How to End a Friendship: What to Say When You’ve Grown Apart

Friendships don't fit certain times in our lives. But that doesn't mean a bridge should be burned.

Jonathan Muroya for Fatherly

Your friend was up for any road trip. He told the best jokes and he’d draw everybody in the bar to your table. You never could imagine life being any better or being without him.

But now the jokes aren’t as funny and your life is about permission slips and putting together/taking apart/not stepping on LEGOs. You’re lucky if you’re not asleep by 10 p.m. But he still is texting requests to meet up.

You’re not feeling it. Getting together isn’t the same, and you’re wondering if you’re still friends.

Mostly likely you’re not. Friends are important, and, for men, often hard to maintain. Losing some friends to fatherhood is often inevitable. The friend in question might be making it easy with his attempts of “going back to 17 and doing crazy-ass shit,” and making you think “damn, this person sucks,” says Jeff Bostic, psychiatrist at MedStar Georgetown University Hospital. But it doesn’t have to be that stark and there doesn’t always have to be a negative reason for a dissolution.

“Good movies end,” adds Noam Shpancer, clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at Otterbein University. The reasons why are many: geography, jobs, family. Mostly, it’s about time, says Inna Khazan, clinical psychologist in Boston. Once kids come into the picture, personal time shrinks. When you’re faced with doing something, you ask, “Is this worth it?”

Your friends get put through that test, and a lot don’t survive. There’s nothing wrong with that. As our life and needs shift so do the people with whom we surround ourselves. On average, a friendship lasts about 10 years, Bostic says, and if we’re lucky, we have four essential people who endure through all phases of life.

As you move out from the center, it goes from solid friends to acquaintances on the outer edge, those who you say “Hi” to, feel good about, but don’t hang with. The borders aren’t fixed. People can be constantly moving in and out depending on circumstance, tastes, and, often, proximity.

But what you’re facing is the prospect of one of your friendships being over and you’re not sure exactly how to handle it. Do you say something or just let it trail off? You might not want to hear this, but it’s that second one. But first you have to answer a question: How do you know the friendship is done?

When to End a Friendship: The Questions to Ask

Answering the above question doesn’t actually require that in-depth a process. But it helps to go over the basics to realize this fact. A good friend comes down to congeniality, caring and integrity, per Bostic, and you should answer yes on three questions:

  • Is the person fun to be around?
  • Does this person have your back?
  • Does this person tell the truth and keep confidence?

It can even be simpler, Khazan says. Ask yourself: Do you like this person, or does the prospect of seeing him cause stress? It’s not more complicated than that. If you’re always finding excuses, the friendship is on its way out.

Once you come to this realization, the next question is the hardest to answer: What do you do?

So, How Do You End a Friendship?

When you decide that it’s time to part ways with your friend, what’s the best move? Part of you is likely advocating that you be an adult and direct in your conclusion. Rip off the bandaid, etc. But here’s the thing: There’s no need for that. The fact of the matter was that this person is/was a friend and that person mattered, but, “You’re not dependent on them to survive,” Bostic says.

Instead, he advises that you internally renegotiate the relationship and whenever the idea of getting together is floated, say something along the lines of “I’m just really busy right now,” or, “Next time you’re in town, let’s try to grab a beer.”

Doing this, you shift the expectation. This good friend is now a “reunion friend”, Bostic says. You see each other once a year and old stories get told again. There’s no present or future involved, and there’s no harm in that.

Another option? You do “the fade”, he says, which, yes, is ghosting them. You don’t respond as quickly to texts; done enough, most people will pick up on the clue that you have other priorities that rank higher.

It’s Not Goodbye, It’s See Ya Later

It’s good to be mindful of old friends, even those teetering on obsolescence. The destructive ones? They do you no good and ties must be severed. But the good ones should be nurtured, even if it takes effort and intention, because it still requires less than trying to make new, great friends.

“You’ll benefit down the road,” Shpancer says. “If you neglect them, you’re gonna pay a price.”

Now, it isn’t like you won’t make new friends. It’s certainly harder to do so once you’re out of school, but it’s not impossible. As a parent of young kids, your pool is other parents of young kids and you’ll get the chance to see them regularly in pickup lines, on sidelines, and at the playground.

The interactions might feel forced and slightly inauthentic, but it helps to take the opportunity. These eventual “friends” will make your life easier by watching your kids and saying, “We’ve been through that,” when you share a problem. Maybe you’ll create a lasting friendship, but you most likely won’t hit the depths of your old ones. But so what? You’ve always had basketball, fantasy league, or poker friends, and the limited scope of each group is ample enough for relief and laughs.

“You don’t need to know everyone’s secrets,” Shpancer says.

But older relationships are important, very important. And that’s why, no matter how finished a friendship feels, there’s no point in having an awkward final conversation and burn an unnecessary bridge. Just like your life has shifted and you and that person aren’t in sync, one day you’ll be looking to travel or play bad tennis and the friend you wanted to ditch fits again.

“Humans are chapters in our lives,” Bostic says. “Some people may be more than one, when we’re nine and then 49, and we’re not used to doing that.”