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i broke up with my bff & i still feel like i'm mourning
the problem with "forever"
mixed feelings is a bi-weekly advice column. Every other week, a different mental health expert, author, or journalist will respond to most pressing existential conundrums. If you like this sort of thing, why not subscribe?
I broke up with my best friend last year and I feel like I'm still mourning it. We talked every day, we liked the same things, we could tell what the other was feeling with just a look. I always thought that “best friends” were supposed to be everything to each other, but I realize now that we were so close that I could barely distinguish myself from her. I absorbed her emotions in ways that made me hate myself. In the end, I lost a bit of myself in her.
Over the years, I became more anxious, worrying too much about what she thought, secretly competitive and jealous of her wins. I felt terrible that I could have those thoughts about someone I loved. The only way I knew how to rid myself of those feelings was to sever ties. We had a long conversation where we laid it all out there… It felt really cathartic to finally share those dark thoughts about a "best friendship" that I thought was supposed to be perfect and selfless.
It has been exactly a year since that conversation and I still think about her almost every day. I beat myself up for choosing to end things instead of working on us. I miss her sometimes, but I feel so much better not knowing about her life. I feel a lot less anxious and I am actually happy…But, I still feel like I'm grieving, not her in particular, but myself. I still feel like I'm lost in her and I wonder if I am a bad friend. Will this feeling ever go away? — badfriend77, she/her
I broke my bffaeaeae (best friends forever and ever) addiction five years ago, at age 25. We’d been friends for two decades — a gal down the street who sat next to me on the school bus. She shared her snacks and yanked out the loose tooth that was bothering me. As an only child, I had never experienced such closeness. We soon knew each other inside and out. We shared each and every milestone, held each other through first heartbreaks, compared notes on first kisses, scream-cried listening to Avril Lavigne, even shaved our legs for the first time while talking on the phone. There was nothing off limits in this friendship — we shared it all — and we were the most important people in each other’s lives. Until.
There is always an Until. For that first best friendship, what ended us was a disagreement so explosive we couldn’t find our way back to each other through the wreckage. There would be seven more Untils before I permanently severed ties with the institution of “best friendship”. In the time since, I’ve gained a lot of clarity.
I’m going to start where you ended, and I'm not sure you’ll like what I have to say: No, I'm not sure this feeling will ever go away. It hasn’t, for me, and I am hoping in the exploration of why you’ll be able to find some peace. First, I want to normalize what you’re experiencing as a very legitimate form of grief. A complicated one at that (but I've learned grief is never simple).
There’s no script to follow when it comes to friend breakups. “[They’re] ambiguous. And ambiguous loss often feels never-ending,” says relationship therapist Carter Houston. “If that friend was a best friend, perhaps they were the person who witnessed you most deeply and wholly…the loss of that is tremendous and leaves a lot to mourn. When we want feelings to go away though…Unfortunately the only way to get over something is to go through.”
the impossible pressure of “best friendship”
Best friendship has our culture in a chokehold. Consider the BFF necklace — the jagged half-hearts we wear to declare to the world that we’re platonically taken. It’s the most pertinent symbol of the social capital of BFFs. The media taunts us with these relationships from the get. Instagram douses us in friendship appreciation posts — there’s a National Best Friends day for fuck’s sake. The glorified all-consuming, all-knowing, unbreakable bond is a must-have accessory for every season of life. But, guess what? Those bff necklaces and the friendships they signify have one thing in common: they get too much wear, and they break.
The last best friend I had was my most favorite. Every failed best friendship prior to this one didn’t matter — they paled in comparison. This was my forever friend, my platonic soulmate, my perfect match. We lived together, threw parties together, traveled, and made theater. We were each other’s good mornings and good nights. It’s not unhealthy (I told myself), we just have something different (I reasoned).
This friendship began in our early twenties, when everything in our lives was new, and it continued to thrive into my mid-twenties. By then my life had a lovely shape to it. I came out as queer, my writing was catching fire, I fell deeply in love, and I felt a strong sense of self I hadn’t in the past. I had all that and my best friend, so I was riding high. But then my bff started changing, fast, and I started resenting that change, faster. That resentment built in me for months, an ugly, roiling thing simmering within. With each new change I grew closer to boiling, but I didn’t dare to lift the lid. Why couldn’t I accept that my friend was changing? Why was I so petrified of our lives being different? I told myself the feeling would lift, that we would return to our closeness, but we never did. Months passed and tensions thickened. One day my last best friend and I reached our Until. We unspooled our grievances. And while there was some relief in that – acknowledging that best friendship isn’t, in fact, perfect – it was too late.
