With many relationships, the reasons they end are clear.
Two people who are dating realize they’re not compatible in some way and don’t have a future together.
A married couple decides they can’t stand living with each other anymore.
Business partners split to pursue divergent goals.
A boss fires an employee for stealing from the company; or an employee quits when his boss doesn’t give him a desired promotion.
Why a friendship ends isn’t always so obvious, however, nor is how one ends; while with the above relationships, there’s an explicit moment, a concrete event that terminates the bond — a DTR, a divorce, the revising of a contract, etc. — with friendship, no such sanctioned ritual exists.
Why a friendship dissolved, and whether or not it is or isn’t still extant, can thus remain something of a mystery.
To unravel this mystery, and help all of us better understand the dynamics behind the unique, too-little-considered relationship of friendship, I spoke with Bill Rawlins, a professor of communication at Ohio University who has spent his career studying the subject. (If you haven’t already, I highly recommend you listen to the podcast I did with him about friendship. It’s one of my favorites.)
The Ambiguity of Friendship
To understand why friendships rarely have a clear, explicit ending, you first have to understand the distinctive nature of friendship.
“Friendship is not sanctioned in the same way as other relationships are. Friendships rest on a kind of mutual covenant, but it’s many times not explicitly stated,” Bill told me.
Marriages and business partnerships have explicit covenants. All the parties know when the relationship has officially started and the terms of the relationship. Because they have explicit beginnings, they also have explicit endings.
Not so with friendships.
You usually don’t tell people, “Hey, we’re officially friends now, and this is what I expect of you, and this is what you can expect of me.” Instead, friendships slowly grow into existence through regular contact between two people who have mutual regard for each other. At some point, there’s a joint (but unspoken) understanding that you’re friends.
Without a definite idea of what the obligations of a friendship are, and thus if they are or aren’t being fulfilled, it’s hard to know if a friendship should be ended, or has ended. Thus friendships fade into existence and then often fade out of existence.
If you dig into this ambiguity further, however, you’ll find there are typically three reasons why — even if you’re not 100% sure you and someone else aren’t friends anymore — that your relationship has definitively eroded.
The 3 Reasons Friendships End
Loss of Commonalities
What makes friendship so unique as a relationship is that friends freely choose each other, based on nothing other than mutual interests, admiration, and affection. The relationship isn’t entered into for financial gain, as in business partnerships; isn’t bound by blood, as in familial ties; and isn’t propelled by sexual attraction, as in romantic relationships. As Rawlins explained on the podcast, people don’t become friends with someone for “categorical reasons,” but simply “because of the person that they are.”
As Rawlins also importantly observes, “friendships are always about something.” Friends share interests, experiences, and/or sets of values that create a sense of commonality and equality that is fundamental to friendship.
Regarding the above, friendships can be broken down into two categories based on how deep the thing that a friendship is about runs.
The first category of friendship might be labeled “circumstantial.” These are not friendships you likely would have struck up independently and spontaneously based on an “attraction” to someone; instead, external forces — becoming roommates, having classes together, hanging out with your wife’s friend’s husband — bring you together, and because you see the person frequently, you develop an easy, comfortable familiarity with them.
Co-workers are great examples of circumstantial friends. You may have a great time with someone at the office, feel like you know them pretty well, and even sometimes hang out with them outside of work. But if you change jobs, you end up seeing this friend much less often, and when you do, given that you don’t share the context of work anymore, and can no longer conversate as you once did about projects and watercooler gossip, you may feel like you no longer have much in common and the friendship will fizzle out. The relationship was primarily about work, and when you no longer share this work, the friendship ends.
The second category of friendship is what might be called, for lack of a better name and to stay with the “c” theme, cosmic. This is a friendship based not primarily on the external influences bringing you together, but instead on a strongly felt connection. You think on a similar wavelength, feel committed to similar principles, have a passion for the same pursuits. We might say this kind of friendship is based on a shared view of what constitutes the philosophical “Good.”
