Live Through This

Breaking Up Is Hard to Do

I thought platonic love was supposed to be forever.

Illustration by Emma D.

I’ve written maybe 17,000 versions of this essay, trying each time to make something pretty and reasonable out of an experience—breaking up with a friend–that is very much neither. I tried writing it about the friends I’ve lost to time and distance, about the ones I’ve lost to the isolating nature of illness, about the ones I’ve lost when forced to take sides, and the ones I’ve lost while walking down separating and eventually completely different paths. I’d get through about half of the essay and burn out, unable to finish, or to even make sense.

My husband noticed: “You’re having trouble with this one,” he said, as I built my ninth “friend breakups” playlist to try to get my brain going. All of the songs I’d assigned to the feeling of losing a close friend, I later came to notice, were love songs. Broken hearts, best wishes, the kind of songs that say, “I know it’s over, but it was really something, wasn’t it?”

When you mention a romantic breakup to someone, they immediately understand what you mean: two people who used to be inseparable are now separated. But you can’t really describe the loss of a friend in the same way, even though the description totally fits. Maybe it’s because romantic breakups are different, slightly: there’s a fairly standard protocol for getting over love, and there’s always a looming possibility while you’re dating someone that the relationship could end. You’re programmed to understand that romantic love can often be doomed. But platonic love is supposed to be forever. There’s an entire tacky two-part necklace industry that says so.

Anyway, by the time I got around to this, the 17,001st draft of this essay, I realized I was having trouble writing it because it was too hard to talk about. I missed some of these people too much, and in some cases, it was too painful to recall how everything went wrong. I kept getting stuck because I didn’t know how to talk to you about it without admitting that it’s really effing hard to talk about. So I guess that’s a good place to start: friend breakups are hard, and they suck, and even the olds don’t have the answers, even though we will sometimes try to feed you bullshit about hearts and doors to make you, and ourselves, feel better.

***

Loss is something you’re taught very early on in life: death comes in picture books, in goldfish swirling down the toilet, in confusing funerals filled with black-clad whispering adults. Friendship is another early lesson; you’re taught to share, be kind, and play well with others. Any lesson combining the two is usually centered on death or moving vans. “Sometimes you just stop being friends and it really hurts” isn’t typically a part of the elementary school playbook.

I was 11 when I encountered my first friend breakup. It wasn’t mine—it was Stacey McGill’s in The Baby-Sitters Club #51, Stacey’s Ex-Best Friend—but it felt like it belonged to me, as it dumped a bucket of sadness and dread on my heart and opened my mind to a possibility I had never really considered: that friends could become strangers.

I was so distraught over Stacey’s breakup with her former best friend, Laine Cummings, that I made my mother take me to Waldenbooks at every opportunity so that I could load up on BSC books and look for signs of the pair’s reconciliation, which, as far as I can remember, never came. A few years later, I actually had the chance to ask the series’ creator, Ann M. Martin, about the breakup via a Q&A section of an ancient BSC site. I can’t remember her exact response, but I do remember that it was something along these lines: sometimes people just grow apart, and it’s not because either person is bad, or that they did anything wrong, it’s just that life is taking them in different directions, and it’s time to move on. I remember feeling a little let down at the time—I wanted her to say, “They’re still friends! Watch out for BSC #89: Laine’s Apology!” It took me many years to understand how perfect her answer really was.

***

There can be many reasons for a breakup, including and not limited to: relocation, age, jealousy, significant others, taking sides, illness, addiction, cruelty, boredom, violence, irreconcilable differences, lack of common interests, being taken advantage of, growing apart, being emotionally manipulated by the distribution of candy canes to the point of cracking, etc. Some friendships will burn out quickly, others will take years to untangle, and some will fade out in a quiet way. It may come as a relief or a kick to the stomach, depending on the circumstances. But it’s never particularly easy, mostly because you’re making a decision that involves leaving a version of yourself behind. Somewhere in suburbia, there is an inside-joke graveyard haunted by the ghosts of former selves, desperately trying to connect over forgotten secret codes and half-remembered stories.

