The Acute Grief of a Friend Breakup

We have guidelines for dealing with romantic breakups — ice cream, mostly. But what happens when you break up with your best friend?

friend breakup

A friend breakup brings a different kind of grief. / Illustration by Brian Rea

If I remember correctly, my first breakup was with a kid named Anthony sometime in the seventh grade. I’ve forgotten the specifics, but I think our friends did the dirty work for us, feverishly ferrying our directives across the middle-school hallway like carrier pigeons. I don’t remember how long we were together — three weeks? Four? — but I’m pretty sure that I cried afterwards.

I know that I cried after my last breakup, this time carried out over the phone with a guy named Dan sometime in that foggy precipice between college and adulthood. There were plenty of breakups in between — a few over the phone, several in person, some fizzling out slowly, others blowing up like a grenade. (Some didn’t even happen at all, come to think of it. I’m technically still with DJ, the boy I married on the playground in third grade.) I probably cried over all of them.

Then along came my husband, which was great for a million reasons, not the least of which was knowing that I’d never have to go through a breakup again. Because while the will-they-or-won’t-they uncertainty of dating is exhilarating, intoxicating, it’s also exhausting, and sometimes achingly painful. Eventually, you just want to plant your feet on steady ground.

And so we did, welcoming the quiet comfort that comes with stability. Sure, things weren’t always steady, because things never are — I lost a job, he lost a parent, we lost a pregnancy — but our feet were planted. The days of breakups and broken hearts were behind me.

Or so I thought.

You don’t buy a house just because of the neighbors, but if you did, I would have bought ours.

Turns out that when the ground is steady and you plant your feet, you tend to grow roots, and mine ended up snaking back to Yardley, where I grew up. The house was perfectly lovely, with charming eaves, a big yard, a pool. And, just next to it, a tidy colonial and a couple our age, about to have their first baby.

What luck! We were also having a baby! What a happy coincidence to live next to someone as sleep-deprived and unsure of things as you! How acutely comforting to see another nursery light wink on in the middle of the night; how convenient to run next door when you realize you’re out of diapers, or Aquaphor, or baking powder, or wine. “Can you come over and look at this rash?” I’d ask. “Do you have an extra pack of baby wipes?” she’d say.

Research has suggested that it takes spending roughly 40 to 60 hours with an acquaintance for said acquaintance to become a casual friend, 80 to 100 hours for a casual friend to become a friend-friend, and more than 200 hours for someone to notch up to best-friend status. When you live next to someone who’s also fumbling through the funk of babyhood, it’s pretty easy to rack up hours together. Motherhood can be isolating, so we clung to one another, clocking marathons of miles with our strollers. A few years later, we’d see other pairs of new moms looping the same streets with their babies. Version 2.0, we’d call them.

Eventually the strollers were stuffed in the backs of garages, and we’d trail behind the kids as they rumbled through the neighborhood in battery-operated vehicles — a Barbie-pink Jeep, a John Deere tractor, thick as thieves. “Wouldn’t it be funny,” we’d muse, “if they got married one day?” Five minutes or a hundred years later, the Jeep and tractor were permanently parked, and we watched from her stoop as they pedaled bikes from driveway to driveway, rocking unsteadily on training wheels.

If our friendship was the product of circumstance, a nice perk of proximity and good timing, it didn’t feel like it. We fit together, even though we were as different as our houses — hers bordered by prim boxwoods, mine dotted with messy bursts of lavender; hers with a proper Pottery Barn living room, mine with a disco ball dangling in the sitting room; her politics leaning conservative, mine far less so; her emotions very restrained, mine always on the verge of bubbling over.

The only time I saw her cry was four years after we first met, on the morning that my house burned down. We stood next to each other and watched helplessly as bright orange flames licked up the eaves and smoke plumed overhead. “You know I never cry,” she wept as she held me up, “but I am just so, so sorry.”

We were out of the house for nearly two years while we battled our bloodsucking insurance company, grappled with COVID delays, and rebuilt our life from the dirt up. It was traumatic for all of us, and trauma changes you. My ground wasn’t steady anymore.­ We’d been uprooted.

