In The Case Of A Failing Friendship, Don’t Settle — Break Up


in First Person • Illustrated by Felicia Wolfer


A friend of mine is in the midst of what I call “the shedding season” at the tail-end of her twenties. The shedding season denotes the transition away from young adulthood — often informed by new responsibility, changes in geography, and in my experience, a recalibration of relationships. 

Through tears, she recently recounted how a childhood friend, one to whom she still views herself as deeply emotionally bound, has taken notable steps away from their friendship in recent months. It began with a few unanswered texts, followed by a number of seemingly clandestine visits to their hometown — visits that in years prior would have undoubtedly included at least one invitation for the two of them to get together. 

Now though, the writing is on the wall. The other week, he shared on social media that he was celebrating his birthday within walking distance of her job, but she had heard nothing from him. She was crushed, and when she started to reiterate the bewilderment she felt regarding his stark withdrawal, I interrupted, and offered gently, “Do you think maybe it’s time to break up now?” 

Throughout my twenties I obsessed over romantic love, perseverating over rom-coms, and sending one too many ‘I miss you’ texts to past lovers, hoping to reignite a spark. I stayed in failing relationships for months, sometimes years, beyond their reasonable expiration, terrified that they represented my best shot at securing permanent partnership. But much of the advice that I encountered throughout my dating woes, which came in myriad flavors and fonts, can be distilled down to this: don’t settle. If you’re not being treated in the way you want, something is misaligned. If the other person isn’t equally invested in solving for that misalignment, the relationship has likely met its end. 

Over time, I got better at ending relationships. To this day, breaking up with people still fills me with trepidation, but I try to remind myself that the right connections will feel right, not forced. However, as I worked through my fear of breakups, I also began to notice that ‘settling’ does in fact seem to be widely culturally acceptable — encouraged even — when it comes to platonic friendship.    

I regularly observe loved ones in friendships that, from my perspective, range from relatively uninspired to deeply afflicted. In our conversations, they’ve recounted moments wherein friends have committed the grisliest of relational transgressions: deep emotional betrayal, an abdication of mutual accountability, a rejection of basic consideration. Still, when I’ve inquired, why don’t you end this relationship? I’m met with obstinance. I get it — in their highest form, friendships are apparently the relationships that make us happiest. Though romantic love often takes center stage in popular culture, there is a growing widespread sentiment that friendship should be focal to our social landscapes. 

To some, it seems, it feels dramatic, aggressive even, to consider formally terminating a friendship in no uncertain terms. For my friend who is navigating this new platonic rejection, the pain in letting go of that friendship feels both visceral and symbolic; it isn’t just that they’ve known each other for over half of their lives, and they have begun to miss out on one another’s milestones. It is also that the absence of this friendship, despite its current state, leaves space for the pervasive anxiety of adult loneliness, and has dredged up greater insecurities about her worthiness in relationships. Moreover, the fashion in which this other friend is pulling away further exacerbates these feelings. Was he starting to ghost her? Had he decided to quiet quit the relationship? Didn’t she at least deserve an explanation about what had gone wrong?  

Recently, I came across an episode of the now-defunct NPR podcast  Invisibilia called “Therapy, With Friends.” The segment featured snippets of a recorded couple’s therapy session between two longtime friends, facilitated by esteemed couples therapist Esther Perel. The episode underscored the value of this concept — couples therapy for platonic friends — while giving listeners a very resonant portrayal of contemporary friendship. 

As is common with friendships that are butting up against a shedding season, the connection discussed in the podcast was rich with history and memories, but in its lattermost years, it had become mired with unspoken envies and unhealed hurts. The two men in the session lament the portions of one another’s experiences that had been taken for granted by way of mutual assumptions. They confess the things that have contributed to a slow but palpable drifting, and over the course of the conversation, they seem to acquire a renewed faith that their relationship could be revived.  

