Breakups suck, especially when you’ve shared so much, so deeply, for so long. But sometimes you simply have to do it. Whether the relationship is unbalanced, dysfunctional, or toxic in some hard-to-put-your-finger-on way, there comes a time when enough is enough for your little heart. And while you question every moment of pain, in the end, you’re usually so much better off.
I’m talking, of course, about breaking up with my friends.
When I decided to end it with not one, not two, but three of my close girlfriends last year, it was as wrenching as any romantic breakup I’ve been through. Our friend group ran like a well-oiled machine, with each of us filling entrenched roles that carried over from our early twenties in New York to our late twenties in Los Angeles. Seven of us had made the move west at some point and grown closer for it.
At the top of the heap was Sam, our anointed Queen Bee, a human hub who brought us all together. A few of her friends from college had mingled with some women who worked in our shared business and voila, we had her to thank for the squad’s very existence. Then there was her best childhood friend, Nora, who worshipped Sam for her admittedly spectacular looks, career path, boyfriends, and clothes.
Emily, another member of the group, just couldn’t get her you-know-what together. She had the start of a great career going, but her personal life was a flaming trash can that we all spent too much time throwing cups of water on only to have her light a weekly match. She was our self-appointed court jester and relished her entertaining role.
The girls and I worked in the same media and publishing business in New York, then for years in L.A. But when I started a new venture in the tech world, I was able to take a step back and see my web of friends more clearly. We had always talked about work, and suddenly that evaporated. What I was left with was a lot of talk about other friends, not much of which was positive.
One night, my fiancé called me out after I came home from drinks with Emily and immediately launched into a familiar tirade: I extended myself emotionally to her nonstop and got very little in return. When was the last time she asked about my work? Or my upcoming wedding? Why did I bother giving her endless dating advice if she always ignored it? Or talking her down from every ledge, just to have her climb right back up?
“You know,” my fiancé said after listening, “You’re always pissed after you’re with her.”
It was true. I’d chalked it up to Em being Em, but my fiancé mentioned that good friends are supposed to relieve stress rather than be a primary source of it. The embarrassment of someone else pointing out that I’d forgotten such a basic friendship tenet spurred me to make the drastic move of dumping Emily.
I wish I could say I was mature about it, but I wasn’t. Like daters everywhere do each day, I pulled the slow fade. About a week into ghosting Emily, she chatted me online to ask why I was so MIA, then launched into her latest crisis without waiting for my answer. I didn’t respond.
She chatted, I ignored. Her texts became passive-aggressive, then her anger grew palpable across the internet superhighway. It practically made me itch. But as early as two weeks in, I could already see how much time I’d been spending talking and thinking about this one person’s emotional minutia. Without that, I had time for so much else. Like panicking about Sam’s opinion.
She must hate me, I thought. She thinks I’m a bitch. She thinks I’m selfish. I was consumed by what our fearless leader must have been saying about me. Others in our group had ‘stepped out of line’ before, and her retaliatory gossip had been vicious. When Sam and I met up for drinks, she made her stance clear.
“Look,” she said. “Em’s a total mess. I mean, we all know she’s ridiculous. But your, like, happiness isn’t worth ruining the whole group.”
Sam ran a tight ship, and by standing up for myself, I was rocking the boat. Lips closed tight, I nodded, finished my drink, and left.
At first, I didn’t tell any of the other women in the group about this exchange. I wasn’t ready to wade into those murky waters without a life raft of an ally, and who knew which friends Sam had gotten to first? But my friends outside the group all uniformly balked at the very notion of my staying friends with her. The fact that I was living in fear of this person was ludicrous and, as more than one of them said, kind of embarrassing for me.
So, I wrote Sam a Dear John email. Again, I wish I could say we met up and had a cinematically uncomfortable coffee to part ways, but there was no such bravery on my part. I explained how hard it was to walk on eggshells around her. I’d cherished the supportive, fun environment we’d all cultivated. But somewhere along the way, we’d grown competitive with one another, and she seemed to encourage that toxicity. Thus, I was stepping back.
She never replied.
For a while, I didn’t hear from anyone else in the group and thought that perhaps I’d inadvertently broken up with all of them. But eventually I got a few messages asking how I was and saying, “Good for you, I feel the same way.” It turns out I hadn’t lost my squad, just trimmed it. Breaking up with one or two didn’t mean I was cutting ties with all of them.
Except of course, for Nora, who happily lived in Sam’s shadow. Our breakup was collateral damage, which I was fine with. I realized I’d spent so much time worrying what these girls thought of me that I hadn’t even clarified what I thought of them. The crew’s hierarchy had become so rigid that I forgot it’s supposed to be a circle.
As soon as I stopped wasting precious time and energy on friendships that didn’t merit it, I was free to invest in potentially great ones I’d been shirking. It was lonely sometimes, but also liberating. Of course I miss nights drinking and gossiping with the New York crew. Of course I sometimes want to call them and ask for their advice. Of course it kills me a little (OK, a lot), to think about them hanging out without me. But for now, the power of going cold turkey has been intoxicating, because I’m in control.
Maybe I’ll get back together with Sam, Nora, and Emily someday. We’ve survived making small talk at a few big parties, so it’s not a scorched-earth situation. Perhaps our relationships would be better the second time around, now that I know I’m completely OK without them. Maybe our friendships could finally be balanced.
Through it all, I’ve learned it can be harder to break up with someone than to get broken up with. I’ve been dumped horribly, so I can’t believe I’m saying that. But it’s true. On top of the pain of separation, there’s tremendous guilt over being the bad guy and confusion over whether you did the right thing. Maybe you did, maybe you didn’t. But hopefully your real friends will love you either way.