your guide to friendship breakups
Your 20s are a tumultuous time, packed with parties, pandemics, career moves, wake-ups and breakups. It’s also often a time when you realise who your true friends are. So what happens when you start to feel trapped in a friendship? We chat to Dr Hannah Korrel, neuropsychologist and author of How to Break Up with Friends, about the pillars of good friendship and how to break up with a mate.

It’s not you, it’s me. I feel like we’re two different people who want different things. It’s just not working. These are phrases we associate with breakdowns in romantic relationships, but last year I found myself thinking them over and over as I prepared to message a person who I’d once considered my best friend — let’s call her Sarah — to tell her that I think our friendship should come to an end. I felt like we were heading down different paths and, to be honest, it was all beginning to feel a bit one-sided.

This did not happen overnight. We’d been drifting for years after I’d moved away from our hometown, moved to America (and back), gone through a bad breakup and become so consumed by anxiety that I decided I needed to completely refresh my life. The turning point had come after a petty high school incident involving a birthday getaway that I was intentionally excluded from. Every moment I spent with Sarah and the group from then on felt toxic and I would experience feelings of dread and anxiety before catch-ups with them. Distancing myself from that group felt like a breath of fresh air (although I still enjoy seeing a few of them) and I knew in my heart that I needed to distance myself from Sarah, too.

“That’s a pretty good red flag that something is not right,” shares neuropsychologist and friendship breakup expert Dr Hannah Korrel. “You don’t have to know exactly what’s not right. But if you can at least identify that you are not feeling happy after you spend time with this person, that’s enough.”

Hearing this lifted a load of guilt off my shoulders. It turns out friendship breakups are more common that I thought. In fact, as a society we are beginning to think about friendships more like relationships. Hannah dubs this the “friendship revolution” and says it is the key to healthy, accountable relationships with friends.

Good (friend) vibes

So what are the makings of a good friend? Well, according to Hannah, there are four main pillars of friendship:

  • Trust. A good friend will have your best interests at heart with no ulterior motives. You will be able to confide in this person with no hesitancy that they will tell other people or talk about you behind your back.
  • Support. This pillar is trust’s sidekick. A friend will be supportive and understanding, always there for you even when you’re having a rough time. You can confide in them without judgement.
  • Affection. You will feel wanted, uplifted and happy to be around this person. “This category signifies that a friend improves your emotional state — they make you feel secure in times of need and happy in times of joy … this is the ‘friend’ part of friendship,” Hannah writes in How to Break Up with Friends.
  • Respect. Friends will respect your decisions, intelligence, income, values and morals. This person won’t make passive-aggressive comments or undermine you and they will value your time, attention and friendship in return.

Hard truth #1

Good friendships rely on all four pillars. A true friend isn’t someone who keeps your secrets, supports you through thick and thin and makes you feel wanted, but then puts you down or acts superior. Without respect, the foundation of the friendship fractures and it’s only a matter of time until it collapses.

“With friends, we just have this kind of unwritten rule: once a friend always a friend. And if you’re a good friend, you give and expect nothing in return,” says Hannah. “We really don’t acknowledge that a friendship is a relationship as well. Just because it’s not a romantic relationship doesn’t mean that it still doesn’t cost you a lot of time, energy and money — and that you need to have some boundaries with those friends as well, because they can be quite close to you.”

Hard truth #2

You must set boundaries. It’s okay to have expectations for a friendship and it is absolutely okay to hold them accountable when these expectations aren’t met or boundaries are crossed. It’s not about setting your expectations too high for others to achieve; it’s about figuring out what you need from the relationship, communicating it, and not letting this person take advantage of you.

Our friends have often been with us through highs, lows and in-betweens, so many of us feel a sort of obligation to stick with a friendship even when it’s making us unhappy. And we often let toxic behaviours that would never be tolerated in romantic partners slide.

How many times have you felt that a “friend” has crossed or disrespected your boundaries and you’ve kind of just let them? It happens all the time, but it’s important to know that boundaries are an essential element to every relationship, romantic or platonic.

Hard truth #3

It’s okay to cut ties when you no longer feel happy in a friendship. Sometimes it’s hard to call out exactly what is off in the relationship, but the basic rule to keep in mind is if hanging out with the person or group makes you anxious, unhappy or leaves you feeling drained afterwards, it may be time to reconsider.

Are you in a toxic friendship?

While some traits of a toxic friend are glaringly obvious, like constantly putting you down, yelling and swearing at you or even becoming physically violent, others are more subtle and hard to define.

“The tricky ones are when it’s a more covert and subtle behaviour,” explains Hannah. “So it might be manipulative, it might be gaslighting, it might be passive-aggressive; and it’s designed to be subtle and fly under the radar and make it difficult for you to feel like you can call that behaviour out.” Sound familiar? Chances are if you are feeling this way, the problem isn’t you — it’s them.

“Some may be fearful that ‘perhaps it’s me and there’s something wrong with me’ and they have this kind of fear of having no friends,” says Hannah. “They would rather stay with toxic friends than risk having no friends. But in actual fact, it’s that feeling of having no friends that is keeping you tied to these people until you make space in your life.”

