The sociological argument for breaking up with bad friends

Friendships don’t always last forever.
Friendships don’t always last forever.
Image: Mario Antonio Pena Zapatería via CC BY-SA 2.0
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When we talk about break ups, most people think of romantic couples. But friendships are some of the most important relationships in our lives—and just as good friends provide support and give life meaning, toxic friendships can make you physically and mentally ill.

So what should you do when a friend simply isn’t acting like a friend any more? Though some might be inclined to cling on for the sake of prosperity, many sociologists say there’s a time to end friendships turned sour.

Janice McCabe, a sociology professor at Dartmouth College who studies friendships among young adults aged roughly 18 to 27, says ending friendships can be a way of advancing our identity.

“We construct our identities, our sense of who we are, against our friends and we do this in both positive and negative ways,” she says.

Most people like to see themselves as moral, and so if they notice a friend acting in a way they strongly disagree with, they might well decide to distance themselves. “It’s a way to keep up a positive sense of self,” adds McCabe.

Though there aren’t hard statistics on the number of people who’ve ended friendships, Jan Yager, who wrote a book ,‘When Friendship Hurts,’ and is currently conducting further research on the subject, says she believes it’s extremely common.

There’s no hard and fast rule for when to end a friendship, says Yager, and if a friendship has had a long history it’s often best to have a “cooling off” period rather than do anything dramatic.

But if a friendship is truly toxic—if there is betrayal, lack of trusts, insults, then Yager says these relationships can significantly lower self-esteem and are best ended.

Loyalty and betrayal are two factors often cited by those who choose to end friendships. But Harriet Lerner, author of ‘The Dance of Anger’ on intimate relationships, says deal breakers aren’t necessarily the same for everyone.

Some people might find it impossible to be close with “Susan”, who can’t keep secrets, says Lerner. “Another person might accept this limitation, find others to confide in, and enjoy the fact that Susan is funny and warm,” she adds.

The biggest problems can emerge when we as one friend to meet all our needs. “Each friend evokes a different world in us,” says Lerner, and so having several friends helps us not overreact to the limitations of any one person.

Diverse groups can also give us greater freedom to choose our friends and, if need be, let some go. Angela Bahns, psychology professor at Wellesley, says she’s conducting research that suggests willingness to end a friendship is influenced by whether people believe they actively choose who their friends are. “The more you believe you can choose who your friends are, and the easier you believe it is to find new friends, the more willing you should be to end current friendships and search for a friendship that better meets your needs,” she says. People tend to have a greater sense of their personal choice in friendship if they’re in large and diverse settings as opposed to, say, a small and isolated town without much diversity.

But even for those in large groups with many friends, ending a friendship shouldn’t be taken lightly. While there’s no sense in continuing a relationship that makes you consistently miserable, old friends know your life story, and shouldn’t be carelessly discarded.