It doesn’t always have to end, though: if you’re lucky, you’ll meet people who will perpetually shed their snakeskins with you, who will go through awkward phases and beautiful phases and horrible phases and amazing phases and keep their hand wrapped in yours. And it may be that most people hit these phases and drop hands with a friend somewhere along the way, but that doesn’t mean that another hand won’t swoop right in and hold on for whatever comes next. For every ex-best friend, there’s a new best friend. I wish I could go back to my 11-year-old self and erase the panic, to let her know that she’d lose some friends but make new ones, that things would work out. “Just remember how Stacey McGill got through it,” I’d tell her. “Laine Cummings may have broken her heart, but Claudia Kishi was there to pick up the pieces, which she probably then used to fashion a pair of green flamingo earrings that perfectly matched Stacey’s geometric-print leggings.”

I would also warn 11-year-old me not to look up pictures of impetigo in the encyclopedia after reading about how Stacey gets impetigo at camp in Baby-Sitters Club Super Special #2: Baby-sitters’ Summer Vacation, because it will totally gross her out and give her the phantom itches for weeks to come. ♦

31 Comments

  • Marguerite November 21st, 2011 3:09 PM

    hehe “emotionally manipulated by the distribution of candy canes” my school’s guidance counselor organizes candy cane giving so that we can be nice to people and send them christmas cheer, yet she and her student leaders got the idea from Mean Girls…

  • Maddy November 21st, 2011 3:09 PM

    4 things:
    1. I really want to google impetigo
    2. I love BSC! So many references on Rookie!
    3. Everything relates to candy, right?
    4. On a more serious note: My old best friend really changed this past year, though I guess she’s really been changed for the past 3 or so. I keep desperately trying to rekindle our friendship, but also wondering how we were ever so close. I’ve made new friends, and feel much more like them than I ever did.

  • moonchild November 21st, 2011 3:12 PM

    This is so beautiful.

    I was best friends with a boy all through elementary school until in fifth grade when he said that it wasn’t cool to be friends with a girl in middle school. We made a kind of memorial for our friendship in the playground on our last day of fifth grade. Now I feel really sad when we see each other in the hallway and we don’t say hi.

    *Sigh*

  • Dylan November 21st, 2011 3:21 PM

    damn it! I wish this article came to me exactly 10 months ago. Well done-zo.

    Why are people so used to the idea of romantic break ups and neglect platonic break ups as if they’re nothing? I felt like no one really understood how devastating it was to me for months after I “broke up” with my best friend. If it was with a boyfriend, I would have garnered more sympathy, I’m sure.

    • saranev November 21st, 2011 8:28 PM

      Hmmm! It’s so easy for people to think that heartbreak means the break up of a romantic relationship, but if you were to use “heartbreak” to describe the loss of a friend, it would be considered weird. Interesting…

  • Charlotte November 21st, 2011 3:24 PM

    I am going through a fight with a friend right now, and this article made me realize that I don’t want to break up with her. Thanks.

    but it also made me look up impetigo. ew.

  • yourenotfunny November 21st, 2011 3:44 PM

    made me tear up a bit ;~;
    This is so true, it happened with my best friend since kindergarten. We were always in the same class every year, and even when things like middle school and having other friends (she was the more popular one) came up, we would still find a way to be just as close. Her friends became my friends. Just before high school though, we just became complete strangers. No hard feelings, just stopped hanging out. I’ve moved on, but it’s still hard sometimes not having that kind of “tell her everything, live at her house in the summer” thing going on with anybody. growing up sigh…~

  • mangachic November 21st, 2011 3:51 PM

    I’m in the moving van category. I hope I’ll stay close to my friends but realistically it won’t happen. Rather depressing.