Thanks to the internet and social media, making friends as an adult is no longer as hard or daunting as it once seemed. Hannah points to apps like Bumble Friends or Meet Up, and suggests joining a virtual (or IRL in the post-pandemic world) book club, finding a local hobby group or simply filling your spare time doing things you love that will attract the right kind of people into your life.

It’s also worth noting that it’s not just women who experience toxic friends and friendship breakdowns. According to Hannah’s research, some of the leading studies in Australia have shown that 80 per cent of men are unhappy with the number and quality of friendships they have. We hear a lot more about friendships breaking down between women and this is mostly due to the fact that women are much more likely to express their emotional pain, especially now, when the dialogue around detoxifying our lives is so prevalent. But just because men aren’t talking about their feelings (for the same reason mental health often isn’t discussed between men) doesn’t mean they aren’t there.

If you think you might be in a toxic friendship, your best bet is to “go with the feel”, as Hannah puts it. (You’ll find more in-depth case studies and questionnaires to help you identify toxic situations in How to Break Up with Friends.) Got a sinking feeling when you’re meeting up with someone? Feeling patronised or bullied by a “friend”? Just not enjoying hanging out with this person anymore? It’s time for the breakup chat.


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How to break up with a mate

Hard truth #4

Friendship breakups hurt, maybe even more so than breaking up with a romantic partner. When the bond of friendship is broken, when we are betrayed or simply don’t feel the ‘spark’ we once had, the reality can be crushing. “Emotional pain is registered in the same part of your brain as physical pain,” notes Hannah. “We’re much worse at acknowledging the depth and gravity of just how much a breakup hurts, even though, neurologically speaking, it has the same impact on your brain as if you had broken a bone.”

Breaking up with someone is not something you need to rush into. It should be a well-thought-out decision and, most importantly, you should stay true to yourself and your values.

“Breakups are a carefully considered process where the number-one word is integrity,” says Hannah, “so that if you ever encounter that person again on the street or on the panel of your next job interview, you’ll know that every word that came out of your mouth and the way you behaved was with integrity.” How to Break Up with Friends actually provides you with in-depth scenarios, instructions and even scripts to help take the stress and guilt out of the process.

There are multiple ways to go about friendship breakups, but it all depends on your situation and what you are emotionally and mentally capable of. Here are a few ideas to get you started:

  • The talk. We’ve all had “the talk” with an ex before — whether we were the one giving it or on the receiving end. Sit your friend down. Explain how you’ve been feeling. They will feel hurt and might get defensive, but try to keep it calm and conflict-free by using “I feel” language rather than pointing fingers. And if it does get heated, know that you have every right to walk away.
  • Ghosting. If you are worried about how a person may react (for example if you think they might get aggressive), cutting all ties and lines of communication might be your best bet. But if you’re feeling just a bit uncomfortable about the whole situation or aren’t bothered to give this person the courtesy of a goodbye chat, think about how it would feel if you are on the receiving end of ghosting. Being left in the lurch is never nice, so this approach is really only necessary when you are worried for your safety or health.
  • The slow fizzle out. Ah, this old gem — probably the most ideal way for a friendship to end. The mutual drift into silence is most likely to happen when both parties are no longer feeling fulfilled by the relationship and are looking to go their separate ways. That’s not to say that this breakup option doesn’t hurt as much as the others, but the fact that it is mutual makes it a tad easier to swallow.

But what about when you are the one being broken up with? This, my friend, is the ultimate learning experience. Listen to what the person is telling you and reflect on your behaviour and attitude towards them and the friendship. Perhaps they felt judged by you, or you were making snide remarks to put them down — or maybe they felt like they were putting in all the effort and getting nothing in return. Even when you have messed up, remember “no one is defined by a single behaviour. You are defined by all the different facets of you,” says Hannah. So learn from your mistakes. Know you are worthy of being liked and loved. And channel this energy into future friendships.

In the instance you are ghosted and the friendship ends without even knowing what you did wrong, let them go. “It might feel really unfair and really unjust that they just cut you loose without an explanation of why, but you can’t force them to give you that explanation,” says Hannah. “It seems like perhaps they’re the toxic one because they’ve gone about it in a really unhealthy manner.”

Hard truth #5

A friendship goes both ways and when one party isn’t vibing it, the friendship is as good as done. Why would you want to spend time with someone who doesn’t want to spend time with you? Remember: it’s about quality, not quantity. Surrounding yourself with a small group of people who love being around you is much more fulfilling than having dozens of “friends” who don’t really appreciate you.

Keep in mind, it is possible to salvage a friendship. The key, like any good relationship, is communication. Tell your friend when they have crossed a line or hurt you. Discuss your feelings and thoughts on the relationship. Give them a chance to show up with all four pillars all the time and learn from their mistakes. Who knows — they might have some feedback for you too.

I never quite figured out what to say to Sarah to end the friendship, so I took the slow fizzle-out route. We still send each other the occasional birthday message and well wishes. Part of me still hopes we will be able to reform our once-strong bond. But for now, I’m channelling my energy into friends who have helped me grow, shown unconditional support and put up with all the chaotic energy that life with me brings.

Georgia Nelson is a journalist based on the south coast of NSW and the features writer at WellBeing and WILD. She has a penchant for sustainable beauty, slow fashion and feminist literature.