How to Tell if a Friendship Is Over

Let’s ask the friendship experts…



My lifelong best friend has dated some real fucknuts. Like, bottom of the barrel dudes. A few years ago, she and I reached an impasse: I had exhausted all my compassion, and the roiling frustration that flared whenever she called in tears was making me an ugly, useless friend. I withdrew from her, and that fact still coats my mouth with a penny-bitter guilt. She’s now married to a truly lovely (employed! Not felonious!) Frenchman and I wept through my maid of honor speech and made vague but hiiiiilarious references to the men of yore but I do wonder: had she not met this golden man, would we have been irreparably torn?

We are living in a beautiful golden age of female friendship. As the traditional trajectory of the female life shifts towards something more mutable and varied, friendships have become our communities, our cabal, the thing that shores us up, makes possible our growth and happiness. And this is wonderful! I guard my friends with the fierceness of a lioness. They are the salt of the earth. A reflection of my truest and best self.

But, sometimes, like all things, they go a little bad.

“A healthy friendship requires three things from both people: positivity, vulnerability, and consistency,” says Shasta Nelson, founder of GirlFriendCircles, where she teaches monthly friendship classes for women. She’s an expert in friendship inasmuch as anyone can be an expert in something so nebulous. For whatever reason — let’s blame the patriarchy! — female friendship simply hasn’t been given the same primacy and attention as romantic relationships. We take for granted friendship will come to us, yet spend innumerable hours preparing, posturing and adjusting for romantic relationships. But our friendships are just as nuanced and certainly as important as the relationships we have with a partner, and as we grow into ever more complex friendships, we’re finding out the hard way that navigating toxicity — from god-awful romantic choices to perceived abandonments to self-destructive behavior — is really damn hard. As Nelson says, “We need to get to a place where we treat our friendships like our partnerships and practice asking for what we need, apologizing, and seeking to repair that which has been hurt.”

My friend K. has a close friend — we’ll call her Mona — who has, over the course of the past few years, made ever more harmful and mystifying choices. “We initially were work friends — drinking buddies,” K. tells me. “We both liked drinking, going to the bar and staying there until we stumbled home. I’m sure one of us said, Have I told you this before? I must have told you this before, like, several times each night. And then I think also the unspoken thing was that we were both unhappy and lonely.”

“In the light of day I’d think, it’s fucked up that Mona starts drinking wine at noon,” says K., who never drank as much as Mona. She felt guilty about her tacit approval of Mona’s behavior, guilty she wasn’t doing more to help. K. stressed about Mona’s self-immolation as she meandered between jobs and relationships, sinking deeper into depression while refusing to entertain therapy or cutting back on her drinking. Eventually, K. gave up alcohol. “Once I stopped drinking, I started to realize I never felt good after being around her.”

This is key to one of the questions Dr. Suzanne Degges-White, counsellor and author of the book Toxic Friendships: Knowing the Rules and Dealing with the Friends Who Break Them wants all of us to ask of our friendships:

1. Do I feel better or worse after spending time with this friend?

2. Do I avoid calls, ignore texts or frequently cancel on plans with this friend?

3. Do I ever find myself wondering how I ever ended up in a friendship with this person in the first place?

“Individuals prone to unhealthy behaviors, such as drinking too much, spending money too freely, or some other vice, may find themselves in friendships with other who display similar weaknesses or with the tendency to enable,” says Degges-White. “This type of relationship can easily turn toxic if a person’s tendency to cross an unhealthy boundary is encouraged by another.”

Degges-White is careful to point out that such behavior doesn’t mean the individual herself is toxic: even lovely, generous, wild-hearted people can find themselves stymied by patterns that hurt them. And since misery loves company, we often, if unknowingly, bring those closest down with us: either by seeking their participation in our actions, or through our need for advice and reassurance about unhealthy behavior. No one wants to drown alone.

So what to do? “Authentic friends appreciate the limits and shortcomings of their friends, but they don’t become enablers,” says Degges-White. “And as therapists recognize, a client — or a friend — won’t “fix” their problem until they are ready to do so.” There are ways to do this, of course, that are more compassionate than others:

1. As with dating, the way you remove someone from your life should honor their place in it. “If you’re ‘breaking up’ with a friend you only see once a year,” says Degges-White, “ghosting might be sufficient. If the friendship has been a part of your life for a long time, you may need to have an honest conversation.” Nelson echoes this. “We owe it to each other to communicate as honestly and as lovingly as possible with [our best friends] so that they understand what happened and what you’re still willing to do or not.  We can give our friends the same gift we’d give a romantic partner: conversations that help bring closure.” (Much better than sending passive aggressive “hope ur well :)” texts until erupting at an infinitesimal slight and laying six years of wounds at her feet, amirite???)

