- Although the bonds in a friendship contribute greatly to the friends’ well-being, it is not uncommon that the bonds decrease with time.
- As we age and have more life experiences influencing our values, we may change our perspective and behavior regarding those we call friends.
- Many friendships influence our lives. Thus, it is essential that we move on when these relationships become psychologically unhealthy.
What is friendship? It has been described as a relationship that is reciprocal (Aristotle, 350 B.C.E.; Healy, 2015). Moreover, the parties care for one another in a beneficial way. Doing so requires that they trust each other’s behavior as directed toward their friend’s well-being. Trust is demonstrated through self-disclosure, honesty, and sharing one’s intimate thoughts and feelings.
The benefits of a friendship
Why should we seek friendships? Apart from the need to socially engage with others, one of the most important reasons is that it helps us gain a better understanding of ourselves. Feedback from people we trust can make us aware of how we appear to others and can lead to better self-knowledge. Self-disclosure is a necessary component as is listening to what our friends say. Feeling comfortable in revealing our flaws and strengths as well as being receptive to feedback from one who has our best interests in mind is a hallmark of an authentic friendship (Healy, 2015).
Why friendships end
One of the truths about genuine friendships is that they don’t always last. As with any living organism, if it is not fed it suffers and eventually dies. Similarly does a close relationship. Life circumstances for one or both parties may change the nature and benefits of the relationship (Vieth, Rothman & Simpson, 2022). These may include:
- No longer sharing in activities or endorsing the same interests, values, or perspectives.
- Geographic distance may alter the frequency of contact as well as hinder the ability to physically spend time together.
- Other relationships and obligations may take precedence, such as marriage and children.
- Developing other close friends.
- The satisfaction or affection derived from the relationship is no longer there.
Betrayal is another causative factor for the loss of a close relationship. Perhaps its effect may be more painful than the other reasons for a friendship’s dissolution. The party feeling betrayed may also question their judgment in choosing friends and whether there ever was any validity to the feedback given by the former friend. The loss of trust is difficult to regain because of the violation of a cardinal feature of close relationships.
Most friendships end gradually or fade away over time. Excuses are made for not getting together or there may be changes in circumstances (e.g., moving away, a new baby) that make it difficult for the friends to continue to interact as they once did. Generally, this passive end allows for a possible reunification in the future as opposed to an active termination, where it is expressed or behaviorally demonstrated that the friendship is over. Passive endings are more common not only because they leave open the possibility of a later reunification but also for their lack of confrontation.
The end of a long-term friendship spanning decades may be one of the most upsetting interpersonal situations. Growing apart, not making time for one another, and changes in viewpoints may all instigate a breakup; however, sometimes the decision not to continue the friendship is prompted by reaching one’s tolerance level. When we are young, we may be more flexible and accepting of how our friends may sometimes be inconsiderate in the way they treat us. However, as time goes on, we may reach a point where irritating characteristics and a lack of respect from our friends are no longer something we care to tolerate. Consequently, it may then be time to “cut the cord.”
As we age, close relationships are essential for our psychological well-being. But these close relationships should enhance our lives and not diminish us. Seldom is there a valid justification for a true friend to engage in hurtful behavior intentionally or repeatedly toward us. This may include making one feel ignored or used. Demonstrating little empathy or failing to offer sufficient support for a friend in need are not behaviors reflective of a healthy friendship. At some point, the recipient of this behavior may no longer have the tolerance or desire to continue to experience the negative behaviors from one’s long-term friends. Maintaining a dissatisfactory relationship only because it began years ago and there is a shared history are not psychologically sound arguments. Although there may have been a “well-being” factor derived in the past from this relationship, it has now faded or is absent.
It is not easy for people of any age to alter another person’s actions toward them, especially if there has been a long history of problematic behavior. Yet, that does not eliminate the opportunity now to discuss how one feels and try to have one’s friend understand the effect it has on them.
Ways to repair long-term friendships
One of the most important factors is communication with each other. The parties can:
- Tell each other how valued they are.
- Maintain frequent contact and display an interest in one another’s well-being, which helps validate the friendship.
- Disclose your feelings about the relationship and ask how your friend feels; this may stimulate addressing conflicts or dissatisfaction.
People change with time and life events. This is also true for friendships. Friendships with history can be an integral part of one’s sense of self and emotional well-being. A vital component of a supportive and psychologically healthy friendship is one where the parties genuinely care for one another and have the other’s best interests in mind. Sometimes the advice given can be hurtful; however, both parties must believe that the purpose of the advice is that of genuine care and concern. Doing so with respect and compassion can help convey this perception.
Dissociating entirely from a long-term friend can be very painful, but sometimes it is necessary. There will be feelings of loss by both parties and perhaps wonderment as to what went wrong. Sometimes there is no one reason to cite for the ending of a friendship. Friendships evolve as do the people affected. To better accept this change in a long-term friendship requires the validating belief that once this long-term friend played an important and nurturing role in our life and contributed to the person we became. That is our history. Now we are faced with how we can or cannot continue to derive psychological health from continuing the relationship. The maxim of taking care of oneself seems to become more pronounced as we age and realize that our days are numbered. Thus, a critical question we need to answer is, “With whom do we really wish to spend our remaining time?"
Aristotle. (350 B.C.E.). The Nicomachean Ethics (D. Ross, Trans). Oxford University Press. (1953 edition).
Healy, M. (2015). “We're just not friends anymore”: self-knowledge and friendship endings. Ethics and Education, 10(2), 186-197. DOI: 10.1080/17449642.2015.1051857
Vieth, G., Rothman, A. J., & Simpson, J. A. (2022). Friendship loss and dissolution in adulthood: A conceptual model. Current Opinion in Psychology, 43, 171–175. doi: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2021.07.007.