When best friends aren’t forever

Platonic breakups can hurt just as much romantic ones, but we have less support

words by abeer khan
visuals by pernia jamshed

When best friends aren’t forever

Platonic breakups can hurt just as much romantic ones, but we have less support

It was another long day at school and an even longer night at the gym. The sounds of treadmills thrumming intermingled with the smell of an off-brand disinfectant lingering on the equipment. I sat down on a black bench facing an open window, the cold air sending chills through my body. I knew I needed rest from my overextended workout but I couldn’t bear to sit with the thoughts of self-doubt and pity running through my mind—“Am I good enough? Am I the problem? Do I even deserve to be treated nicely?” So I got back up on the treadmill and continued my journey to willful ignorance.

Last year, after falling out with my best friend of six years, I spent every night at the gym. I’d come home from my one hour and forty-five minute commute from Ryerson and then immediately make my way downstairs to the gym in my apartment building. It was an outlet for me to escape and distract myself from my crumbling friendship. No matter how many pounds I lifted or miles I ran, I couldn’t escape the constant fear and anxiety of losing my best friend and what my life would look like without her.

Later that month, I was laying in bed among piles of clean laundry that I was too lazy to put away when I received the final text from her. “I just don’t think we should be friends anymore,” the grey bubble read on iMessage.

I couldn’t believe it. Throughout our relationship, I always felt like it was me who was treated badly, ignored and uncared for. Yet here she was, messaging me at 4 p.m. in the afternoon like it was the most casual text, saying she didn’t want to be my friend.

After that, she blocked me on Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat. There wouldn’t be any more impromptu trips to Pita Land where we’d pig out on more food than we could handle or late night dance parties to One Direction in my cramped, overheated bedroom.

I still feel the impact of our breakup in every friendship I’ve had since. From the way I started second-guessing all my texts to old friends to my reluctance in opening up to new ones, I lost sight of my value in all my relationships, feeling like a nuisance instead.

Something I didn’t realize at the time, however, was that I’m not alone in this feeling.

Kelly Li-Mongeon, a registered psychotherapist based in Toronto, says that friendship breakups and romantic breakups can be equally hurtful.

“It's not about what the label was...but it's the impact that the two people have on each other and the type of bond and connection that they have, because that’s the loss,” says Li-Mongeon.

A pair of 2017 studies from the University of Michigan that involved over 280,000 people found that friendships were influential to individual levels of health and happiness. In cases where friendships were a source of strain, participants reported more chronic illnesses, whereas in cases where friends were a source of support, participants were happier.

While it’s clear that friendships are significant to one's life, friendship breakups are still rarely talked about in society. I wish I could pull up studies on how frequently friends split apart and the impact that this can have, but these studies just don’t exist, especially in comparison to their romantic counterparts.

In TV shows and movies you see the main character fall in love, and if they break up with their partner, there are conversations, hurt, wallowing and often closure. You don’t see this representation when it comes to friendship breakups, making them isolating, gruelling and even embarrassing, because you think it only happened to you and that it was because of you.

Further, in romantic relationships there’s often a discussion or clear end to the relationship—essentially, closure, which is seldom seen when it comes to friendships, says Saunia Ahmad, a clinical psychologist and director of the Toronto Psychology Clinic. She says when there’s no closure, doubt and damage can entrench themselves in your future relationships.

“Closure often is... about making meaning of what happened and having a very realistic conclusion to why things ended,” she says.

Without closure, there’s no chance for healing. “You don't get the opportunity to learn something about yourself and what happened, you don't gain the lesson from the breakup,” Ahmad says. “And in fact, you may in the end have the wrong idea why there was a breakup.”

These wrong ideas can lead to severe emotional pain and damage to one’s self-esteem.

Jewel Verone’s degree in early childhood studies at Ryerson came to a rocky close in May 2020. As someone who thrived in group study sessions and frequently visited coffee shops around campus to study, she struggled with online learning.

Verone decided that in order to make it through the semester and graduate, she’d have to take a break from social media and check her phone as little as possible to avoid any distractions.

After pulling through the final stretch of her degree, Verone was able to reconnect with her friends and focus on things besides school, like tending to her plants and writing in her journal. She felt the weight of school lift off her shoulders as the past four years of her undergraduate career finally came to an end. As this slowly started to sink in, Verone reached out to her best friend to thank him for all his support and love during this time—after all, he’d been by her side since high school.