2. “If the friend is a part of the scene you’re trying to leave (substance abuse, gambling, etc), let her know that you just can’t hang with her in those settings anymore,” says Degges-White.

3. If you’ve already done what you feel you can to help your friend see the harm in her actions, then keep the focus on how you have failed the friendship. Blame is a self-serving monster.

4. Use the conversation (or email) to acknowledge what your friend has given you, and how she has helped you grow.

5. Know that breaking up is not the only option. “If we decide that a friendship isn’t working, we have another option besides ending it— and that is to simply demote the friendship to a level of intimacy that feels safer,” says Nelson. “I have what I call a Frientimacy Scale of 1-10, with 10 being reserved for the most meaningful, safe and consistent friendships.  One option is to ask ourselves if we’re okay with a close friend still being a 4 or 5, meaning that we can still hang out in the same groups, but be clear to ourselves that we no longer consider them someone we trust or someone that we’ll prioritize our time and energy for.” Clinical, sure, but “downgrading” a friendship sounds infinitely gentler than wrenching someone out of your life entirely. There is a cavern of emotional investment between the monthly vegan brunch friend and the friend whose heart you can slip into as easily and casually as your own.

A friend once told me, when I was about to run headlong into a romantic entanglement with a guy who hadn’t even managed to get himself to the dentist in over ten years, “I know this decision you are making will end badly, but I’ll be there on the other side of it.” It did, and she was, and her honesty was a genuine gift, and one that has made our friendship stronger.

As for K. and Mona, they don’t spend much time together anymore, and when they do, it’s quiet, in daylight, when neither of them are drinking. “We’re both on our little journeys forward and so we’re talking about that and it’s just totally different. We used to laugh so much, and I’m not laughing at all now.”

Ultimately, how we love each other will always be bound by how well or poorly we can love ourselves. As Nelson says, “We have to take care of ourselves, foster healthy friendships and fill our tank so that we can give it to others when we have it.”

Author Meghan Nesmith is a writer and editor living in Toronto. Photographed by Emily Zirimis.


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  • Mallory

    Love this! Friendships really are just as important as any other relationship, and it is so important to surround yourself with friends that you can trust and be honest with, and that you can be vulnerable around.

  • Aydan

    This is one of the hardest things and sometimes worse than even a romantic break up. I’ve had to consciously make a decision to cut a girl friend out of my life that I loved and idolized so much, but who hurt me repeatedly and finally did it in an obvious enough way I realized I had to get out. The hardest part is even though I’ve told her we can never be friends again (I don’t trust her), she will reach out to me from time to time and it just FUCKS WITH ME. I don’t respond, but it’s so hard to receive a text knowing they are feeling vulnerable and still need you. But the saving point to all of this is I’ve learned how to surround myself with a strong group of positive female influences who all support one another, so really her loss and my gain.

    • grace b

      Holy cow I have had a very similar experience — it’s been over a year and for the last 6 months this one person has contacted me, my family, my friends and I stayed strong and did not answer until just this past Friday. Every text or email was THE WORST. We finally did speak this week and it was just not mutual. She wants to talk all the time now and tells me how much she misses me/feels lost without me. Those things are painful to hear! And after a year of the friendship being over (I instigated it and we had face to face closure), I’m just not even sure I could handle this person at a 1. So, I’m with you Aydan – it’s hard!

      • Aydan

        exactly, I can’t either. I will be nice if I encounter her with my other friends (who are still friends with her), but I don’t need her in my “camp”. We got this!!

        • That’s so key – surrounding yourself with true friends to shore you up and remind you of your value!

    • BuffyAnneSummers97

      I think these people only reach out when they want something from you, in my experience. A non-judgemental shoulder to cry on, for hours, giving nothing back.

