A friendship breakup can be worse than one with a partner

‘I just don’t feel like we have anything in common anymore.’ I still remember the words like a sting; a definitive, final statement after a months-long steady drip feed of cancelled plans and unanswered text messages.

We’d met at school – both latecomers to the class, me arriving from Liverpool in Year 8, her arriving from the considerably more exotic Melbourne in Year 9. Our meet-cute was fantastic: bonding over a love of The Cure after she heard me singing ‘The Lovecats’ under my breath on the way into art class.

She was witty – animated – hilarious – fun! The kind of person you could dance the night away with, staying up talking to into the early hours when you eventually got home, and then trade book recommendations before you parted the next day.

When we met, there was that sense of infinity that you get when you make a new, close friend; the sense that this might well go on forever, because unlike romantic relationships there were no difficult choices to be made. Friendship has always, for me, felt like oxygen – the uncomplicated, boundary-less, life-giving love that sustains you among all the other more complex relationships in your life. But this was, it turned out, was to be the exception. Although we navigated the best part of a decade together – sleepovers, holidays, music festivals, G&T fuelled nights out, cup of tea fuelled nights in – ultimately we drifted apart in the final year of university. And then, abruptly, things fell apart; I was friend-dumped, without quite knowing why.

Looking back, I’m not sure what did go wrong; and to be honest it still feels like a failure. I question what I did or didn’t do – whether I could have intervened to save the friendship. But my friend had drifted from most of our other school friends; not just me. Perhaps she was right, we were just on different paths – and if I’d learnt anything from my dating life it was to let people go if they didn’t want to be with you. So why did it hurt so much?

According to Dr Marianne Trent, clinical psychologist at Good Thinking Psychology, friendship break-ups can often be associated with a sense of mourning. Often, your friendships predate your romantic relationships, for instance if they were made at school or university. “You bear witness to different parts of each others’ lives, so when you lose a friendship, you also lose someone you can fondly recollect on those memories with”. And it’s true; I’ll never quite remember what happened at Leeds ‘08, and I miss my friend’s parodic impersonations of all our school teachers.

But it’s not just a sense of lost memories you mourn; there’s also the loss of a future you never had together. I remember feeling this way a couple of years ago, with a friend I met at a previous workplace. It began as a whirlwind friendship: a month after meeting, we went straight to texting every evening and meeting up at the weekends. But things fell apart during lockdown, and ultimately it became clear that there was no way forward for the friends – this, more of a drift than a formal break-up. While there were few memories to mourn – so the ending didn’t feel as intense as it had with my school friend, there was still a loss of potential; of what could have been, the memories we could have had; the trips we’d talked about; the dinners with our respective future families.

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