I’m not sure when things began to ice over between us, but they did, even as I ignored it. In retrospect, the fire might have been the start. There were signs, and had I been looking, I might have seen them. The kids were in preschool now. We were no longer neighbors — we moved in with my parents after the fire — and cracks in her and her husband’s patience with our rebuild process were starting to show. But my life was in disarray, and I was busy being an amateur project manager, pacing our construction site daily with a notebook crammed full of ideas and to-dos. And anyway, I wouldn’t have known what signs to look for. They’re clearer in a romantic relationship — the proverbial lipstick on the collar or trace of unfamiliar cologne, dwindling declarations of love, less sex.

By the time we moved back in, they’d uprooted, too, moving out to another county. Better school for her daughter, she explained; closer to family; away, it seemed, from our mess. We were still friends when the FOR SALE sign went up. It wasn’t a breakup, I assumed — ice thaws, and she wasn’t moving far! — but still, I cried. Soon after, we had dinner with our group of mom friends, which ended in a chilly hug. I didn’t know what had happened, what I’d done, where things had veered off course. I left the dinner feeling uneasy and off-kilter. Just as we’d never put up a fence to completely wall off our property from theirs, our yards as interconnected as our lives, I’d also never put up my guard. You know to protect your heart in a romantic relationship, but there’s not that same instinct with friendship.

I would have cried that night, too, but I didn’t realize this was a breakup — that she’d never talk to me again or that days later, they would plant a SOLD sign in their yard, then pack up and move away without saying goodbye.

The only thing that surprised me more than this turn of events was my reaction to it. There I was, nearing 40, back on steady ground with a (new) house, a solid marriage, and a sweet little five-year-old — crying over what felt shockingly like a broken heart. It had been 17 years since my last breakup, so I was sorely out of practice.

Had I been … dumped?

I never really gave all that much thought to my friendships before. I’d been lucky that they always came easily and stuck around. Friends naturally drifted in and out of focus, as friends do, but when the big stuff hit, they’d launch from the periphery to smack-dab center, bearing cards, or Kleenex, or flowers, or homemade challah, or in one case, a bottle of Baileys Irish Cream deposited unceremoniously at my front door in a brown paper bag. (“This stuff is so gross, but I know you like it, so here you go. Hope you feel better,” the card said.)

I suspect this is true of a lot of us — that our friendships are straightforward and steady. Unlike love, the beginning of a friendship often feels less like a delirious head-over-heels rush and more like quiet relief: Oh, thank goodness, someone to play with at recess, someone to sit next to in the cafeteria, someone to live with at college, someone to confide in at work. There’s less pinning of hopes, less compulsory intermingling of things like finances and families and faith; less, then, to fight about, less complication.

But all of this less makes it easier to walk away.

It also makes it easier for society to de-legitimize friendship, according to psychologist Marisa Franco, whose recently published book, Platonic, is something of a friendship guide, steeped in the science of attachment. (You’re either a secure, an anxious or an avoidant attacher, and figuring this out can help you more deftly navigate your friendships, she writes.) If anyone could put a name to what I was feeling, she could.

“Because of the nature of how we devalue friendship, I think a lot of people who lose a friend and are so impacted by it feel like they shouldn’t be or that they can’t be. You experience something called ‘disenfranchised grief,’” she says to me one morning over Zoom. In other words: pain, and nowhere to put it. There’s a well-worn formula for getting through a romantic breakup (ice cream, impulsive haircuts, hazy nights out with friends, assurances about fish in the sea). We throw divorce parties, for God’s sake. But there’s no blueprint for friendship divorces. Everybody talks about how hard it is to make friends, but nobody ever talks about how hard it is to lose them.

Well, unless you ask.

“It was June 6th; I remember that date. It was the last time I’ve spoken to her,” says my colleague, Laura. She’s talking about her best friend of 30 years, who dumped her via text message a year and a half ago. Things came to a head six weeks before Laura’s wedding — tension about bachelorette-party plans and pandemic-era plus-ones, certainly nothing so big and irrevocable that it could end a friendship.

