STEP OFF THE GAS

I have a friend, Karen, who left New York City, moved to the suburbs and had two kids. For well over a year, I frequently asked her if/when I could come and visit. I was happy to jump on the train and do what it took for some quality time.

The truth was she was busy with her family and naturally had more mom friends filling up her weekends. Good. She ought to be doing that if it’s right for her (and it is). As a woman without kids, I understood. And I still understand. But I also know she understands that I stopped giving 100 percent via weekly texts and calls when I knew she could only give me 50 percent at this expansive stage of her life.

Life separates people. But that’s not a bad thing as long as we’re a bit more accepting of other people’s journeys.

Karen and I see each other less now (and it’s certainly noisier when we do!), but it’s just right. Stepping off the gas doesn’t mean abandoning the car.

4. DITCH THE DUTY

When you feel obligated to see a friend, versus excited, it’s a sign that something probably has to shift. If you feel uncomfortable seeing a friend — perhaps you feel unsupported, uninspired or you even have what my friend Laura calls a “friendship hangover” after seeing someone — ask yourself, “How long have I felt like this?” And then ask, “Why do I still do it?”

There’s no gun to your head. And there never will be. Unlike a romantic relationship that has firmer boundaries, friendships are non-exclusive, and if they’re healthy, they should be more flexible. Unless you wish to have a frank discussion over something in particular, timing out over a period can be kind and respectful. You become a little less available. You share less. It’s gradual and gentle.

Finally, don’t spend a second feeling guilty about transitioning out of a friendship. Not all relationships are meant to last a lifetime. But that doesn’t mean that your friendship failed, or that it’s dead, or even over for good. Just for now, it’s complete.

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