      • Aydan


  • Thanks so much for this. I feel like a friend break up can sometimes be harder than a break up break up, and this has really helped me work through some stuff

    – Natalie

  • Taste of France

    There are three categories:
    (1) the relationship is messed up from the start (the Mona example here)
    (2) circumstances change for one of you and the other has a hard time dealing with it (getting a great job/getting married/having a kid). The relationship had been based on commiseration, and when one party gets happy it doesn’t work. Or it had been based on college and post-college partying, which most people quit after a few years. Kind of like #1 but maybe a little less toxic.
    (3) circumstances change so that getting together requires work, and one of you is too busy. Maybe you saw each other at work or at the gym, and then one of you changes jobs or moves and goes to a different gym. You still like each other, but with everything else in the mix, it’s hard to schedule enough time to stay close. Kind of sad but it happens.
    I’m still BFF with the first kid I ever met, when she was 6 months old and I was 5 months. We lived two houses apart growing up. I see her maybe once a year–we’re in different countries–and we email occasionally. But when we do get together in person or on the phone, it’s as if we’ve never been apart. If you have just one or two people like that in your life, you are very, very lucky. Quality counts.

  • Alyssa

    Wow, this post has really got me thinking. Friendships are tough to maintain and even harder to let go of, since they aren’t perceived the same way as relationships. This article has really helped me.

  • emma

    This came at such an opportune time for me. I’m not sure if I can ghost this friend or not – we’ve been friends for a few years, we see each other like once every month or every other month but text sporadically (mostly initiated by me, when I stop initiating she rarely texts me first)..

    I feel horrible because I do like her but her constant negativity just wears on me. Even the smallest things that go wrong in her day are things she broadcasts to me on snapchat or by text, and it’s gotten to the point where the overwhelming majority of our conversations are her griping about something. It’s exhausting, but I also often find that I’m rolling my eyes to myself as they’re often tiny things (ie her coffee order was messed up and it “ruined” her morning, etc).

    I’m going back and forth between wanting to salvage the relationship and try to talk to her, and ghosting. She tends to not react very well to any perceived criticism and lash out..

    Despite all these things, we’ve had fun over the years and bonded over our struggles when we first moved to NYC, but I think I’m holding on out of obligation and guilt..

    • Maybe you should talk to her? My boyfriend called me out on being negative and I was so glad he did because I never realized how it affected other people. I decided that I don’t want to be that kind of person and made an effort to stop complaining about little things and be more positive.

      On the other hand, I have a friend I’m not sure about too. I enjoy her company – she’s really fun and a great listener, but ever since she got into a serious relationship and went back to school she’s made barely any effort to keep in touch. I’ve only seen her a handful of times this year. She always forgets to call/text back and because of that our plans always fall through and it’s really starting to irritate me. I get busy and stressed out too but it’s not that hard to text someone.

      • emma

        Definitely agree – and I think that’s part of the problem here. She only texts me to complain, and otherwise it’s radio silence. Don’t get me wrong, I love a good rant, and I know I’m not the most chipper person either. But it’s gotten to the point where a huge majority of our conversations are her ranting about something or slipping in a tidbit about how her life sucks. I often feel like she’s trying to “one-up” me about how bad her life is, like if I’ll complain about something she’ll barely acknowledge what I said and go “yeah but this happened to me today..”

        I’m a little nervous to bring it up tbh because I feel like it just opens up another can of worms and I feel like I’m walking on eggshells around her constantly already. I think I’m checked out but do feel guilty about just ghosting.

        • Oh that’s tough then 🙁 when I complained I didn’t think it was a big deal, like everyone who complains about being tired in the morning, and I was open to hearing a new perspective. It sounds like she isn’t.

          But with the friend I mentioned above, one time me and another friend called her out on it and she admitted that she knew and she was being a terrible friend and that she’d do better at keeping in touch. Unfortunately she hasn’t done much better but she did acknowledge it then.

          • Another vote for talking it out. Everyone I spoke to for this piece said we need to get in the habit of being as open and honest about our needs with our friends as we are trained to be with our partners – and that totally gobsmacked me, since it was such a simple thing and I hadn’t considered it. With friends who dwell in negativity, I’d come at it from a place of concern – it worries me that you seem so depressed or upset with your circumstances, your frustrations make me sad, is there something deeper going on here we can address? With a friendship that has been so important for so long, it’s at least worth a shot…?

