Why 'Friend Divorce' Can Hurt More Than A Break-Up

16 July 2014

Why 'Friend Divorce' Can Hurt More Than A Break-Up

Emily knew she had less in common with her old friend, but she didn’t expect to get dumped [Mike Mcgregor]

A new novel called Friendship explores what it’s like to grow apart from your mates. Here, its author, Emily Gould, tells us why losing her best friend was more painful than a romantic break-up…

Lying on the kitchen table sat a note with my name on it. ‘Emily,’ it said. ‘I’m done. It’s over.’ It’s the sort of thing people leave their jilted lover when they want a no-strings, quick escape from a relationship. Except, this wasn’t from a boyfriend. This was from Grace* – my friend and confidante of almost 15 years. In four little words our entire history was totally erased.

Grace and I had been best friends since we were 13. We used to pass notes in class and store them in a notebook, spent every weekend at each other’s houses and hung out after school. Even university didn’t separate us and we’d catch up every holiday, bursting with news and gossip.

Yet things changed when we began working. I was lucky enough to be one of those 20-somethings who suddenly had early career success, becoming editor of news website Gawker. My life in New York was a whirl of work, dating and social media.

Meanwhile, Grace had been pursuing further education, studying for a PhD and travelling the world for her research. We kept in touch through letters or, later, email. I was busy and therefore erratic with my replies, but I still valued our friendship. It’s difficult to maintain any sort of long-distance relationship to its true value but, on paper, we were still just as close – exchanging stories and anecdotes from our latest pursuits. Except, I found myself increasingly unable to relate to the replies she sent. I didn’t know what life was like in Europe (where she was busy researching) and if I’m honest, had little interest. I’d never met her boyfriend or her new friends – I didn’t feel like I fi tted in her life. And, I suspected, she probably felt the same about me. 

Why 'Friend Divorce' Can Hurt More Than A Break-Up

When, in 2010, she said she was coming back to New York for a couple of days, it was inevitable she would stay with me. I was excited – I knew it would be the perfect time to put aside all those niggling feelings that I’d had about ‘us’. But when we got together, the conversation didn’t exactly flow. While she was immersed in academia, I was going full throttle in the world of media. She didn’t know what it was like to have a boss or to work a 9-5 job. She couldn’t relate to me when I spoke about anxiety over being fi red, or the uncertainty of knowing if you’re on the right path in your career. We didn’t relate on dating or politics or even our views on Twitter. Sometimes, when you don’t see an old friend for years you can simply pick up where you left off, but for us it wasn’t like that. Life had literally and fi guratively put oceans between us. 

Our youthful chatter had become replaced by awkward silences. Yet even I wasn’t prepared for her to simply walk out, leaving me such a cruel note. When she arrived at my apartment two days before, things hadn’t been exactly lively between us, but they weren’t particularly frosty either. We did small talk about her travels, my career – my first book was being published and, looking back, I think I was going through a ‘diffi cult’ phase. I was stressed and self-centred, as the launch felt like the whole world to me. I may not have been the best friend at that time, but when we were catching up over drinks that weekend, I was oblivious to my behaviour.

While I knew we’d irrevocably grown apart, I was still crushed when I read the note she left me. And I felt angry that she hadn’t wanted to talk to me. Maybe she found me too selfi sh or dismissive or maybe I didn’t listen enough – she didn’t go into detail about what it was exactly. But I would have liked the chance to have my say. In walking out without so much as a word to my face, she denied me the opportunity to refl ect. But, if I am honest, what hurt the most was that it was over.

Why 'Friend Divorce' Can Hurt More Than A Break-Up

Friendship by Emily Gould (£14.99, Virago) is out 3 July

And I still feel sad about that now. When you break up with a boyfriend there are protocols – you know the signs you’re in a bad relationship, and you know what to say to break it off, or how to behave afterwards. When it comes to friendships there are none. What constitutes a friendship divorce – how do we divide our emotional assets?

What’s more, in a friendship break-up there’s no support cavalry running to your aid. Break up with a boyfriend and it’s wine time with the girls – weekends away, nights out, teary 1am Skype calls and plenty of cat memes. When the end of a friendship arrives, it’s private and quiet and provokes insular emotion that nobody really talks about. Our mutual friends stayed out of it, thankfully.

The unanswered questions about friendship splits are endless: how do you behave afterwards? Do you beg for forgiveness? Or play it cool and stay away? I did the latter. Grace and I have never spoken since that day, when she packed up her bags and left me behind. I’ve contemplated sending her a message to fi nd out why, but ultimately I knew that – at that time at least – we were completely different people. The mutual history we shared simply wasn’t enough anymore to keep us together.

It impacted more than breaking up with a boyfriend, because we had ‘been together’ for longer and shared more. The lingering pain lasts longer when you break up with a friend. No matter how much it hurts in the moment of a romantic relationship, a few years down the road it’s unlikely you’ll regret it. Break up with a friend and you can end up with a hole in your heart where that friend used to be – there are stories and memories only she can share or remember with you. And you don’t necessarily split because it’s ‘for the best’ – often you end up breaking up because life has dragged you in different directions.

But I do believe it doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be the end forever. People can change and go through a period of losing a friend, but then fi nd a way to get back together. I hope that someday I’ll run into Grace and we’ll see each other and we’ll smile and hug, and everything will be OK. I hope we can begin again and see the value of the friendship itself, instead of the circumstances that were once surrounding it. If not, that’s fine too. Sometimes friendships end for a reason. 

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*Name has been changed. As told to Zoë Beaty.


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