When she texted him, however, she received no response for about a week. Verone didn’t think much of it as they'd gone for longer periods without talking.

The following week when she started teacher’s college at York University, she sat at her desk staring at her laptop screen while her Zoom lecture droned on. When the class finally took a break, she went on her phone, scrolling through Instagram. As a habit, she went to see what her best friend was up to. She clicked on his profile and realized that he'd gone on a massive unfollowing spree, slashing the list of people who he followed by almost 200. What Verone didn’t expect was for her to be one of the people removed from the list.

Her phone slipped out of her fingers and clattered to the ground. She was lost and had no idea why she was unfollowed, especially by someone who had been a source of support and comfort all her life. While the two hadn’t talked as much as they used to, she considered them to be close—they were best friends for almost eight years. Never having experienced a friendship breakup or even hearing about it from others, Verone didn’t know what to do and was unable to process how his absence would now change her life.

“What did I do? How can I talk to anybody about this? Can I even talk to this person...in the future? Like, what was it?” she remembers thinking.

“It's such a taxing thing to go through emotionally and mentally because...you're losing somebody that was important to you,” Verone says. “You feel like something's wrong with you, because this person who you shared so much with is all of a sudden gone from your life.”

She felt weird that she was feeling this way towards a breakup that was strictly platonic, especially since all the other breakups she’d previously encountered had been romantic.

According to Ahmad, breakups that occur online can be especially painful. Since a lot of friendships are developed and maintained over the internet, it’s easy for friends to stop talking because they can just ghost one another.

“You don't really understand as much [online] and then you're just left to kind of make further assumptions,” says Ahmad.

Li-Mongeon says sometimes ghosting can occur when people no longer have the emotional capacity to maintain a friendship. The more things they have to juggle in life, the less they can accommodate. So when people become overwhelmed, they may no longer have the space for a friendship they once did, which isn’t anyone’s fault.

However, she says that when a best friend can no longer be there for you, you lose trust in that person. This can trickle into subsequent relationships as well because you fear that the same thing will happen again.

“It's challenging, it's hard, because once that trust is broken, once you start to go down that path yourself, it's a slippery slope.”

Scrolling through Twitter this fall, Verone saw a photo of a character from Naruto, a popular anime, on her timeline. She immediately went to click the share button on the right side of the tweet, wanting to send it to her best friend, before she realized she could no longer do that. They hadn’t talked in months, despite Verone’s initial efforts to text and contact him.

It made her think about all the times she’d message him, losing it over the latest episodes. “Just wait for what’s next,” he’d tell her, laughing, having already finished the show.

As she stared at her computer screen, she realized that she missed his friendship. Between graduating and starting a new program she’d been too busy to think about how she no longer had a best friend. After months of not confronting this new reality, she knew this was something she had to become okay with in order to move on and stop dwelling on their past.

Verone decided to keep following her best friend on Instagram, even though he unfollowed her, because he was important to her. In the early days of their friendship, she supported him through a rough patch, staying up late on phone calls, navigating time zones when he was in the Philippines and just being there to offer a shoulder for him to lean on.

Reminiscent, she took out her journal and started to write about their friendship, processing her emotions step by step. First, she acknowledged that they were no longer friends, that they hadn’t been since May. On social media, he and his family seemed to be doing fine—he looked happy. He was moving forward and eventually, so was she.

Verone realized that seeing him thrive in his element and content with his life today still made her happy. “I'm really proud of this person. I don't harbor any ill feelings about him,” she says, noting his growth in the past year as an individual.

“I guess his significance changed in my life instead of him being removed [completely]. I feel like he's just one of those people that was in my past that I still love and I still appreciate.”

Li-Mongeon says acceptance is part of the nonlinear grieving process. When a friendship ends, the individual still has to mourn and grieve the loss of that friendship, she adds “Whether it be a short amount of time or a long period of time, there’s no timeline for grief, and there's no timeline for mourning,” she says.

Even after processing the loss of a relationship, she says it’s okay if we still miss that person.

About three years ago, Vanessa Evangelista’s best friend held a sewing needle up to a lighter in her bedroom. The second-year politics and governance student sat in anticipation as her friend plunged the needle into black India ink, lifting it out and positioning herself by Evangelista’s ankle, propped up on a pillow.

She began to poke a small outline of a UFO into Evangelista’s skin, the prickling sensation leaving a permanent mark. The tattoo was supposed to be something they’d sporadically add to whenever they could.