  • Lolita November 21st, 2011 4:09 PM

    Well, I’m just going through one of those friend-breakup. While you think it might be because of some guy-trouble, some argument…it isn’t. It’s what is called a silence break up? The ones you silently and slowly stay apart of that person you had loved so much. I personally think that relationships don’t usually break up because of a hard argument but a silence and little clinkers… I’m 16 and starting to realise that friends aren’t forever, though I thought a few time ago that they were. Those friends you had in high school that you thought would be always by your side? There will be only one left while you grow into an adult person. The others will slowly separate from you for no big motives, only because you will realise that at the same time you grow up they’ll have different points of view about life and maybe you’ll reach the point that this person that had been your BFF, has nothing in common with you. That it is what’s happening to me and I’ve been feeling really sorry about that. But the case is, that I don’t even wanna talk to her… I have a group of 4 best friends which we go to the same school. One of them is already gone, she transferred to another school and she hardly calls me or wants to meet me and if she does, is only to chat about her boyfriend or help her in maths. They were my life, we did everything together, party, flirt with guys, study… Until this year. I don’t know why, but we are never together now. And there is no clear motive. I talk to one of them yet, but lately I see her really distant. I think that is like Darwin’s theory…

  • insteadofanelephant November 21st, 2011 4:35 PM

    HAHA impetigo was the perfect way to end this. i had it once and i thought all my skin was going to rot and fall off. i’m still intact.

    this is such a perfect description of fallen friendships. i remember being five and thinking the people i met were going to be my friends forever. i think it had something to do with my mom and her best friends since kindergarten. sadly, i’ve had many breakups and most of the time, i didn’t even know they were happening! the distance just kept growing and little by little and next thing i knew, i my mom would be asking me about this person and i would have no idea what they had been up to for the last year.

    this phenomena continues into college years. i’ve been experiencing it more and more within the past year (partially because of some problems i have) but mostly just because we grow apart and there are so many new people to meet, you forget about the old ones. i was just talking to my dad about this, too. i think i’ll do a post on my blog…this is getting lengthy.

    XX
    instead of an elephant

  • MADZ. November 21st, 2011 5:18 PM

    The is stunningly beautiful and insanely true. I’m going through one of these at the moment, and I still have sizable portion of my wall dedicated to photo booth pictures of me and my ex-bestie. I can’t muster the courage to remove these meaningless scraps of inked paper, even though we aren’t even friends on facebook anymore (21st century drama!), because that would mean that we no longer share those eternal smiles pictured in each photograph. That the friendship letter she wrote me on Valentine’s day has been deemed no longer applicable, and our inside jokes have been left punchline-less. Taking down the pictures I so carefully and pridefully cut out would signify that the forever in BFFs was really only less than a year.
    And I just don’t think I’m ready to accept that yet.

  • OrangeSunrise November 21st, 2011 5:21 PM

    This is exactly what I am going through at the moment- it’s like Rookie can read my mind. Literally, I just went on and read what this was about and my mouth dropped open.

    HOW DID YOU KNOW??

    My ex-friend and I fought over Halloween. I had been feeling left out for a couple of weeks now, so I just thought, leave her to the others she seems so obsessed with. I’m happier now, but she keeps giving me filthy looks and making mean comments. Girls are so complicated…

  • chilljill47 November 21st, 2011 5:41 PM

    I think one of the reasons best-friend friendships are so amazing is that we let ourselves just fall in love like that, while with romantic relationships we tend to be a bit more careful and questioning.

    Also, the BEST best-friend-breakup song ever: “Laura” by Girls. Some of the lines include “Where did this start? We used to be friends. Now when I run into you I pretend I don’t see you, I know that you hate me” and “Baby, I’m right here. And I don’t wanna fight anymore. I really wanna be your friend forever, friend until the end of it all.”

