Friends Forever?

By Julia Feldmeier
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, September 30, 2007

According to WikiHow, the online how-to manual, the recipe for breaking up with friends and burning bridges in the process requires a handful of ingredients: popsicle sticks, glue, personal friendship mementos and lighter fluid. Also, a friend with whom you no longer want to associate. Of course.

The popsicle sticks, instructions say, are used to build a bridge that symbolizes the good days of your friendship, decorated with related artifacts. (One suggestion: "wedding pictures work great.") Promptly call the person with whom you're about to sever ties and explain, in harsh detail, why he or she is no longer your friend. Lastly, the site says, set the bridge on fire and "release joyous laughter" after you have "simplified your life by trimming the fat of an unwanted friend."

If only it were that easy. Breaking up, after all, is hard to do. Especially with friends. Sure, there are clean, organic breakups. Childhood pals who eventually -- and understandably -- grow apart. Or freshman hallmates who befriended each other on the first day of college but, one month into the semester, begin to eat meals with friends from class and gravitate toward different parties, different social networks. The casual drop-in, so frequent and welcome at the start of school, fades to small talk in the hallway. A mutual breakup of sorts.

But what about when it's one-sided? When you've decided that a friendship is toxic -- more destructive than beneficial -- how do you end it? And when you value some friends more than others, what happens to those on the bottom rung of your friendship ladder? A romantic breakup is socially accepted; the need to sever ties is understood. So, too, is a natural demise to friendship, a petering out over distance and time. But when there are no ordinary circumstances to facilitate a friend breakup, what does it mean to decide you've given up on someone? Is there an active way to cut yourself loose -- without burning bridges?

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First, an unreturned phone call and an ignored text message. Then a delayed e-mail, mildly apologetic, but, alas, life has been so hectic, so busy. You'll get together soon, really! The use of exclamation points is intended to suggest sincerity, earnestness.

This, of course, is misleading. It's the phaseout, the nonconfrontational and oft-preferred method of ending relationships. Patti Kelley Criswell, co-author of "A Smart Girl's Guide to Friendship Troubles" (American Girl, 2003), recommends this approach. "To make it less formal is always preferable, because then there's not formal rejection," she says. "You're not wounding, you're just slowly pulling away and being busy."

All well and good, but when this tactic is used in romantic relationships, it's considered heartless. What gives? Presumably, "we only have one person that we're sleeping with," Criswell says. Friendships, by contrast, "are not monogamous; this isn't your one person."

As one 25-year-old D.C. resident recently discovered, the phaseout hinges on the other person's taking the hint. Emily, who spoke on the condition that her last name not be used, realized that a friendship had turned toxic when the woman repeatedly insulted her boyfriend and offended her other friends. So she began ignoring phone calls, texts and e-mails, hoping avoidance would signal the relationship's demise. It didn't.

"Every once in a while, she would dupe me into feeling like a terrible person, and I would invite her to a party or just to hang out, and each time, she made me and everyone else uncomfortable," Emily says.

The last time they spoke was when the friend called her at work from an unknown phone number. "I picked up not knowing who it was. I made some random excuse to get off the line and then never called back," she says. "You would think a person would get the hint, but clearly, no. She keeps texting, and I keep ignoring."

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