Is it OK for BFFs to not actually last forever?

There’s a saying about friendships that goes something like this: ‘We have three types of friends: friends for a reason, friends for a season, and friends for a lifetime.’ Of course, there are no hard and fast rules about these sorts of things, but clearly, the sentiment resonates. So let’s talk about it. Specifically, let’s talk about perhaps the trickiest one: friends for a season. The idea behind this is that some friends are right for a period of our life. Maybe it’s for months, maybe years, but there’s a beginning and an end to the relationship.

And, apparently, it’s not an uncommon experience. According to a UK poll by Disney, the average friendship lasts for 17 years. Another study from researchers from Aalto University in Finland, and the University of Oxford, took a look at the ways that friendships evolve throughout our lives. In order to do so, they reviewed data from three million phone users to identify the frequency and patterns of who they were contacting, and when, as well as overall activity within their networks. What they found was that men and women tended to make more friends – being ‘socially promiscuous’ – up until the age of 25. After that, the researchers saw a drop in the number of friends people had.

Many of us will go through life entering different eras – school, work, university, moving away, starting a family, changing jobs, picking up new interests – we evolve with time, and sometimes the friendships that were so valuable to us are not, or cannot be, fulfilling. Sometimes they end with a confrontation, sometimes they just quietly fade away. Either way, the end of a friendship isn’t something we’re overly accustomed to, making them difficult to deal with. But we have some advice to help you navigate these times.

Is there a right way to end a friendship?

Yes, and also no. If a friendship just fizzles out over time, with no ill-wishes, perhaps simply because you’ve become different people with different priorities, and there are no burning questions or unfulfilled needs from either party, then there’s not necessarily anything wrong with just letting it be.

But when it comes to ending a friendship that has turned sour – perhaps because they overstep your new boundaries, or a change in priorities or lifestyle has caused disagreements – you may need to take a more direct approach.

The same rules for confrontation that apply to romantic relationships work here. Try to approach the person when you are not at the height of your emotions, so you can remain calm. Use ‘I’ statements to express how you feel – for example, ‘I feel like my boundaries are not being respected,’ rather than ‘You always cross the line.’ You can go into detail if you need to, and be willing to answer questions if you can. But if the conversation turns hostile or aggressive, know that you’re under no obligation to remain in it. And then, like with a romantic relationship, make it clear what you want to do next, for example: ‘I think it would be best if we didn’t see each other anymore.’

Actually, it can be a big deal.

“The ending of an important friendship can feel devastating, but the impact isn’t as widely recognised as it could be,” says life coach Henrietta Bond.

“Tell your manager that your partner has just finished the relationship, and they’re likely to suggest you take a few days off. Tell this same person that your best friend has just said that the friendship is over, and they’ll probably respond with sympathy, but they won’t be suggesting compassionate leave.”

Likely stemming from society’s tunnel vision towards an idea of ‘the one’, many of us have a tendency to place romantic relationships on an entirely different level from friendships. And yes, they are different, but they can also be equally important and fulfilling, in their own ways.

“Recognise this event for what it is: a major loss in your life,” Henrietta says. “Even if you’re the one who has ended the friendship – for whatever reason – it’s still going to have a huge impact on you. In many ways, it’s not so different from a bereavement, and you need time to mourn what has been lost.”

Make space for your feelings

Maybe friendship breakups take us back to playground squabbles, and that’s another reason why we tend to push the associated feelings to one side. But when we do that, we never really deal with them, and those feelings can morph into bigger things, or leave unresolved questions lurking at the back of our minds.

“Just the same as with any other type of major loss, you need to take very good care of yourself,” Henrietta says. “Other friends, your partner, or relatives may want to cheer you up, but you do need space to feel your feelings and grieve for what is gone.

“Be very kind to yourself while you are adjusting to the massive gap in your life your friend has left. And use that time to be your own best friend – asking your mind and body what they need at this painful time. If you want to curl up under the duvet and howl, then that’s OK. If you want to sit in front of the TV, eat pizza and ice cream, and cry over all the films you and your friend watched together, that’s also OK.”

That said, Henrietta finishes with a note that there are no ‘normals’ when it comes to adjusting to the loss. The way you do it may look entirely different to what’s described here. The only thing to make sure of is that you’re making progress with your grief, and that, once the initial aftermath is over, it isn’t preventing you from going about your day-to-day. If that is the case, it might be time to reach out to a mental health professional.

The dawning of a new season

Once the heartbreak has gone, and our lives have moved forward down their natural courses, we might be able to turn back and look at our seasonal friendships with a kind eye. When you needed each other, you both were there, and they were likely to be the right person for that time.

Things don’t have to last forever in order for them to be valuable, to teach you new things, to bring you joy, and to serve their purpose. Friendships are complex things, but maybe we need to think of them on more simple terms. Maybe it’s time to add another saying to your collection: ‘To every thing there is a season.’ There is a right time for everything.

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