I clearly remember the day I left my ex-best friend on read. We’d been traveling together when I overheard her complaining about me to a colleague of mine, which led to a full-blown falling out. That text was the last I would ever get from her. Months later, we ran into each other in a Trader Joe’s, and the minute our carts squeaked past each other without so much as a “Hey,” I knew we were over for real.
This particular friendship isn’t the first in my life that I’ve ended, though it is probably the one I left on the worst terms. Once it was done, I was left blinking in the harsh light of loneliness, struck that no one knows how to talk about this traumatic process. It doesn’t even have a name.
Because let me tell you: it is traumatic. Unlike a romantic partnership, a friendship doesn’t come with pressure to be exclusive or explicit commitments for the future, but the bestie break-up is a uniquely shattering experience. My best friend wasn’t just someone I hung out with. She knew about my goals and fears and was part of all the minutiae that make up a human experience. Losing her felt like losing thousands of little moments that had made me who I am.
This kind of loss is not rare, however. Seeking validation that I wasn’t alone in this, I put out a call for personal stories on Instagram, expecting one or two people who would be willing to share. Instead, a deluge of stories poured in from men and women all over the world who’d ended up in the same place: pulling the plug on a relationship their whole life had centered around.
For some, it was immediate. A friend had placed them in a physically unsafe scenario or said something past the point of no return. More often, it took years to come to a head, compounded by backhanded compliments, cancelled brunches and yes, texts left on read. Sometimes even then, there’s a serious urge to explain away your friend’s behavior, even if you would never tolerate their actions from a romantic partner.
“It takes a lot more to get to the point of ending a platonic relationship. In a romantic relationship there’s usually a point of clarity,” explained Orange County therapist Karin Draper, who specializes in working with young people. “You could in theory keep a platonic relationship your whole life,” Draper said.
All those adorable grandparents on Facebook posing with their best friends of 50 years make us crave that kind of longevity, but we’re putting up with a lot of nonsense chasing it, usually from people we’ve known the longest.
For most of us, making friends isn’t easy, and keeping toxic ones can feel safer than not having anyone to hang out with. Loneliness is reaching “epidemic” status, according to former U.S. Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy. And 18-22-year-olds are the “loneliest generation,” according to a Cigna study — which makes sense. When you’re transitioning from high school to college, it can be terrifying to launch off on your own.
“Me and my best friend from high school, we’ll call her Karen, were extremely close. We had so much in common and had super-specific mutual beliefs and opinions. Our personalities were even very similar.”
Bizzy Emerson and Karen were always together, preparing to take on the world. They started college together and then decided to take a semester off.
“In this time, we only had each other to hang out with, which just escalated our friendship to a new level,” Emerson said, telling me the closeness pushed their relationship into a clingy, unhealthy territory.
Neither girl was making new friends or engaging fully in their college experience. When Emerson made the decision to move into her sorority house, everything started to snowball. She made new friends and became aware of how unhappy her relationship with Karen was making both of them. She decided enough was enough.
“I definitely think this break-up was 100 percent necessary, because I couldn’t move on with my life,” she said.
In story after story, I heard about toxicity invading even the strongest of bonds. Maddie’s best friend kept bailing on plans and stopped answering texts. Audrey’s started taking advantage of her. Ramona’s sent her a nasty text out of the blue. Lucy’s just didn’t value her as much as she thought. In most of the stories I was told, friends who are about to be dumped often don’t even see it coming.
Psychotherapist Sharon Peykar, an associate clinical social worker in Los Angeles who focuses on mindful relationships, told me that your gut feeling isn’t usually too far off. “If you’re feeling dreadful every time you interact with a certain friend, this may be an indicator that your boundaries have been crossed or there’s something you’re not addressing between you,” Peykar explained.
I’d known for weeks before our last trip that something about my relationship with my best friend was off. There were a lot of passive-aggressive comments and periods of extended silence, but I had convinced myself that it would be magically solved by close proximity for 80-odd hours straight.
Believe it or not, my “ignore it until it goes away” tactic is not the recommended method. Both therapists I talked to emphasized that communication is key in healthy relationships.
“A lot of the blowouts happen when one person is expecting something the other person isn’t even thinking about,” Draper said.
Ah, talking about your feelings. It’s a great concept, but honestly? I hate doing it. There’s something extra stressful about just telling someone how you feel. Unfortunately for my avoidant personality, that’s what all the experts recommend if you’re trying to save your relationship.
But say you’re like my ex-best friend and me, seemingly beyond the point of no return. In a time where Facebook regurgitates evidence of how happy you used to be on an annoyingly routine basis, how do you actually disentangle your digital self?
Gen Z and social media commentator Emma Havighorst thinks you first need to do the basic unfollowing on your usual platforms and then move on to secondary removal.
“People need space in person after the end of a relationship, so they need space online as well,” Havighorst said. “Typically, I also suggest muting mutual friends or people who are closer friends with them, so that you have less of a chance to see the other person in other people’s posts.”
That’s the real gut punch, I think — the day you see a photo, Snap or Instagram story of your friend with their new best friend. No matter why you broke up, there’s often this little part of you that wonders: “What if?”
“Especially with friends that have been friends for an important season in a person’s life, as well as long term friends, there’s a sense of comfort and ‘they knew me’ that can be really easy to return to,” Draper told me.
It’s that nostalgia that motivates the midnight texts, the unblocking on IG or maybe even the gentle offer to get coffee sometime. More often, in the timeless words of Gotye, “Now you’re just somebody that I used to know.”
Sometimes I miss those people I used to know. I wonder what they’re up to, what their kids look like (because some of them have those now), whether they’ve kept up with my career. My nosiness gets the best of me, and I’ll spend hours looking at their tagged photos, seeing how their life took shape once I was out of the picture. I like to think that they’re doing the same, and we’re both just a little better off for having left each other alone.
This story was originally published on February 11, 2019.