5 things you need to hear about outgrowing friendships

It's the break-up nobody talks about: how do you accept that you've outgrown certain friendships, and should we feel guilty for moving on?

When I put a call-out on Instagram asking if anyone had thoughts on outgrowing friendships, I was flooded with messages – to the point where I felt like I’d unwittingly opened a confessional. “I’ve left a few friends behind, but it’s so difficult to talk about and always makes me feel guilty,” messaged a girlfriend’s partner. “I’ve done this with friends for good reasons, but I don’t stop missing the people we used to be,” said a close friend. “I do this all the time” texted a guy I barely know. Many of us, it seems, are reflecting on how our friendships have changed in the pandemic. Now that life is beginning to open up, the healed-over scars from forgotten connections are starting to feel a little raw. 

I’ve spent many minutes that have amounted to many hours and maybe even days thinking about friendship–what it means, whether I’m good at it, how much of it I have compared to other people, what I need to do (or not do) to get more of it. Yet I’ve always found mixing groups hard, and making new, genuine friends as an adult even harder. Then the pandemic came along, and suddenly all the usual ways I could check in with people were swept away. My group shrank, then shrank some more. Friends drifted; some ‘consciously uncoupled’. I felt deeply destabilised, like a profound loss had occurred that I didn’t have the vocabulary to describe. Still, I resisted giving my emotions gravity: “I don’t know why it bothers me so much,” I said, my chest tightening. “We had fundamental differences even when we were close. I have so many more enriching relationships. This isn’t a big deal.”  

I think part of what fascinates us about best friend breakups is that tension—we don’t think we should care so much, and yet we do. Maybe we’d make more progress resolving these issues if we treated them as if they mattered as much as we all know they do deep down. So here are 5 realisations that’ll help you handle one of the hardest and strangest life events of all: the friendship breakup.

Realisation #1: While we expect work to be stressful, and romantic love to be difficult, we expect friendships to be relentlessly supportive and cheering. And maybe that’s the wrong way of looking at them. All of us are bound to go through ups and downs, to drift closer and further apart as life goes on. But one of our followers, Alex, made the good point that you can tell if a friendship is a ‘true’ friendship if you feel you can bring your whole self to it. I think he means that you don’t feel you have to show a particular version of yourself, or only explore one facet of your personality with that person. That doesn’t always mean friendships should always be easy or unconditionally loving – we rely on our very best friends to challenge or question us – but they should ultimately be devoid of shame. If that no longer feels possible, it might be time to ask yourself whether it’s worth the upkeep. An amicable drift might be the right answer.

Realisation #2: We need to accept that the shift qualifies as a Big Life Event. Fine, most won’t be as dramatic or final as a romantic breakup, but many friendships exist at an unusual emotional intersection in that they feel both deeply important and easy to mentally push aside in favour of things like work, family or love lives. But the end of deep or long-lasting friendships can be almost more painful than any other breakup. In fact, their subtlety can make them harder to come to terms with. Instead of just trying to act like things are normal with your friend, try gently raising the matter over a coffee or call. The very least it will achieve is lessening the mental space that’s taken up by your anxieties and fears towards the friendship.

Realisation #3: Mourning a friendship? You might really be mourning the person you once were. Friendships are primarily driven by mutual compatibility – unlike family, who you don’t choose, or romantic relationships, which are often based on something more primal – which means that them evolving often signals a part of you evolving too. For the same reason, the breakdown of a friendship can feel like more of a personal slight, like those who know us in our most genuine form have decided to no longer love us. Separating the difference between wanting to save a friendship, a resistance to change, and wanting to preserve an idea about who we are is important. Recognising the ego at play can also help you to accept that you can’t control how anyone else feels about you. 

Realisation #4: A friendship ending doesn’t devalue the meaning it had. It’s probably true that your connection was strong at that phase of your life, even if not destined to last forever. It’s a cliche that friends come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. But most cliches have a kernel of truth in them. Recognising that you needed each other at that point, and that your relationship was enriching in that respect, helps lessen the pain that may come with drifting apart. 

Realisation #5: I was really struck by one comment from our lovely follower Cleo: “Outgrowing friendships is so necessary! I remember breaking up with a best friend around five years ago and it was devastating! But also necessary…” What if we should actually aim to outgrow friends? Not all the time, of course, and some friends will stick around for life. But sometimes making new friends and letting old ones drop away can actually be a sign that you’re growing as a person. You wouldn’t expect yourself to be going out with the same person aged 30 as when you were 15, nor live in the same place, nor have the same aspirations. I’m starting to realise that if some friendships feel so rooted in the past that they’re struggling in the present, the grown-up thing might be to actually let them go.