The ever-wise and prophetic Ariana Grande once sung, “Break up with your girlfriend, cause I’m bored.” Well, we’re not the best at singing — and we can’t rock a high pony at all like she can — but we are here to talk to you about breaking up. More specifically, with your friends. Not because you’re bored of them, but because you’ve outgrown them.
And yes, we know we were just walking you through how to make friends as an adult. We still stand by that. But there’s actual science between how many people you can have in your life at once — and sometimes, people at the fringes might need the boot.
It’s known as Dunbar’s Rule. Yeah, it’s a rule, that was originally hypothesised by British anthropologist Robin Dunbar. Essentially, you have circles of friendships: the closest has five people, loved ones; followed by a successive layer containing 15 good friends; 50 friends; 150 meaningful contacts, and 500 acquaintances.
So how do you go about breaking up with a friend? You know we love an expert opinion here at The Latch, so we spoke to leading love and relationship expert, Dr Lurve, and Lysn psychologist Noosha Anzab to talk exactly how to navigate a friendship breakup —assuming you’re the instigator.
Why are friendships so important as an adult in the first place?
Since children, we’ve known the power of friendship. Sharing snacks over the sandbox, sharing secrets in the classroom, sharing stories of first dates, sharing shoulders to cry on when it comes to first heartbreaks. We can recall the names of best friends we’ve had throughout the years.
Why do they seem to hold extra significance in adulthood? It’s like Dr Lurve says, “Friendships are important during every stage of life; however, they’re especially important as an adult.”
“As adults, we yearn for emotional intimacy and closeness,” says Anzab. Oh, and they also have an important impact on our health. “Healthy adult friendships are found to release stress-reducing hormones and relieve harmful levels of stress — that can otherwise affect coronary arteries, gut function, our immune system, even insulin regulation.”
Dr Lurve agrees, saying “We’re profoundly shaped by the people around us, and friends help us cope with life situations and provide a pillar of support for both good and bad times.”
Why are some friendships only for ‘phases’?
“Our lives aren’t the only thing that comes in phases,” explains Anzab, “Friendships usually involve a phase of formation, then a long-or-short term phase of maintenance followed by dissolution.”
In fact, the length of these friendship phases and our different life phases often coincide. “There are a lot of factors at play, such as the friendships availability, level of support, demands on our time, communication and mutual understanding.”
Dr Lurve explains that some friendships are because of shared similar experiences, giving the example of friends who are engaged or pregnant at similar times, or those who experience heartbreak at the same time. “Some friendships [are] due to convenience; location proximity, you could work together, your partners could be friends.”
How can I tell if I’ve outgrown a friendship?
The consensus here is that it’s fairly obvious if you’ve outgrown a friendship — whether it’s dreaded and excessive emotional labour, extra effort in maintenance, feelings of one-sidedness, or it seems like you lack anything in common anymore.
“If you notice you have stopped prioritising the friendship or feel as though you have evolved past it, then that’s a good indicator that you’ve surpassed the relationship and that the relationship has run its course,” Anzab points out.
Dr Lurve explains that it may be because they’re in a different phase of their life, or that perhaps you are. She emphasises the fact that “it doesn’t have to be a negative thing, as it’s completely normal to outgrow friendships during the different phases of life”.
Ok, I’ve outgrown it. Should I continue to see them out of duty or what?
“There’s no wrong or right approach to breaking up with a friend or simply easing them out of your life,” says Anzab. But one thing that’s for certain, she continues, is that “you shouldn’t continue a friendship out of duty — doing so can cause a lot of anxiety and stress that’s avoidable.” Dr Lurve agrees, saying that seeing people out of duty means you may come to resent the relationship.
Why? Because you aren’t being true to your own feelings or values — you’re ticking someone else’s check box and putting their feelings ahead of your own. “It’s a way of appeasement,” explains Anzab.
So…how do I break up with a friend?
Feelings are important here, and cutting someone off abruptly, ghosting them, or not having boundaries around the friendship can cause a lot of hurt for the person being broken up with and the person doing the breaking up.
“Gradually letting the social interaction and relationship with the person naturally close is an easy way of letting a friendship go without the dread of confrontation,” says Anzab. Dr Lurve agrees with this sentiment, suggesting phasing out a friendship organically. “If you can approach it slowly, in a subtle and kind way, then chances are no one’s feelings will get hurt,” she says.
Anzab does acknowledge that “for some, having a talk and breaking up as such feels more natural and if that’s the case, it is important to explore your feelings without aggression and a gentle closure.” Dr Lurve suggests explaining that you feel you’re in different phases in life, and it could be an idea to take a break. “It’s important to treat your friend fairly even though you may not want to be friends anymore.”
Some people may prefer setting strong boundaries and formally ending things. Anzab advises how to navigate this space, saying: “It’s important you be true to yourself and explore your feelings, which leaves a great opportunity to lead with ‘I’ statements rather than ‘you’ statements.” If you’re clear in communication, it can eliminate the direct hurting of feelings.
One last tip for navigating what can be a tricky area: “Treat them as though you would like to be treated — with respect and kindness,” advises Dr Lurve.