Think back to your early days on the playground. Remember how quickly you buddied up with the kid on the slide? Unfortunately, adult friendships don’t always work that way.
With less time and fewer opportunities to cultivate close friendships, it can be difficult to make new friends. But does that also explain why it’s so hard to leave old friends? Dr. Allison Forti, an assistant teaching professor in Wake Forest University’s counseling department, says due to this lack of time and opportunities, we tend to put more weight into the friends we do have and may feel more willing to tolerate less than perfect relationships. The question then is: what happens when this tolerance turns to avoidance? If you find yourself avoiding a friend group, canceling plans or frequently making excuses for why you can’t join them, it might be time to bow out.
Leaving a social group on “friendly terms” without cutting ties is tricky, but not impossible. Adult friendships are often cultivated around a shared identity. Maybe you’re part of a group that revolves around the friendships your kids have, or you’re a member of a running or cycling group that has evolved into friendship beyond exercise. Whatever the connection may be, if it feels like a connection has run its course, you might be wondering how to bow out on good terms. Fortunately, most friendships have a natural life cycle. Forti says that leaving a certain friend or group usually comes along with a shift in identity (your kids have grown, you no longer run as often, etc.). And when you naturally outgrow these groups, the intensity of the relationships tends to diminish and the parting of ways can happen on good terms.
Friends also fade away during pivotal transition points, such as moving away, getting married, having children, or starting a new job. In these situations, Forti says breaking ties may not require an upfront conversation about the relationship. It may simply evolve organically over time until you no longer spend time together. She suggests setting boundaries to facilitate a natural fade away so you can remain cordial over time. You can do this by limiting your time with the friend or no longer maintaining the familiar role in the relationship. Taking ownership of the changes in your life is also important during this process. Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D., and author of the book, “Toxic Friendships: Knowing the Rules and Dealing with Friends Who Break Them”, suggests avoiding the “I’m too busy excuse,” when not actively participating in a group. “Unfortunately, it might be true in some cases, but when you feel you’re outgrowing a social group, using the busy excuse is probably worse than honestly admitting your time is being spent in alternate pursuits, groups, or activities,” she says.
Knowing when to exit a friend group can be difficult. Forti says it might be time to end a relationship if you consistently feel drained or worse off after spending time together. Healthy relationships are (generally) uplifting and energizing—you shouldn’t feel emotionally exhausted or spent after having coffee or taking a stroll in the park. She also suggests leaving if the relationship is one-sided. “If you know every detail about your friend’s life but they don’t even remember your child’s name, that is a sign the friend is taking advantage of you. They are getting their needs met but you may not be getting your needs met.” Degges-White says if a group seems to be stuck in activities that just don’t interest you any longer or when members of the group seem less interested in your thoughts, suggestions, or conversations, it might be time to leave.
Having a heart-to-heart with a few of your closest friends probably sounds nerve-racking. After all, there is no easy way to tell someone that you don’t want to be friends with them anymore. Degges-White notes that if the group is strong and stable whether you’re a part of it or not, you may not need to say much once your involvement wanes. “Friendships are built on mutual affection and mutual investments in the relationship. If your feelings are shifting, your friends probably recognize that something is different about you,” she says. This may help break the ice and allow for conversation to happen more naturally. With larger groups, there are usually some specific connections that matter more than others. Degges-White says these are the people you might want to reach out to as you begin to move on. If these are relationships you want to maintain, try to develop friendships outside of the larger group. And if you anticipate hurt feelings, you may want to proactively spend time one-on-one with those people you feel will be the most affected by your departure. When you do confront your friends, Forti suggests keeping the focus of the conversation on your experiences in the relationship by using “I” statements. This can help to reduce the risk of the other person feeling attacked or misunderstood. She also recommends avoiding any blame or criticism of others. Starting a sentence with “You always…” means you are entering this territory. Most importantly, Fortis encourages us to remember that we have a right to be in healthy relationships where we can be our authentic self and feel respected and fulfilled.
Leaving a social group without cutting ties is tricky, but not impossible.