QuestionDoes breaking up with a friend hurt as much as ending a romantic relationship?
Hopes&Fears answers questions with the help of experts. Today, we ask therapists, psychologists and authors if ending a friendship hurts as much or more than a romantic breakup and why.
Breaking up with a partner is universally accepted to be an awful experience, no matter how amicable the breakup. Often, it’s our closest friends who support us through the healing process. But what happens when we lose that support system? Ending a close friendship is awkward and devastating—and it’s so rarely discussed that we don’t even have specific language to talk about it.
We asked psychologists and researchers who specialize in relationships to help us understand why it hurts when it ends.
Jill Edelstein LCSW
Focusing-oriented psychotherapist trained in EMDR therapy, has served as a clinical affiliate of National Institute for the Psychotherapies' Integrative Trauma Treatment Program (ITP)
This calls into question the nature of relationships and how people experience connection within them.
There is the I, the You and the Us. Eugene Gendlin teaches that we are interaction: "Interaction first." This posits the primacy of human interaction in relationships and in one's sense of self. We are born into, shaped by, and inextricably linked in relationships with others. Depending upon whether you were provided adequate responsiveness from caretakers in your first few years, you learned to trust or mistrust (Erikson), you began to form a self in a dyad with primary caretaker(s) who participated in millions of micro-interactions that were, ideally, well-attuned with yours.
You bring this capacity into relationships with others. Some people are more comfortable in a dyad, some in groups, others in both. Those with attachment impairment may gravitate towards a dyad to repair what they didn’t get in the past. These people are more likely to be more intensely impacted by ruptures in any kind of one-on-one relationship.
What is a "normal" amount of friends?
DUNBAR NUMBERS: Anthropologist Robin Dunbar studied tribes and companies to determine the natural number of friends and acquaintances in groups.
So, whether it’s a friendship, a friendship with benefits, or a full-on romantic partnership, the connection is critical, medicinal, and life-giving (in addition to meeting other needs such as fun and celebration, among other things). When it is cut off it hurts. Obviously “hurt” comes in different flavors and sizes and durations. Those factors will be colored by a constellation of things. What else is there in the person’s life? Is it adequately peopled? How does the dominant culture view friendship? How does the family and local community view friendship? What value does friendship carry in the nuclear and extended family and peer group? How much sugar has been planted in that person’s heart and spirit by grandparents, parents, other family, friends, teachers, neighbors? These things speak to resilience. Resilience tempers ruptures in relationships. Relationship ruptures can be painful in whatever form. Depending on who you are, perhaps more.
Did you watch I Love Lucy? Lucy and Ethel have fights that get so heated that they stop talking to each other. They miss each other so intensely that it lasts only a day or so. They cry and hug when they can stand the distance no longer. I never saw either of them divorce so it’s hard to compare with a regular breakup. It looks like love to me.
is not easy
The number of Americans who say they have no friends has tripled between 1985 and 2004.
In 1985, the average American reported having 2.94 confidants. In 2004, that number shrunk to 2.08.
Co-editor of My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends
We found in our survey that many women experienced friendship breakups as harder than romantic breakups. With romantic breakups there’s a societal script: you get sad, there’s language to talk about it with other people, and you recover. But with a friendship breakup, women feel a lot of shame, guilt, sadness, and confusion. We expect [many of] our romantic relationships to end, but friendships are supposed to last forever. Women wondered how bad of a person they had to be for a friend to cut them out of her life. Most of them were either never given a reason or couldn’t understand the reason they were given.
Women didn’t talk about it with anyone. It’s bottled up and not socially acceptable to talk about how deeply a friendship ending impacted their lives. Everyone talks about BFFs and celebrating their best girlfriends, but there’s a dark side to female friendship that doesn’t get talked about. We were floored by how many women were holding onto wounds from childhood and adolescence. The women who contributed to our book found it cathartic to just have someone listen.
Social relationships and mortality risk
In a meta-analysis, Julianne Holt-Lunstad and colleagues find that individuals' social relationships have as much influence on mortality risk as other well-established risk factors for mortality, such as smoking.
There is 50% increased likelihood of survival for participants with stronger social relationships.
Loneliness is as bad for you as not exercising.
Professor at University of Maryland School of Social Work and author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships
For men, the breakup of a friendship is nowhere near as difficult as the breakup of a romantic relationship. Men create [what I call] “shoulder-to-shoulder” friendships: getting together to do things [side-by-side] like watching sports or participating in an activity. They’re less likely to get together for a glass of wine and conversation. Women create “face-to-face” friendships that are interaction-based. They are more emotionally and physically expressive than with men. Men also require less ongoing contact with their friends than women do. That’s not to say men’s friendships are less important; often, men use friendship to escape the emotional intensity of their romantic relationships. But men are more willing to let a friendship end when things go wrong, whereas women will try to make it work and figure out how to repair it. For men when it’s over, it’s over, and they often don’t look back.
For men who have a close friend, 75% of those friends are women.
Psychologist and creator/producer of The Friendship Blog and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving A Breakup With Your Best Friend
We never enter a friendship thinking it will end, so we bare our souls. It’s a tremendous emotional letdown [to lose a friend]. Unlike marriages, which have a legal basis, there are no scripts or rituals like divorce for ending a friendship. [It’s] embarrassing, so there is no one to talk to or confide in. It almost feels indulgent to speak to a therapist or ask other people for support. It’s very lonely.
50% of friendships
formed in middle school do not
last an academic year
Popular culture reinforces the erroneous myth that best friends are forever, although nothing could be further from the truth. Most friendships, even very good ones, don’t last forever. [They’re] voluntary relationships that need to be mutually satisfying and reciprocal. Once a friendship has eroded or become toxic, people often say they experience a sense of relief after it has ended. It reduces stress and frees the individual up for more supportive and satisfying relationships.
The approximate rate of breakup in best friends compared to romantic partners, according to Robin Dunbar's research.