As I listened, I was taken by two thoughts. The first is that the episode brilliantly exemplified the recipe for healing an ailing friendship: at least one person was willing to meet the threat of estrangement head-on, and both were willing to show up and be vulnerable in fixing the issues. The second is that the episode did not examine the complexities of what seem to be much more common phenomena: one or both parties are avoidant in addressing conflict, they neither have the time nor financial resources for friends-therapy, or — more opaquely — how people just sometimes grow apart.  

In an increasingly digitized social arena, it seems as though both the maintenance and dissolvement of friendships can be analogous to a few basic digital functions. Follow, unfollow. Delete, block. With the stroke of a thumb, a once close friend can be relegated to permanent-elsewhere. On the short-lived MTV series Ghosted: Love Gone Missing, reality TV hosts Travis Mills and Rachel Lindsey attempt to reconnect estranged individuals in the hopes of clarifying why one party chose to end all communication. Throughout the seasons, reasons for platonic ghosting range from forking political affiliations, to shifting social identities and vastly incompatible communication styles. 

I binge-watched both seasons a year or so back, cringing all the while, as I tried to understand why perfectly reasonable causes for friendship to peter out were being touted as tragic, and in some cases, cruel. I acknowledge the unethical and often cowardly energy of ghosting as a means of severing a connection. Though I sometimes wonder if the pervasive culture of ‘platonic settling’ has made it harder for people to say, respectfully, I don’t want to move forward in this connection; I have neither the capacity nor the desire to repair this broken friendship. Ghosting has become a polarizing concept, one which is not easily disentangled with the inescapable, infinite nature of the internet as it intersects with widespread indignation about what warrants the end of a relationship. It hurts more, it seems — being severed from the life of a loved one when you can likely call up small snippets of their likeness with a quick online search. A painful reminder that they’re not gone, they’re just gone to you.And that’s okay, I’d like to offer, to either the breaker-upper or the breakup-recipient in a friendship gone south. The end of a friendship is survivable, and sometimes, it is necessary. 

To be clear, I do not advise viewing friendship with frivolity. In my life, friendship has been integral — in some ways a salve for deep wounds created by complex familial trauma. So, when just over a year ago I found myself confronted with a friendship on the rocks, I was deeply distraught. Nearly a decade of memories hung in suspense as I contemplated life without this person’s companionship. We had seemingly given all that we could in an effort to surmount our mounting tensions, ones which had previously been explained away as growing pains and mutual busyness. On the eve of our final phone call, I asked myself: if I met this person today, would I gravitate toward them? Or, is this friendship being propped up by habitude, and a fidelity to what once was? I ultimately made the choice to separate from this friend, and while painful, it has proven to be a sound decision in the time since. 

I personally believe, often much to the chagrin of those around me, that most people could stand a significant, intentional pruning of their friendship circles. Platonic partings are heartbreaking, I acknowledge in some ways, even more so than romantic breakups. We are predisposed to anticipate the possibility of romantic failure in a way that doesn’t translate easily to common orientations in friendship. And too, it is incredibly difficult to find the time to make new robust adult friendships, and even harder to find the time to intentionally heal friendships once they’ve begun to falter. But in truth, most friendships are unlikely to withstand the crucible of the long, unpredictable slog of the lifespan. We leave. We change. We are fickle things.  

So, although it hurts, I will urge my friend to end the friendship that has seemingly begun its final descent.  Don’t settle for something that feels misaligned, I’ll say. I’ll just leave out the part where I surmise that her former-friend has likely already come to this conclusion.•


Kelsey (they/them/he/his) is a PhD candidate in American Studies. Their work and writings explore the process of identity formation at the nexus of race, gender, and sexuality. He is a cultural and gender theorist, an essayist, an advocate, and a poet. Having grown up bicoastal and spending the majority of their adult life in a state of transience, they draw from their eclectic life experiences both deep fear and great optimism regarding what people are capable of. Kels seeks to illuminate the experiences of Black queer folks, navigating the contemporary US sociopolitical landscape. In the end, he would describe himself as ‘a part-time lover, and a full-time friend.’