  • fizzingwhizbees November 21st, 2011 5:46 PM

    I went through this last year. My best friend was being really shitty and inconsiderate, which of course made me realize that she had been shitty and inconsiderate for pretty much our entire friendship and I hadn’t even noticed. I didn’t really have any other close friends, so it was a weird time for me. And dammit, if I had been allowed to cry and eat ice cream while listening to Adele the way you can after a romantic breakup, I’d probably have felt a lot better!

  • giov November 21st, 2011 5:54 PM

    oh no, I just looked at images of impetigo! Will I ever learn? I totally remember the sadness Stacey’s break up with her friend caused to my 8 years old self. I wouldn’t fully understand until years later but now I am sadly familiar with the process of losing a best friend, although I kind of keep in touch with all of them. It’s just that those amazing friendships are so intense, they can rarely go on forever, they don’t leave you enough space to grow up on your own and make other friends and become yourself. i don’t think any break up could ever be worst than the first time i got my heart broken-by my best friend.

  • EricaX November 21st, 2011 5:57 PM

    After reading this, I just unconsciously put on Stars’ “Your Ex-Lover is Dead.” I think that’s a sign of how perfectly you captured the extreme pain that happens when you lose or break up with friends, but that it is a part of life, and that you keep the friends that grow with you.

  • MichyMich November 21st, 2011 7:08 PM

    I remember a time when I had a friend in 3rd whom I thought would remain true to her character. Unfortunately, she became more interested in following what the “popular” girls did than hanging with me. I felt the sting. Even worse, I had to break up the friendship when things started getting worse. At first, I hated doing it, but now we’re on good terms.

  • TheAwesomePossum November 21st, 2011 7:42 PM

    Also, different people go through this realization at different times. For example, some people go through this in 7th grade or maybe 2nd grade. Personally, I “broke up” with my first friend in 3rd grade. It wasn’t exactly the kind of breakup you’re describing here, but I just told her that I wanted to have multiple best friends and not just one that i was dedicated to (sounds serious… haha). We still remained friends though (well, at least for the rest of elementary school.)

  • saranev November 21st, 2011 8:16 PM

    Wow, my first high school reunion is this Friday (holy crap, it’s been 5 years?!) and this article has nudged me to start emotionally preparing for the event. I was madly in love with my friends, but for various reasons my relationships with them corroded, exploded, faded, and disappeared. As excited as I am to go to the 5 year shindig, I’m really anxious to see my old friends. I have a feeling some of them will be exactly the same, but I want them to see that I’ve changed…

    Breaking up is REALLY hard to do.

  • unicorn November 21st, 2011 8:58 PM

    my *former* best friend in the whole wide world stopped talking to me a few weeks ago. no conversations, no hellos in the hallways, she doesn’t even look at me. won’t even tell me what i did. ever since then i’ve been looking for friendship breakup songs and THERE AREN’T ANY. SOMEONE NEEDS TO WRITE A SONG FOR BREAKING UP WITH YOUR FRIEND. and then produce it and record it and give it to me, so i can play it on repeat.

    • carola November 28th, 2011 9:47 AM

      If You Could Read My Mind by Johnny Cash

  • sweeteelou November 21st, 2011 9:26 PM

    I’m going through a pretty radical friend break-up involving a great number of people right now, but that’s not what this article reminds me of.
    Freshman year I was best buds with this really awesome guy, and everyone thought we had huge crushes on each other, but we really just embraced each other.
    My favorite part in this article is the part about phases. He started going through this really horrible phase and I think we tried to hold each other’s hands through it all but it was just way too painful. Now we hardly speak even though his locker is directly below mine but it doesn’t feel like anger or hurt anymore, just thereness if that makes sense.
    Now he’s got someone else to hold his hand and I’m really glad he does but sometimes I still wish that it was me instead.

  • Hedwig November 21st, 2011 9:35 PM

    And I just looked it up….