Even if some circumstances between you and a friend to which you are cosmically connected change — e.g., one of you moves away or gets married — and even if you don’t see each other too often, if your principles and passions remain the same, you’ll likely remain friends, and be able to pick up where you left off whenever you do see each other. This kind of friendship can still erode, however, if one party abandons the values that the friendship was formerly based around; this can be a mere shift in perspective that the relationship can weather, or at outright betrayal of shared values, which will likely terminate the relationship more decidedly — a situation which will be discussed in more detail below.
Whether the friendship is circumstantial or cosmic, the more commonalities two friends share, the more likely they are to remain friends, and the more commonalities they lose, the more likely it is that they won’t. For example, two friends who have some personality differences but are in the same stage of life and run in the same circles can find that the latter factor compensates for the former; on the flip side, two friends can continue to share the same values, but if one is married with kids and lives on the East Coast, and the other is single and childless and lives on the West Coast, they may experience a weakening in their bond.
As Bill told me in our recent conversation: “We get separated by time and space, or we get separated by how our lives are organized, and it may not feel like we’re friends anymore.”
Probably the best example of the way a friendship can end based on the loss of commonalities is the way some of the relationships you had in high school and college ultimately dissipate.
Back in your school days, the intensity of your bond with a best friend likely made you both feel that you’d always stay close. But then you graduated. You both went your separate ways to start your respective lives. Maybe you stayed in your home state to go to school, and your bud went out of state. You both got married. Pursued different careers. Changed beliefs. Had kids. Made new friends.
Sure, you keep in touch with your best friend from high school every now and then, but you’re likely not really “best friends” anymore. You might still consider each other friends, but the nature of the relationship has changed. You haven’t had the regular, in-person contact needed to sustain a strong friendship. You don’t share in day-to-day circumstances. You don’t share a social network or the same interests. You share a past, but not much else. Neither of you had to explicitly acknowledge the changing of the friendship. Time and circumstances have just slowly caused it to fade away.
And that’s how the majority of friendships end, according to Bill. Not with a bang, but a whimper. “Most friendships lapse until there’s no expectation of seeing that friend or having that friend act like a friend.”
One of the bits of my interview with Bill that stood out to me the most, was his observation that “people remain friends to the extent that they fulfill each other’s expectation of the relationship.”
This is a tricky business, because as aforementioned, the “terms” of a friendship are never explicitly laid out or stated, and two friends can thus bring different expectations into a friendship and have different ideas of what a friendship should look like.
One friend may be more self-contained, place a low priority on physically getting together with frequency, and be inconsistent about answering texts.
The other friend may desire a deeper relationship and more contact and communication; as he’s always the one to initiate those latter two things, he gradually grows disillusioned with this disparity in effort and investment.
Friends can also have different expectations of what it means for someone to be there for them during a difficult time. One friend may expect the other to provide ample emotional and tangible support in a crisis, while the other wouldn’t expect that kind of treatment, and doesn’t offer it to others either.
These mismatched expectations can cause frustrations in a friendship, particularly since friends are unlikely to surface and discuss these issues. People are, again, unsure of exactly what they should expect from a friend, and thus aren’t entirely certain if their expectations are reasonable or not. And there’s no real template or cultural sanction for having a friendship “DTR.” The friend who desires more from the relationship doesn’t want to seem weird and needy; the friend who is more independent is likely completely unaware that the other person is feeling neglected. So while Bill encourages discussing expectations with your friends to resolve such differences, when those conversations understandably don’t happen, the friendship is likely to end. The friend who desires more is likely to be frustrated and even resentful at what he deems to be the inherent flakiness of his buddy, and begins to think, “Well, if he doesn’t care, I don’t care,” and stops reaching out to him. The friend who already expected less from the relationship, and didn’t take any initiative in the first place, of course fails to reach out from his end. And the friendship dissolves.
While most friendships slowly fade out of existence, occasionally they go out with a bang, and people explicitly say, “This friendship is over.”
