Breaking Up with a Friend: The Phase Out

I recently went through a pretty serious break-up. This one didn’t involve your typical break-up routines. No angry shouting matches, no tearful goodbyes, no couples counseling, and no changes in relationship status on FB.

Before all you gossipers get too excited, I should clarify one thing. Yes, I’m still married. No, I did not leave my husband. This post has nothing to do with him.

I’m talking about breaking up with a friend. A pretty close friend in this case. Someone who has been there through much of my adult life, through boyfriends and break-ups, through successes and failures, and through major life transitions.

But over the past few years, I’ve left every get together with this friend (let’s call her “Brooke” since this blog is only semi-anonymous) incredibly irritated by the rude and offensive things that she’s said. I could provide outrageous examples that would leave your mouth agape with disbelief. She has always been known to have a very competitive personality, but it had never been directed at me, until recently. As we transitioned into our adult lives, her obsession with competing with everyone in everything eventually seeped its way into our friendship and her desire to “one-up” me dominated every one of our conversations.

Competition implies a contest in which one party clearly wins and comes out on top of everyone else. It does not allow for both parties to root for one another, but instead encourages rivalry between opposing teams. In my opinion, these conditions have no place in a true friendship.

Friends are supposed to be there to provide guidance, support, encouragement, and happiness. What’s the point of maintaining a friendship in which you can’t feel comfortable just being yourself? Are you really friends if you are just putting on airs around one another? Who says friendships have to last forever?

I’ve been grappling with the decision of what to do with our friendship for a while now. But after repeated offenses, Brooke’s competitive behavior became too obnoxious to bear. If she had just done one or two things wrong, I could see the value in talking it over and trying to make amends. But the problem seems to be a chronic one which keeps recurring despite my best efforts to discourage her from behaving this way. I don’t believe that I should have to bother with someone who is no longer good for me or who may even be doing me psychological damage. I decided it was time to cut her from the team.

Middle School Judy would have ended this friendship in a dramatic fashion, sending a nasty letter about how annoyed I was by her tacky ways and closing by telling her to have a nice life (handwritten on wide-ruled paper neatly folded up into a secret note square, of course). Adult Judy adopted a more subtle approach. I call it the Friendship Phase Out.

Perhaps there are others of you out there faced with a similar problem of how to let go of a toxic friend so I thought I’d share my approach.

Group get-togethers: Instead of one-on-one get togethers, I only got together with Brooke at parties or group outings. This way, I only had to experience her in small doses and I could pawn her off on other people. In my experience, she would never dare say in group settings the things she says to me alone as she’s aware that certain statements are just plain socially unacceptable.

Blame it on being busy: Work, baby, travel, classes, taking care of my old Aunt Gerdie, whatever. Point is: I was busy, reeeeally busy, too busy to hang out. Like ever.

Trial Separation: I took a trial separation period to cool down and get over my initial annoyance and resentment. I used this break to determine if I truly wanted to end this friendship for good.

Downgrade the friendship: I didn’t want to drop her like a hot potato as this was a phase out that I was hoping would create as few waves as possible. I attempted to gradually downgrade our friendship from close friend to casual acquaintance by limiting my exposure to her as much as possible.

Keep your distance: I stopped initiating contact. I stopped emailing and calling. I gave her the good, old-fashioned silent treatment. When she called, I let it go to voicemail. When she emailed, I didn’t reply. When she emailed again asking why I hadn’t yet replied, I provided only one-word responses.

Avoid confrontation: I am trying my hardest to have the phase out go completely unnoticed, but I suspect that Brooke will eventually ask what’s up and I probably won’t be able to brush it off. If that happens, I think it’ll be fine to acknowledge the issue, but I don’t want to get into heated, involved discussions because that would suggest that I want to salvage the relationship which I don’t. The point is the relationship is no longer working for me. I don’t want to fight. I just want to move on.

Don’t involve others: I tried my hardest not to talk to our mutual friends about my reasons for initiating the phase out. We’re all adults. I didn’t want to influence their relationships with her; however, several of her other friends have already come to the same conclusion as I did and I believe their friendships with her will suffer a similar fate.

Don’t burn bridges: Part of me wants to point out the serious insecurities underlying Brooke’s need to compete with everyone all the time, but I have held my tongue. Some words you can never take back. What’s the point of doing irreparable damage?

Don’t issue a final goodbye: Even though I’m fairly certain I’m done with Brooke for good, I want to be careful not to issue a dramatic final goodbye. You never know what might happen in the future. Maybe once she loses all her friends due to her competitiveness, she’ll transform back into the friend I once knew.

Has anyone else dealt with letting go of a toxic friend?

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