My best friend and I have been very close for years — even our families have met through our friendship. But last year, I suffered a huge familial loss, and she made it all about her. In my grief, I’d stopped answering her texts and calls as often, and instead of supporting me, she called me a bad friend. We eventually made up, but recently we got into another fight. She was out playing drinking games, and I know she can’t handle her alcohol, so I told her to be careful. I was looking out for her. She called me overbearing, condescending, and told me that she understood why I had issues in other relationships. She brought up a lot of hurtful things that I told her in confidence. I apologized; she didn’t. I stopped answering her messages, and now she wants to make up.
This has been a huge relationship in my life, but not talking to her for a few weeks has been a massive relief. I am her go-to person — the only one she confides in, the one she relies on — and I’m exhausted. I don’t know if I want to maintain the relationship anymore, because all it does is drain me. Advice?
Relieved & Concerned
Dear Relieved & Concerned,
Have you ever been at a dinner party with a bad couple? They’re sitting across from you at the table, snipping at each other, putting each other down, looking for reasons to get pissy with one another? It’s awful and uncomfortable and everyone knows it’s time to break up — except them. They don’t know it because knowing it is scary. It means acknowledging that rupture is coming soon, and even if it’s a necessary one, it’s just no fun.
You know what’s even less fun? Being stuck with someone you’re permanently pissed at, for life. And that can happen in relationships — including friendships.
My guess is, if this relationship were a romantic one, you’d know the answer: It’s time to break up. But friendships are tricky; they’re less formal, and yet so much more intense at times. So, when you find yourself in a toxic one, it can be hard to recognize that, let alone find your way out. Plus, there are fewer Official Deal breakers in friendships. But think about it: If a romantic partner played dirty in a fight like that, calling you names and bringing up sensitive topics in order to hurt you, that would not be okay. So, start by asking yourself, why is it okay with her?
It’s true that I don’t know the entire history of your friendship, and I also don’t know her side of the story. True, she sounds pretty self-centered and childish in your telling, but I bet she could say some negative things about you, too — and maybe you’d both be right. It doesn’t really matter which of you is the good guy or the bad guy here. Frankly, I don’t even need to hear her side of the story, because the real story isn’t about who did what. The real story is the part where you’re exhausted by this person and relieved to have some distance from her. “All it does is drain me,” you say of this friendship. If that’s true, that’s all you need to know.
Quick break for some devil’s advocating: Maybe you don’t need to break up forever. Maybe you do really need an extended break from each other — and then, one day, you can come back to this person and form a new friendship, having had the time and space to grow out of the old one. But to give yourself that break, you do need to break up first. I don’t mean just casually drifting away or letting her calls go to voicemail until she gets the hint. No ghosting here; you have to use your words. Find the words you’d like to say to her, and then write them down (this might be one of those cases where you throw away the super-duper angry letter first, and then write the calm and rational one). Then call her or email her and give her the message.
I’m not saying it’s going to be easy. Breakups suck, no question. And if you’re the one to initiate it, then you’ll probably get hit with some anger and blame. But that doesn’t make you the bad guy. It makes you the grown-up. Sometimes being a grown-up sucks, too.
On the bright side, breakups make space in your life. At first, it may be lonely and strange, this emptiness that was once filled by your friend and all her needs. That’s okay — that’s mourning. But if you just hang in there, mourn, and move on, you’ll look up one day and realize: It’s not emptiness. It’s possibility. And it’s all yours.
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