Friendships are key to satisfaction, rivaling relationships with family and romantic partners to provide often life-long support unencumbered by the demands of genetic influence or, typically, sexual entanglement.
Friendship, defined by Apostolou, in a recent research paper in the journal Personality and Individual Differences (2023), is “a long-term relationship of mutual affection and support between genetically unrelated individuals" that serves important functions of support and assistance favored by evolutionary forces of survival.
Friendships provide family- and partner-like support during times of stress and fullness, going beyond practical interdependence to create an intimate bond based on close attachment, forming the basis of a tight-night community. In addition to support, friendship also serves to stave off loneliness (shown to be detrimental to well-being), as a way to promote the search for a mate, and to advance personal goals through a collaborative effort. On that last point, nowadays more than ever, the critical role of relationships in business development has become ever clearer.
Ripping Off the Band-Aid vs. the Slow Burn
With an interest in studying specific strategies people use to end friendships, Apostolou notes that there are two big buckets: immediate termination and gradual termination, each with pros and cons. The benefit of immediate termination is that whatever negatives there are in being friends stop immediately, but there is a risk of consequences, including conflict, retaliation, and unnecessary harshness, along with “burning bridges." Gradual termination is more palatable, leaving room for continuing acquaintanceship, less risk of conflict and retaliation, and keeping the door open to either rekindling the friendship or gaining benefit from the other person, who may (for example) have useful expertise independent of being a suitable friend.
People end friendships for several reasons, including loss of affection, clashing of values, and distress in the friendship, such as betrayal, as well as due to selfishness, romantic involvement (the dreaded "friend zone"), drifting apart (lack of frequent interaction), and disapproval by family and friends.
Developing a Granular Understanding of How Friendships End
So, with the above in mind, how do people end friendships? Apostolou conducted a two-stage study consisting of first, qualitative (narrative) research with 225 people who were asked to discuss how they went about ending friendships. Their narratives were then analyzed to identify common factors. This was followed by a quantitative stage in which the factors found were analyzed with a fresh group of 469 people to identify and refine the core strategies.
There were seven overarching strategies, comprised of 43 distinct and sometimes overlapping actions designed to bring friendships to an end.
- Stop spending time with him/her. Stopping spending time, stopping calling, cutting the person out of future plans, avoiding seeking to go out with them, stopping looking for them, stopping contacting them, meeting less often, being unavailable to meet, minimizing direct and indirect communication as much as possible, ceasing to share thoughts, problems, or secrets with them.
- Have a talk. Telling them honestly why, stating they wanted to end the friendship, having a civilized conversation explaining why views and characters no longer match, stating the friendship no longer could continue, stating the reasons for the need to distance oneself, telling them they are not happy with the friendship any longer and it is not a good idea to continue, seeking a one-on-one meeting to explain why the friendship is not progressing, clearly sharing concerns, texting or emailing the reasons the friendship was ending.
- Make communication more formal. Replying to messages only in a formal tone, contacting only on special occasions, becoming colder.
- Talk badly to the former friend. Using bad language to explain why they didn’t want to be friends anymore, ending friendship by talking badly (e.g. being mean), being abrupt with him or her, telling mutual friends about displeasure with the friend, hoping they would spread the word.
- Make excuses to avoid her or him. Not accepting invitations, saying they were busy, making excuses not to meet, responding to messages after a long delay, and failing to answer phone calls, emails, or texts.
- Gradual fade out. Indirectly distancing oneself, attempting to distance oneself slowly, and finding ways to pull back in a roundabout way.
- Ghosting. Disappearing, disappearing without explanation, cutting off contact, cutting off every line of communication, not talking with him or her again, unfriending or blocking on social media, avoiding going to places where they might meet, avoiding the person directly, showing indifference to the person upon making contact.
Further analysis showed that gradual termination was the most common strategy used, grounded in communication becoming more formal, with gradual fade-out and stopping spending time together, followed by talking about it. Immediate termination was the less common approach, based on ghosting, talking badly to the person, and finding excuses to avoid them. Compartmentalization–interacting with the person in limited contexts only–was identified as a possible fourth strategy, potentially a form of gradual termination.
Personality traits influenced the likelihood of using different strategies to end friendships. More agreeable people were more likely to use gradual termination, those more conscientious were less likely to ghost or just stop spending time together, and more extroverted individuals were more likely to talk about ending the friendship.
The only sex difference uncovered was that men were more likely to use talk-badly strategies than women, while older individuals were more likely to use avoidant approaches like ghosting and finding excuses to steer clear.
Future research can further explore the important questions surrounding why and how people end friendships, following up on key questions such as which strategies are most effective under what circumstances, whether people tend to start off softer and up the ante if the person doesn’t “get the hint”, and what the consequences of different strategies are, such as ghosting versus talking through the friendship’s end.
The research is important in terms of furthering the general understanding of how relationships end. Especially when business and personal relationships overlap more and more, in these times of quiet quitting and quiet firing, explicitly articulating common practices for beginning, maintaining, and terminating relationships takes on particular relevance.
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Menelaos Apostolou, This has to end: An explorative analysis of the strategies people use in order to terminate an undesirable friendship,
Personality and Individual Differences, Volume 209, 2023, 112211, ISSN 0191-8869, https://doi.org/10.1016/j.paid.2023.112211.