When adult friendships fail: How to break up with a friend

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Throughout life, the roles our friends play in our lives change. Copyright Thomas Barwick Getty Images
Copyright Thomas Barwick Getty Images
By Sarah DiGiulio with NBC News
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Sometimes we need to cut our friends some slack. Sometimes we just need to call it quits.

Some friendships are the type that start on the playground or before we can even remember — and last through graduations, moves, marriages and all of life's ups and downs. These are the friends who may or may not be in our everyday lives, but we know they'll always be there when we need them and they'll always care.

Most friendships, however, aren't that type, says Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, Professor and Chair of the Department of Counseling at Northern Illinois University and author of the books, "Toxic Friendships: Knowing the Rules and Dealing with the Friends who Break Them."

"We change and our friends change over time — as do circumstances and new social goals," Degges-White tells NBC News BETTER.

That means some friendships morph over time (after people get married, for example, plutonic friends start to fill different needs in our lives) and some friendships just fizzle out and end.

Why Friendships Start and Why They End

One of the biggest reasons we become friends with people in the first place is physical proximity, explains Mahzad Hojjat, PhD, Professor of Social Psychology at the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth and co-editor of "The Psychology of Friendship," says.

"We tend to become friends with people who we see a lot," she explains: people who live near us, work with us or people we do activities with. (Numerous studies back this up.)

"And we tend to become friends with people who are similar to us," Hojjat adds. People who are like us tend to like us because whatever we share helps validate our own tastes, values and preferences — and fill a practical need, Hojjat says. If we both like to play tennis, if we become friends we have a new tennis partner. If we like horror movies, we now have someone to watch them with.

And throughout life, the roles our friends play in our lives also change. For example, when we get married or become parents, we need friends who do the same because we bond over the challenges those changes bring.

People who are like us tend to like us because whatever we share helps validate our own tastes, values and preferences — and fill a practical need.

But, for all the same reasons friendships begin, friendships end, too, Degges-White says. "When [a neighbor] moves away, the friendship might 'move away,' too. … And at some point those 'soccer moms' might not be the friends that we need any longer — or even want anymore."

Some friendships will inevitably just fade away when circumstance like a job changes or you stop going to those kickboxing classes. And in other cases, you may be better off intentionally putting less effort into a friendship.

What's the Right Time for a Friend Breakup?

If a friendship does start to feel one-sided — that you're the one constantly reaching out — it's a definite sign that something may be up and that relationship may not be as healthy as it could be. Ask yourself: Are you better off with them or without them?, Degges-White says.

Here are a few cues it may be time to invest a little less:

  • The big no-no's: If someone is stealing from you, spreading rumors, lying to you or not supporting you, those are all pretty major transgressions that break the commitment that fundamental define what a friend is, Hojjat says.
  • If there's more negative than positive: There shouldn't be more wrong with a friendship than there is right, Hojjat says. "Spend time with people who truly care about you and are supportive."
  • You feel worse, not better, after spending time with a friend: Sure we all might get caught up lamenting a work problem or breakup from time to time. But when interactions are repeatedly no longer fun, take note, Degges-White says.
  • Your friend has no redeeming qualities: Maybe a friend is always up for a round of golf or they're the neighbor who'll grab our mail when we're away — even if we don't like everything about that person, Degges-White says. But if you're not getting anything out of that friendship and it puts you in a bad mood, be wary.
  • If a friend is constantly putting you off or canceling plans: "You can forgive the first time or two, but if the pattern continues you need to decide whether this is [your friend's] way of cutting you out," Degges-White says — or find out if something else is going on.
  • If you find yourself ignoring texts, not returning calls, and not wanting to find time in your schedule for a person: That's your own red flag the relationship isn't bringing you what it once did or ought to, Degges-White says.

When to Cut Your Friends Some Slack

The caveat is, don't give up too quickly, notes Hojjat. Some people do have a tendency to withdraw if they're going through a tough time (a lost job, divorce or some other problem), she says. "If you're really interested and committed to that friendship, exhaust all reasons why that person is not calling you back or reaching out before you call it quits on the friendship. Stay resilient."

Sometimes you just need to cut your friends some slack, adds Degges-White. "All of us hit rough patches in our lives when we get caught up in our own 'stuff' and have little time left for friendships or other leisure pursuits."

And finally sometimes adjusting your expectations for the relationship helps, but you don't have to cut out that friend completely, adds Irene S. Levine, PhD, Psychologist and Professor of Psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine. "Accept the positive aspects of this friendship and look to other people to fill some of the gaps."

And remember: Always be thoughtful about ending friendship, says Levine. It's harder to go rekindle a friendship after you've hit the brakes.

But don't feel guilty about cutting ties when a friendship isn't worth it, Degges-White adds: "If you've given the relationship a fair chance and you are just not getting what you need from the relationship, it is absolutely okay to move on."

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