Why Friendship Breakups Hurt So Much, According to a Couples Therapist

BFF graphic

I have fielded a lot of story ideas over the years and I’ve noticed that writers’ collective obsessions tend to ebb and flow—one year everybody’s pitching their take on the same TV show; the next year all anybody wants to write about is What Skincare Means to Them. But if I had to name something, I think the one topic that’s been the most constant and most frequent source of writers’ (and readers’) interests is the friendship breakup.

It’s such a common experience that it can seem banal on the surface—and yet writers keep pitching it and readers keep asking for stories or advice about it. (The recent Caroline Calloway saga presents perfect evidence of people declaring the whole thing both boring and utterly captivating at once.) I think part of what fascinates us about best friend breakups is that very tension—we don’t think we should care so much, and yet we do. My most recent thought on the matter, aided by Haley’s recent Ask MR, is that maybe we’d make more progress resolving these issues if we treated them as if they mattered as much as our collective interest suggests.

So, that’s why I called Man Repeller’s unofficial therapist laureate, Dr. Orna Guralnik, whose Showtime series Couples Therapy has overtaken our watercooler conversation over at HQ. I asked her about how friendship breakups measure up to romantic ones, if some breakups hurt more than others, and what to do if you want to get your pal back.

People often talk about how emotionally similar romantic and platonic “breakups” can feel. How much truth do you see in that?

Psychoanalytic theory tends to theorize a lot about parental dynamics—development in terms of relationships with mother, father, the primary caretakers—and it under-theorizes about sibling and peer relationships. There’s an ongoing critique of that hyperfocus. So, in the popular mind, we tend to hyperfocus on the primary love object, when in fact people’s social networks are deep and profound with other people in their lives—with friends, with colleagues.

Where do you think that focus comes from?

There’s a sociopolitical economic pressure to prioritize the basic family unit—marriage, kids, and that social structure—over other structures. The way our society is built, there’s more and more pressure on the individual and on the family unit to be the provider, the economic source of safety, instead of the larger-scale social network supporting the individual. It’s tied in with capitalism, but it’s tied in deep with neoliberalism too. It’s probably been getting worse since the Reagan era. There are economic reasons to emphasize the family unit, and to de-emphasize the community, because if you emphasize the community, then we’re all responsible for each other, we are one with the government, and we all should be taking care of each other. We don’t just dump it on the individuals and on the family. This overemphasis on family values—there’s an economic motivation to that.

Our emotional truth is that we are all deeply connected to each other.

That’s interesting. So when people are writing in with these ideas and questions about friendship breakups, what they’re expressing is that the way society is set up is not connecting with what feels emotionally true to them?

Exactly, yes, because our emotional truth is that we are all deeply connected to each other, and there are other kinds of kinship structures that matter to us deeply. Not just our lover, our spouse, our kid. We’re tied very deeply to each other.

Do you find that friendship breakups tend to feel more painful at a particular stage in people’s lives?

No. I think it’s always a profound, deeply destabilizing loss when a true friendship is ruptured. I think it’s horrible. It’s horrible for young children; it’s horrible for adolescents; it’s horrible for young adults. It’s horrible for us throughout our lives. We are deeply connected to our friends. I think, in a way, our best selves show up with our friends.

Do you see something unique in the bond or expectations in women’s friendships?

I think when people are young everyone makes friends wonderfully. Kids are just naturally inclined to connect. They don’t even make friends; they are friends. That’s their basic expectation: “We’re friends. We’re together. We do things together.” But as things get more gendered, boys suffer because there are all sorts of arrangements around masculinity that make it difficult for boys to deepen their friendships—talk about things, express affection. There’s all this homophobia. But I think the younger generation of boys is better at it. They do know how to be friends in a way that, let’s say, men of my generation were not very good at.

People spend a lot of their individual therapy time talking about their friends.

I sometimes think that’s why women experience these friendship breakups so intensely. A lot of these relationships are so close that they take on qualities of what we typically associate with romantic relationships, even if it’s not sexual.

Yes. Yes. Yes. We have these headings of, like, “Oh, this is a romantic partner,” and that’s how we understand that relationship. Friendship includes much of the excitement and the attraction that a romantic relationship has. It just doesn’t have that heading. I know for some people, it sometimes gets confusing. Friendship can feel romantic and people are like, “Wait, what does that mean? What’s going on? Am I this? Am I that?” People get confused about it because our feelings don’t fall into neat categories. We just feel. We connect and we bond and it doesn’t always fit the category name.

That’s what led me to this question recently: If therapy has become more normalized and we feel that friendships are important, why is it so unheard of for friends to go to couple’s therapy? Have you ever heard of it happening?

I love that, but I haven’t heard of it. People come to me for couples therapy and other types of relationship issues. Like, if business partners realize that their interpersonal dynamics are interfering with their business relationship or for family business stuff, like succession issues. Those things give people good enough reasons to see a therapist. But I can tell you that people spend a lot of their individual therapy time talking about their friends. If there are ruptures or issues with friends, people talk about it a lot in therapy. It’s a very core issue. And it should be. It’s important. It’s essential. But no, I haven’t had people approach me about it. I guess it’s not a sanctioned option, but I love that idea.

Why do you think it sometimes feels harder to mend a friendship? Is it because the commitments in those relationships aren’t as formalized?

Well, to support what you’re saying, I do think it would be helpful for it to be acknowledged that friendships actually have a profound place in people’s lives, and are important enough to invest in, as any other relationship. They are like the fabric that makes human existence matter. People [should not] feel oddly about the fact that they care so much—because everyone does.

I think people have a lot more capacity to deal with truth than they know.

What kinds of elements of couples therapy do you think can be incorporated for people who are trying to solve an issue with a friend?

The main thing that can be gleaned is that often the way to mend ruptures is to be able to really listen and see things from another person’s perspective. It doesn’t mean giving up your own perspective, but really taking the time, the empathy, to grasp things from another person’s perspective, see where they’re coming from and mind when you’re getting unnecessarily paranoid. But try to understand that maybe they’re coming from a good place.

And then, figure out a way to speak openly about the motivations that are nested in certain conflicts. Some people have a hard time being honest with each other about what’s really going on, and I think people have a lot more capacity to deal with truth than they know. With friends, it’s often around competition or envy or possessiveness. Just be honest about that stuff.

Would you recommend anything that mimics the format of couples’ therapy? Like setting aside a time to talk in person?

Yes, certainly no text wars. If people are not feeling like they could go to a therapist, they could still involve a third party—it doesn’t have to be a therapist. It could be another trusted friend, to help people sit down and hear each other. When you listen with a third person in the room, you hear the other person’s perspective better.

Another thing that comes up a lot are questions about navigating a new phase of a friendship—maybe one person gets married or has kids and it makes it harder for them to get together or to relate to each other. Do you have any thoughts on how to renegotiate the expectations in friendship?

I think those kinds of transitions—when one person in the friendship is moving at a different pace or going in a different direction—are very painful. It’s not a simple thing. I think it would be good to think of a friendship as a lifelong thing, to think about it as a long haul. A person can be preoccupied and busy for years, and they will come back if you sit steady and you keep feeding the friendship. It’s not something that goes away. I know plenty of people that are out of contact for years either because of a rupture or because of like you’re saying, life events. But they do find each other again.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Graphic by Dasha Faires. 

Mallory Rice

Mallory Rice is a writer who sometimes has bangs and sometimes does not. She was previously the executive editor of this fine website.

More from Relationships