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Ask Elaine: How do I end a 15-year friendship?

(María Alconada Brooks/The Washington Post; iStock)
4 min

Hi Elaine: My gut tells me that it’s time to pivot on a 15-year friendship. I know it’s time to let go. My question is what is the best way to do it? Do I slowly let communication stop and become less responsive or do I have that really hard conversation?

— It’s Time

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Elaine Welteroth writes about big life changes. She’s given advice about finding what’s next after burnout, a friendship that ended in ghosting and changing your mind about your dream job.
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It’s Time: It all depends on the nature of the friendship and why the friendship is ending. Is this someone you speak with or see regularly? Have you been drifting apart or was there a recent dispute? Are there any serious, unresolved matters to settle? Is there anything you need to apologize for? Is there any chance for redemption or is this split final? How you transition depends on how you define a successful split. Is it important to you that they know why you’re walking away? What will make you feel free-er and lighter, now and in the long-term?

There are very few hard rules about how best to end a friendship, except that if this person makes you feel unsafe in any way — psychologically, emotionally, and especially physically — skip a conversation. As someone who has historically craved closure — it’s taken a lot of therapy for me to realize that closure doesn’t always require the other person’s participation. If they have proven to be harmful again and again, there is no requirement to return to the source of your hurt for your healing.

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After 15 years, you know if this friend has the maturity, the capacity for accountability, and the self-awareness to actually hear you out. If they cannot be trusted with your truth, there is no need to give it to them. It’s that simple.

If you’re still considering having the hard conversation, get clear on what you’re seeking from it. Keep your intention at the forefront of every interaction, knowing the only person you can control is you. Your expectations need a hard reset if you hope they will show up to the discussion any differently than they have in the friendship. Happy endings aren’t always a realistic expectation.

Having the breakup conversation also opens you up to hearing what they might say about your role in the demise of the friendship. If you want vindication or are looking for an opportunity to be right, it’s unlikely you’ll walk away feeling satisfied. If you’re seeking validation about your decision to break up or hoping they will apologize and take accountability, you may not be ready for this conversation.

Hard conversations are just that — hard. Before you dive in, it’s important to prepare. Start by writing a letter. It’s a helpful exercise to process the complicated emotions around your decision, collect your thoughts, and prepare your talking points. You may even decide that sending a letter is the best way to communicate your message. But first, it’s important to just write freely, knowing the initial draft belongs to you — not them. This version should be your most unfiltered truth; let it be meandering, messy, and even mean. Fill it up with all the residual toxic waste from the friendship and every good and beautiful feeling, too. The important thing is to get it all out. Put all your unprocessed emotion on the page to avoid it bubbling up in conversation — because whatever you say out loud, you can’t take back.

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Quitting anything cold turkey can be hard as hell — especially relationships. Phasing out the friendship may feel healthier and gentler on both of you. While I am generally not a fan of ghosting or “quiet quitting,” which typically refers to doing the bare minimum at a job you plan to leave, adopting a similar approach as a way of slowly exiting a friendship could feel more appropriate depending on your circumstance. This could look like politely declining when they reach out to make plans or making yourself less available for phone calls. Just be aware that any change of behavior on your end may invite some inquiry. You need to be prepared to answer any direct questions about your distance as honestly and as lovingly as you can.

While releasing someone from your life doesn’t require their permission, it’s important you do so in a way that you won’t regret. If you never speak with this friend again, do you have peace with how you left things? The answer to this question may change over time. And if you ever feel differently (as long as you are both still alive), you can always reach out.

Words hold so much power. So does silence. If you’re still unsure how to navigate the end of your friendship, with time and distance, it will become more clear what is essential to share and what’s better left unsaid.