According to Bill, the most common cause of the hard break in a friendship is betrayal. This betrayal comes in two forms.
The first is a betrayal of a shared understanding of what it means to live a good life.
“We’re friends with people because we think we share a common understanding about the world and a common understanding about what it means to live well,” Bill says. “A friendship helps two people with that shared understanding live up to that understanding. When there is a direct violation of that common understanding, the friendship often ends. Abruptly and with rancor.”
Bill gave an example of two men who were friends and shared an understanding and belief of the sanctity of marriage. But then, one day, one of the friends admits to cheating on his wife. The other friend calls him out on it. An argument ensues.
Adulterous friend: “Man, it’s no big deal. You know that Lacy and I have had a tough go in our marriage. I thought you’d understand.”
Non-adulterous friend: “You know that’s wrong. You need to stop, man. And if you can’t, I can’t respect you anymore and no longer want to be friends with you.”
Adulterous friend: “Some friend you are! What about loyalty? Doesn’t that mean anything to you?”
If you read closely, you’ll notice that there’s a sense of betrayal in both parties about what they thought were shared perspectives on values and the nature of friendship.
The non-adulterous friend thought an essential basis of their friendship was the shared belief in the importance of marriage. When his friend cheated on his wife, he felt there was a betrayal of that shared ideal.
The adulterous friend felt betrayed by his non-adulterous friend because he felt his non-adulterous friend violated the ideal of loyalty in friendship.
An irreconcilable difference in what each thought to be a shared understanding of the good life results in a hard break in the friendship.
During this most recent U.S. election, we’ve seen how the betrayal of a shared understanding of the good life can tear a friendship apart. And thanks to social media, we’ve sometimes seen those hard breaks happen publicly.
Bill says there are gradations to this. Some issues are so core that any difference in understanding with a friend will mean an immediate end to the friendship. But some issues aren’t that important, so you let them slide. If you’re a Democrat, but your buddy is a Republican, you might bust each other’s chops about it, but because you share an ideal of the love of good books and the wisdom therein, you let the differences in politics slide. Or, says Bill, you don’t go deep into certain issues with a certain friend because you value the friendship too much for it to be potentially rent by the contention which would result. Generally, it seems that if you both have a similar idea of the Good, but just have divergent ideas on how that Good is best achieved, policy wise, then a friendship has a better chance of being preserved. But, if you fundamentally differ in your ideas of the Good itself, then the friendship will be harder to maintain.
The second type of betrayal that causes a hard break in a friendship is what we usually think of when we think of betrayal: Throwing your work buddy under the bus so you don’t get in trouble or you can get a promotion. Talking crap behind your buddy’s back. Cheating with your buddy’s wife. Basically doing the things that would consign you to getting chewed up by the jaws of Satan in Dante’s seventh layer of hell.
While betrayal often leads to a hard break in a friendship, it can also simply result in the friendship slowly fading away. If you discover your friend has been insulting you behind your back, instead of confronting him about it, you might just stop contact with him and let the relationship naturally evaporate. Thanks to the ambiguous nature of friendship, an ambiguous ending is always a possibility.
Whether a friendship subtly fades away or forcefully breaks apart, because of the uniquely malleable nature of this type of relationship, reconciliation is always a possibility. As Bill observes, “Friendships are vulnerable to circumstances, but that vulnerability is also what makes them flexible.” Maybe you haven’t seen your best friend from high school in years, and you no longer consider each other best friends. But if he moves back to your town, perhaps the friendship can be rekindled with regular contact. Or if you’ve had a hard break with a friend over a disagreement, there’s always a chance for forgiveness and the making of amends. The ambiguity and flexibility of friendship make this kind of reconciliation easier than restarting a failed marriage or a broken business partnership. As Bill notes, the freedom and wholly voluntary nature of friendships can make them both frustrating and fascinating:
This is what’s captivated me for decades about friendship. It’s a relationship with so much potential integrity and a robust character. The only thing that keeps it together is your and my respect for each other and the degree that we meet each other’s expectations for each other.