“That’s when I got the text message that was like, ‘I’m going to have to step down as your maid of honor. We don’t agree on things, but I hope you have a great day and a great wedding and a great rest of your life. Wish you all the best!’” Laura’s voice rises an octave. “That’s how she ended the text. WITH THE EXCLAMATION POINT!”

Laura called her incessantly and frantically reached out to her friend’s family, who, over the course of three decades, had become hers, too. Had it been a romance, they’d probably have called her the crazy ex-girlfriend.

“I spiraled,” she says. Finally, though, a break in the ice: Her friend agreed to meet her at a Panera early one morning before work. Laura had 10 minutes to plead her case. “Please,” she said. “I don’t want to lose you.” But she’d already lost.

“I’ll never forget looking at her as she got up to leave. I said, ‘Wait, does this mean we’re not friends anymore?’” Laura quiets. “It didn’t feel like a breakup. It felt like I was mourning a death.”

Keep asking, and you’ll hear more stories like this, with varying degrees of drama. There’s the girl who realized her best friend was a kleptomaniac and had been stealing from her. And the best friends who had a standing biweekly manicure date for a decade, only to divorce after the 2016 presidential election. (“One time after they broke up, they ended up in the waiting area together, and you could feel the awkwardness,” the owner of the nail salon says with a grimace.)

And there’s the woman whose best mom friend got divorced, lost a ton of weight, and promptly ditched her for other equally single, skinny women. “It’s because I’m fat and she’s not anymore,” she says matter-of-factly. I tell her that’s not true. Plenty of friendships end like this — people shedding their old lives and all that’s in them like a snake sloughing off its skin.

Maybe that was it, I think. Maybe my friend was shedding her old life. Maybe I was just collateral damage.

Or maybe we’re doing this friendship thing all wrong.

“It’s wild to me the way we compartmentalize relationships — marriage and friendships,” Franco says. “Intimacy is intimacy.”

The problem with friendship, she explains, is that we don’t make the unsaid said. We let things go, brush things off, tamp things down, all in the name of being a Good Friend. Even though we all know how important friendships are (a 2015 study in Perspectives on Psychological Science found that social isolation is as toxic to our bodies as smoking 15 cigarettes a day), the stakes with friendship always seem, somehow, lower. In a marriage, you’re forced to disentangle the knots. In a friendship, you can break out the scissors.

“There is no intimacy without some degree of conflict, and we’re less likely to work through conflict with our friends than with our spouses,” Franco says. “But imagine having a marriage where you’re like, ‘I expect us to never have disagreements. And if we do, we need to get a divorce.’” Plus, she adds, a study found that having open conflict in an empathetic way is linked to deeper intimacy. Why wouldn’t we want this?

And yet we assume (or at least I did) that friend drama is confined to middle school, where best friends can become sworn enemies in the span of a lunch hour, or Real Housewives, where sparkly women toss wine in each other’s faces. Surely we’re above and beyond all that. But conflict, if we do it right, makes us closer. It knots us more tightly, makes things worth untangling. Maybe if my friend and I had known this, we’d have waded into the fray. Or maybe not.

As I write this, I’m sitting in my bedroom, which looks almost the same as it did before it burned down — lofty ceiling, a gently curving back wall, a huge bank of windows overlooking our backyard. There’s the pool, where my friend and I tried to teach our kids how to swim. And our swing set, which got considerably less use than the one in my friend’s yard. Theirs was newer, with a tiny kitchen from which our kids would serve us sticks and leaves on plastic plates. We’d watch them from the patio and wonder about their future. They’d always remember each other, we said, even when they grew up and found new ground. You don’t forget your first best friend.

Through the trees, I can see my old elementary school from up here, the place where I made my first best friends. The kindergartners are out for recess now — I see bright flashes of color tearing around the playground; on the swings, tiny legs stretch to the sky. I squint, trying to spot my son. He’s great at making friends.

If I look through another window, I can see glimpses of the yard next door. Things look different now. The new neighbors are wonderful — a daughter in high school, a son in college, a big friendly dog. They gave my son a Spider-Man Lego set for Halloween, winning him over completely. They planted a rainbow of mums in the front yard. They cut down some trees. They took down the swing set in the backyard.

And we put up a fence.

Published as “End of the Road” in the December 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.