    • Olivia AP

      OMG! I’m going through the same. She has been my best friend for 15 years! We live in different states now and she complains about EVERYTHING. And I get you, it’s exhausting. It got to the point that it really annoys me to get her texts and when we talk she only talks about her things and when I tell her what’s going on with my life she relate my stories to hers so we end up talking about her haha

      And I don’t know how to deal with it since we have been friends for so long, but I’m starting to think that she won’t change. She will just stop complaining for a while and probably will complain about me with someone else

      • emma

        Yep same thing here – I’ll say something and it’ll somehow magically turn to her or she’ll barely acknowledge it and steamroll over me by “one-upping” my bad thing with something worse that happened to her. It’s like wait, when did it become a competition over whose life sucks more? Also, why would that be something anyone would want to win?

        It sounds really tough since you’ve been friends for 15 years, but I think people just end up changing and growing together or apart, and it sounds like for you guys it turned out to be the latter. It’s probably worth taking a bit of a breather so you’re in a better headspace and then bringing it up – 15 years is a long time, but that being said.. if you can salvage it, fantastic, if you can’t, it’s not worth being in a bad relationship out of a sense of duty or nostalgia.

    • I’m not sure how old you are. I moved to NYC at 18 for college and spent the first couple of years complaining a lot because of how overwhelming NYC can be, and mostly because of my age. Now that I’m 27, my brain and emotions have mellowed out a lot.

      I made the conscious choice to stop complaining so much when I realized it wasn’t cathartic – it just agitated me more. Now I don’t really want to take on someone’s negativity unless we share blood or fluids.

      I would ask exactly what you’re getting out of this friendship. It sounds like she doesn’t provide the basics. (“I stop initiating she rarely texts me first.”) I don’t know if she’s a friend worth keeping if you’re both adults and she can’t handle an adult conversation…

      I would try partial ghosting – just don’t respond to her complaints. Send her positive things, like a longform article you really enjoyed or a cute cat meme.

    • Honestly just listening to that depressed me. I assume you have tried all changing the topic, talking about something positive, pointing out something lovely etc.?

  • Outlaw country

    I’m confused. Is it really that hard to tell other people that you will no longer be listening to them complain about making the same shitty decision over and over again? Like, literally that phrase. “I will no longer listen to you whine about dating shitty men. We can talk about other stuff.”
    Because not listening to the same complaints over and over again does not make you a bad person. And I am super confused that people believe that this is somehow part of being a woman. It’s not.

    • BuffyAnneSummers97

      Usually when people are whining/venting/ranting, they’re vulnerable so it’s just not the time for that phrasing and they need it couched in gentler terms, I think.

    • big ol pupper

      i’m very sensitive to being perceived as judgmental now because i used to be such a huge b*tch & speaking my mind alienated lots of people (angsty teen lol). but my niceness has led me into friendships where i felt like i couldn’t say anything critical about my friend’s questionable lifestyle choices, which also led to them taking advantage of me. i do agree w you abt women being socialized into relationships where they have to be the long-suffering martyr or some bs. better to be a b*tch 😉

  • Thanks for this article, it really hits home. Until recently, losing touch and naturally growing apart was the end of most of my friendships, never any friend breakups (not that I’ve even heard of it beforehand). However, as described perfectly in this article that “we no longer consider them someone we trust or someone that we’ll prioritize our time and energy for”, I find this most relevant as this is exactly how I felt after taking the initiative of ending a friendship. I had to do so because I needed to take care of myself as it was both physically and mentally draining (in a negative way). After it all, I’ve been feeling a lot better and happier.

    Thanks again for this article as it has given me reassurance that I did the right thing 🙂

  • Omowumi Oguntuase

    Hi! First time on your blog and I love this piece! If you don’t mind I would like to put it up on my blog but I cannot seem to find the reblog button so please do you mind sending it to my mail? That is if you still have the draft somewhere, I would really appreciate it. Thank you.

  • kaitlin davis

    it’s about that time that friendships come to and end, astrologically speaking. 2016 has been such a messy year, the stars want everyone to let go and let gone.

  • Alice Pawley

    I love the idea of the frientimacy scale
    all of this ❤️

  • LEM

    I don’t know why this suddenly popped up in my Twitter feed, but it could not have come at a more opportune time. Thank you for writing this. It speaks to me so deeply and directly and I’m tearing up over here just reading it.