  • Chimdi November 22nd, 2011 12:05 AM

    1. Looked up “impetigo” on Google
    2. Clicked “Images”
    3. Barfed up my delicious lasagna dinner!

  • cancercowboy November 22nd, 2011 7:58 AM

    makes me grateful for being still friends with some of my friends from school. hell, 20-something years of friendship despite physical distance and things like marriages and kids and whatnot *knocks on wood*
    and i don’t think anybody can teach anybody how to deal with these kinds of losses. you can be there to offer a helping hand, but thats about it. sadly this is the kind of shit you have to live through to know how to make it out alive.

  • stephanie4786 November 22nd, 2011 11:14 AM

    this was perfectly beautiful

  • missworld November 22nd, 2011 4:50 PM

    This is one of the greatest sentences I have ever read:

    Somewhere in suburbia, there is an inside-joke graveyard haunted by the ghosts of former selves, desperately trying to connect over forgotten secret codes and half-remembered stories.

    Loved this!

  • magicalmoments November 22nd, 2011 8:50 PM

    This article really speaks to me. About a year ago my best friend in the entire world got a boyfriend…the boy she had been crushing on for so long! I was so happy for her– it was a really giddy moment. Well, once he basically swooped her up, I only really heard from her if she need to complain to me about her life or copy the math homework. Sure she invited me to her new friends’ parties and what not, but her new friends were definitely not the kinds of kids I wanted to hang out with. And because of that I was pegged as “super judgmental omg, which makes it super hard to like talk to you.” That was a fun time. When he broke up with her, she fought and fought for him…going to his house to talk things out because she loved him so much. Why didn’t she do that for me, when I would call her crying? The night he broke her heart she called me crying, and I truly felt so bad for her…until she told me how she doesn’t know what she was going to do now that she didn’t have any friends. Then I realized. I had basically wasted the past year and a half worrying about her and crying over our suffering friendship. I wasn’t mad at her, I was mad at myself. I yelled at her. She didn’t listen. But it is all irrelevant now because I feel free. I can stand on my own and enjoy myself all alone in my bedroom. The entire year-long emotional roller coaster gave me an incredible sense of independence. I depend on no one for happiness and it is quite beautiful. Thank you, high school drama.

  • carola November 28th, 2011 9:29 AM

    This year I broke up with my BFF of 30 years. Heart broken does not cover it for me. I accidentally (I swear!) feel upon her ‘skype chatting’ – she forgot to log out and it was not her computer, and could not believe what she wrote about me. Who was this person and when did I lose the one I once knew? How many years prior to this finding?
    I believe in forevers and cannot understand not seeing the value on better preserving a history companion like me, like her.
    I miss her, I love her and although I cannot recall recent happy moments (a great indicator that things went awry prior to my skype shock) I just cannot turn the page. All I get from her are Rumi quotes or quotes from hotquotes.com, like, can I hear YOUR voice again? sad… so sad…
    If I had to describe the feeling I would use Johnny Cash singing “If You Could Read My Mind”. My favorite line is:

    And if you read between the lines,
    You’ll know that I’m just tryin’ to understand
    The feelin’s that you lack.
    I never thought I could feel this way
    And I’ve got to say that I just don’t get it.
    I don’t know where we went wrong,
    But the feelin’s gone
    And I just can’t get it back!

  • bianca November 30th, 2011 5:45 AM

    bloody brilliant article. i broke up with a girl gang a few months ago, so i can definitely relate to this. thanks for creating this amazing site <3
    oh, and i totally read BSC when i was a kid too.

  • db November 30th, 2011 6:14 PM

    you would think it would get easier as you get older, but it doesn’t. i lost my best friend of 10+ years last year to some horrible-ness. it involved her, a junkie boyfriend and my stolen money. i was devastated, but out of it came the most beautiful thing ever: my soul mate and love of my life! i never would have met him if i had still been friends with her. so it sucks, but it is usually for the better. too bad it hurts so damn hard.

    johnny cash helps.