These friendships, more often than not, are unsustainable. We pour all of ourselves into them, into one person, and get love-drunk on sameness. My other half! My person! We have the same mind! People mistake us for siblings! They know what I'm going to say before I say it. I can’t live without them. We complete each other.
When you see it all written out like that, it’s a little…off putting, no? And yet these are the things we say, and we get such a high off saying them. I certainly did. I felt such pride, such honor, such relief in knowing I had what I was told to want. Because best friendship is a coveted thing. And within femme friendship, which was my particular brand of addiction, nothing is more coveted than sameness. But it is that demand for sameness that will always screw us in the end.
both things can be true
We’re entirely ill-equipped for conflict in friendship. We promise forever, but this verbal decree doesn’t come with any proposal of maintenance – no anticipation of tension, disagreement, or change. But our reflection is bound to change, it is supposed to change, and when it inevitably does it can impact a friendship in ways we’re unable to predict. The necklace only squeezes tighter.
Friendship breakups often come with little closure, and so many questions. One day you feel at peace, the next you can’t believe you turned away from your perfect person. The back and forth you’re experiencing as you ruminate over this loss is so normal. “Often, a big part of processing a break up is oscillating between romanticizing the person and demonizing them,” says NYC therapist Sarah Keller. “Most likely, parts of both narratives are true. This friendship had really great parts and not-so-great-for-you parts. Try to see it through. More often than not, if you feel like something’s wrong, it’s because something is.” There will be days you waver — that’s natural. When you do, “lean on your other friends and allies in the breakup,” Keller adds. “Time is the great healer. If there’s a chance of redemption for the relationship, it will always be an option.”
it won’t define your future
On some level we are always prepared for a romantic breakup. We have it drilled into us that 50% of marriage ends in divorce, so we go into each and every romantic relationship with a break-up on the table. But here’s the other thing – we’ve also been prepped on how to avoid a breakup. We learn platitudes like relationships take work. We talk about maintaining individuality, work on codependency, and emphasize growing together. Conflict and change in romantic relationships is normalized. What’s more, it’s expected.
No one teaches us how to prevent a friendship breakup. Best friendships are portrayed as peaceful, easy, selfless, perfect. And those films we learned all that “bff” stuff from? They always end with a tidy resolution. For a lot of friendships that resolution is possible — but what about the ones that don’t have making up in the cards?
What I've learned in my half-decade of BFF celibacy is: We can have boundaries with friends. We don’t have to promise it all! We can take breaks, have privacy, have many friendships that provide different things to different parts of ourselves. We can go into a friendship celebrating individuality over all else, learn how to support each other without giving over our entire selves – we can keep a lovely, healthy distance and still feel fulfilled.
Is it the same? No, it never will be. You and I both know how infinitely special the merging of minds, of souls, is. But the pain of my last best friendship ending will never be worth chasing the high that comes from the delicious, manic beginning of forever. I know now, after so many failed attempts, that “perfect” simply cannot last. I can appreciate what those friendships were, both beautiful and devastating, and I can also acknowledge that they weren’t healthy for my heart.
So, you’re not a Badfriend! Society failed us early on. That yearning you sometimes feel to have worked harder – that is important for your friendships to come. It is a wonderful value to have and one that will help you create balanced, fulfilling, and lasting relationships. Not to mention a chance to learn more about yourself. “Spend some time asking yourself what things you loved about this relationship. How can you hold some of that with you while still moving through this pain?” asks Houston. “How would you want to feel if the feeling of the breakup ‘went away’? Ask yourself these questions…because you deserve to honor yourself in this loss and to honor your friendship, too.”
I still have days where I cry thinking about the friendships I lost and all the memories we didn’t get to make together. But, in looking back over the past five years, I see how much I’ve grown and how much I have gained – meeting my partner, writing a book, and finding my place within an expansive friend group that feels supportive and joyous.
There’s so much to look forward to, I promise.