This column is part of Advice Week, Slate’s celebration of all things advice.
In this new Prudie feature, Jenée takes a commonly submitted question (like how to break up with a friend) and gives you the script for making it happen.
Dear Prudence is Slate’s advice column. Submit questions here.
Readers of Dear Prudence, or really any other advice column, will pick up on one clear pattern in the questions and responses: Many people write in about relationships that aren’t working, and when they ask “Should we break up?” the answer is often yes.
But here’s something people don’t write about as much: Whether to end a friendship. And how to do it. So, even though nobody asked, let me say: Yes. If you’re struggling with a platonic relationship that is supposed to bring you joy and is instead bringing you stress and pain, or making you feel used or inadequate, do what you would do to a boyfriend or girlfriend: Say “I can’t do this anymore” and make a clean break.
If you read this column, you know what I’m talking about. There’s the friend who only talks about himself, and has for the past 15 years; the one who only gets in touch to push her latest pyramid scheme; or the friend who always owes you money or steals your wine. (Yes, the wine-stealing really happened.)
Friend breakups are tough in part because of the idea that because we can have many friends at once, we can afford for some of them to be bad ones. But a bad friendship—even one bad friendship among many good friendships—takes a toll. It can subject you to disappointment and make you feel inadequate. Worse, it can bring out a version of you that you really don’t like. Suddenly, you’re the resentful bridesmaid, bitter cat-sitter, or the person who’s putting their phone on speaker and scrolling Twitter while someone pours their heart out to you, feeling like an underappreciated, unpaid therapist. That’s no way to live! There’s something about the unfinished business of a relationship that’s somewhere between “we really like each other” and “we actually hate each other” that is more draining than no relationship at all.
Still, ending a romantic relationship that just isn’t “working” is seen as empowering while ending a platonic one is often construed as mean. That has to change. And maybe it will, if more people are brave enough to end friendships that simply don’t fit into their lives anymore. So how do you do it?
1. As intimately as possible. That means in person, if you see each other with any regularity. And on the phone, if that’s how you typically communicate. Texts and DMs should be reserved for people who’ve already slipped so far out of your life that this is the only way you talk to each other.
2. Honestly. If the reason is “You had sex with my wife and tried to stab me when I caught you so I no longer trust you,” say that. It’s OK to say: “It just feels like we’ve both changed a lot and making plans together has become a struggle that leaves us both irritated.”
3. But kindly. You don’t have to add “You have no morals!” or “You’ve just become extremely boring since you started law school.” When it comes to details that could hurt feelings, less is more.
4. With a “no hard feelings” note, if appropriate. One of the hardest parts about friend breakups is that you might still see the person around if you have mutual friends, work together, or just live in the same neighborhood. Paint a picture of how things might look in the future. “I’ll still be happy to say hi when I see you at yoga” or “I know we’ll probably both be at that birthday party next month and I will do my best to not make it weird.”
5. Privately. If you travel in similar social circles, don’t make it a big deal. Don’t make people feel like they have to choose. And don’t embarrass your (former) friend if they didn’t do anything wrong. If anyone picks up on the fact that you’re no longer spending as much time with this person, you can just say, “Yeah, we’ve kind of drifted apart.” Of course, if they kidnapped your dog, feel free to openly warn everyone else to keep their pets on leash.
Again, all of this is very similar to how you might conduct yourself in a romantic breakup—you’re cutting ties with someone who no longer fits into your life, with as much care and “it’s not you, it’s me”-ness as the situation calls for. Except you won’t add “I hope we can still be friends.” Because you don’t.
I was the maid of honor in my best friend’s wedding a few weeks ago and I gave a toast. My friend and I have known each other for over 20 years. It was a beautiful wedding, but during my toast I apparently said something the groom took great offense to, and he and the bride ended up fighting because of it, which then caused the bride to yell at me in the hallway outside the reception, saying that her new husband was mad at her because of what I had said in my toast.