Friendship Cancel: Why Breaking Up With BFFs is Worse Than Ending a Romance


Friendship Cancel: Why Breaking Up With BFFs is Worse Than Ending a Romance

Illustration: Shruti Yatam

One of my childhood best-friends unfriended me on FB last year.

“One of”, because she was a friend who belonged to the part of my life where “these are my five best-friends” was a statement that was true, honest, and as righteous as a 12-year-old can possibly get. She was my friend before adulthood hit me with all its cynicism, and shattered the romance around the idea of “best” friends. Adults don’t have best friends. At best, they have people they can talk to, and in extraordinarily fortunate cases, care about. At worst, they have the freedom (and money) to go to a pub and pretend to have fun with a bunch of strangers they neither know nor care about. At the absolute worst, they languish in a penniless, friendless, meaningless life this world often promises to offer.

My best friend, however, was the real deal. Our friendship was, as the kids these days call it, legit. She had meant the world to me. Our breakup was, therefore, as unexpected as it was insidious. We never saw it coming, while we steadily grew apart. There was no drama, no big fights, nothing that was momentous enough to end what was once the most cherished relationship of my life. We simply grew out of it, grew into individuals who were too different to even be friends, let alone besties.

Falling out of friendships rarely gets as much attention as falling out of love. A breakup between friends does not carry the weight of the breakup of a romantic relationship. We are culturally and socially conditioned to be prepared for, and perhaps even handle heartbreaks when it comes to relationships. But nobody tells us about the friends we are going to lose along the way, which break your heart nevertheless, the hurt that lingers with no real outlet, with nobody to hold your hand through.

The Greek categorised love under seven different heads, where Eros, the traditional, romantic, lust-driven form of love stood on the same pedestal as Philia, the love that is deep friendship. The point was to highlight that love can have many facets, each distinct in expression, and each as important as the other. To say one love is greater than the other, and consequently, one hurt is greater than the other leads to an unhealthy culture of repressed feeling and emotions that is bound to have emotional and mental health repercussions, whether we acknowledge them or not.

She was my friend before adulthood hit me with all its cynicism, and shattered the romance around the idea of “best” friends.

A Guardian article on the end of friendships, compares it to having a limb cut off. The article cites Liz Pryor, the author of What Did I Do Wrong? What to Do When You Don’t Know Why the Friendship Is Over. “It’s devastating to lose a historical friendship – anything over two years, where you really did rely upon each other emotionally,” she says in the article. “There’s the receiver and there is the dumper. The two points of view are so incredibly opposed. The girl who is dumped says, ‘It was out of nowhere, I had no idea.’ But when you talk to the person on the other side, that person typically says they have been accumulating things that have been bothering them over time.” Another piece in Time magazine quotes clinical therapist Miriam Kirmayer, who says,“People feel like they should have this figured out, and assume that everyone else has this figured out. They feel like they are doing something wrong going through friendship breakups.”

It isn’t as if our pop culture is entirely oblivious to the enormity of the end of friendships. Almost the entire story arc of Captain America: Civil War hinged on the falling out between Tony and Steve. For someone who had not been a franchise fan, it was too hard to make sense of those stakes – and it was impossible to summarise what that fight meant to the fans and the heartbreak it caused them. Closer home, movies like Sholay, and more recently Sonu Ke Titu Ki Sweety and Veere Di Wedding chose to bypass the traditional romance and capitalised on the emotional fodder the bond between friends and their breakups can offer for any storyline.

We are told that love rules supreme, and that nothing breaks like a lovelorn heart. And yet, heartbreak yielded by estranged friends continues to be one of the most replicated, and most loved story-arc across formats. From Sherlock to F.R.I.E.N.D.S. to How I Met Your Mother to Harry Potter, there is a long line of maddeningly popular shows, movies and books that have cashed in on the emotional investment that fans have in the friendships between the lead characters. Breaking up friends or instigating a well-timed, bitter, world-ending fight between them, be it Sherlock and Watson, Joey and Chandler, Ted and Barney, or even Jai and Veeru, is an emotionally manipulative – and highly effective – plot device.

And yet, when it comes to the real world, friendships and their rather frequent breakups continue to be experiences that are treated with attitudes that range from dismissive to disdainful. As kids, we are used to being told by adults to spend time with “other friendsæ, or they “told you so”, every time we have a fight or breakup with a friend. As adults, when we breakup with friends, rarely does a support group rally around us, nobody to offer a tub of ice-cream and tissues, nobody to really just acknowledge how much it hurts. There is always an unsaid hierarchy of emotional repercussions that a breakup between lovers has, as opposed to a breakup between friends.

And yet, heartbreak yielded by estranged friends continues to be one of the most replicated, and most loved story-arc across formats.

The day my best friend unfriended me, I stayed glued to my screen for several minutes, frozen in a moment when an era seemed to come to an end. For an act so frivolous, I knew what it really symbolised. It was over. Despite the fact that I had long seen it coming, and in a lot of ways instigated it, and despite the long list of actual good friends I have fortunately accumulated over the years, nothing could have prepared me for the emptiness I felt in my heart. The pain of that breakup stayed with me for weeks, lingering in the background like an emotion I just didn’t know how to process.

A couple of days ago, over a sleepover with my cousins who are about a decade younger to me, we drifted into a late-night chat. One of my cousins admitted to his troubles, which were not because of a girl as we had presumed between whispers and giggles. It was because a bunch of his friends had changed schools and because teenage attention span is only worth the next shiny thing, had conveniently forgotten him.

The adult in me had wanted to tell him to forget about them and find other, “better” friends. But his halting words and stilted confession were enough for me to know that it wasn’t a hurt that could be wished away. And so I did what I had always wished someone would do for me every time a friend deserted me and broke my heart.

I offered him a hug, and told him I understood. Because I did.