Growing up without having a big friend group, Evangelista especially valued her relationship with her best friend. She didn’t have many people she could turn to, but her best friend was someone who was always there for her. “It was just kind of nice to have that extra support system, somebody who wasn't family,” she says.

A year later, Evangelista was sprawled out on her yoga mat, aimlessly scrolling through her Snapchat when she clicked on her memories and saw a flashback from that day. She sat there for a few moments, staring at the tattoo on her ankle, feeling nostalgic for the person who no longer had a place in her life.

They stopped being friends in late 2019, over a fight about her friend’s unhealthy relationship with a significant other. She would constantly take offence to Evangelista’s opinions and advice, and the disagreements ultimately pushed them apart.

In an interview with HelloGiggles, Carla Manly, a clinical psychologist based in California, says that sometimes fear and shame can cause people to put up walls when hearing about their potentially toxic relationship. She says that if your friend’s guard is up, it’s okay to back off for a while.

But Evangelista says she felt their breakup coming long before their last conversation. In the last year or two of their friendship, she realized they weren’t as close anymore, and she could feel that it was more on her end.

“I would tell her everything that was going on in my life, and I felt like I was missing out [on] a lot of what was happening with her,” she says.

According to Ahmad, “relationships are mutual.” Oftentimes people don’t realize that while it’s important to be able to share something with your friends, them opening up to you is also crucial. “We don't realize that it’s a great feeling to know that your friends can trust you and can lean on you,” she says. Having that mutuality is significant and a strong foundation of a close relationship with someone.

When her best friend didn’t try reaching out after the fight, Evangelista decided not to contact her either. “When we had that last conversation, I was kind of done,” she says. “I felt very confident in myself for not reaching out and I think I did the right thing.”

While she didn’t have any coping mechanisms prepared to get her through the breakup, she learned lessons in healing from it that she still uses today. Now she finds herself communicating with her friends more and finding solutions when there’s a rift instead of having full-blown arguments.

While the breakup was frustrating for her, she understands that sometimes friends grow apart, and she doesn’t harbour any bad feelings.

“When I do think about her, I try to think about the good things that happened, so I know it wasn't a waste of my time,” she says. “I don't think she's a bad person at all and I still want the best for her, but I just don't think that our lives are meant to be....When I think about it like that, I feel a lot better.”

According to Li-Mongeon, it’s important to look at your friendships on a spectrum and appreciate everything they have to offer. “Being able to hold the relationship as a whole, the good, the bad, the positive, the negative… is healthy,” she says. Rather than resenting the loss of a close friendship, acknowledging its impact can help you move on.

Ahmad says friendships are always evolving, which is something that’s important to our personal growth. “We tend to have different friends at different stages of our life,” she says. “You’re growing, you're not the same person and you want to explore your identity and get to know yourself better by interacting with different people.”

As a kid, I was always the friend who had to walk on the grass because the others left no space on the sidewalk. I’d always find myself nodding along to the things people would say, even if I didn't agree, and I was never able to stand up for myself if people were rude to me.

I was always a follower, never a leader, and until high school, I never truly had a best friend. It wasn’t until this girl came along, sat next to me at lunch in grade nine, both of us munching on our shitty cafeteria sandwiches, that I felt like I had finally found the friendship I'd always longed for.

Instead of speaking over me, she asked about my day. She listened to my never-ending rants and encouraged me to speak about my interests, valuing what I had to say. My best friend gave me a safe space where I was able to be myself—something I never had in elementary or middle school.

Losing that friend has been the hardest thing I’ve ever had to go through. The person who had once taught me that it was okay to be me was no longer okay with me. It made me feel insecure and sad for months. I would never wish those feelings upon anyone else—not because I think friendships must last forever but because the lack of resources to help me navigate this loss meant going through it alone, and coming out of the experience broken and scarred.

It took me a really long time to understand that our friendship’s end wasn't solely on me and definitely wasn’t just on her. She no longer had the capacity to make space for me and that’s okay, I know that now. Friends are allowed to grow apart and break up—it’s natural and just another aspect of life. I can’t say that it didn’t hurt, but I can say that it gets better with time and patience.

I'm in a good place now in my life with friends who love me, care for me and validate my feelings. While the road to acceptance and growth was bumpy and obscure at times, I turned out alright, even if it was painful for a bit. At least now I can advocate for myself in my friendships and make sure people have space for me before giving my all to them.

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