With most of our 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 different 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. With the above relationships, there’s an explicit moment, a concrete event that terminates the bond – a divorce, the revising of a contract, not getting a promotion – but with friendship, no such sanctioned ritual exists.
Why a friendship dissolved, and whether or not it is or isn’t still extant, can be something of a mystery. To help unravel this mystery, and help all of us better understand the dynamics behind the relationship of friendship, we’ve compiled a list of the 3 most common reasons that friendships end below.
The Ambiguity of Friendship
To better understand why friendships rarely have a clear, explicit ending, you must first 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. 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. This isn’t the case with friendships.
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 already ended. Thus, friendships fade into existence and then often fade out of existence. If you dig further into this ambiguity, 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
1. Loss of Commonalities – What makes friendship so unique as a relationship is that friends freely choose one another, based on nothing other than mutual interests, admiration, and affection. The relationship isn’t entered into for financial gain, as it is with business partnerships; isn’t bound by blood, as in family ties; and isn’t propelled by attraction, as in romantic relationships. Friends share interests, experiences, and/or sets of values that create a sense of commonality and equality that is fundamental to friendship. Even if some circumstances between you and a friend change – such as one of you moving away or getting married – and even if you don’t see each other very often, if your principles and passions remain the same, you’ll likely remain friends. However, this kind of friendship can still erode if one party abandons the values that the friendship was formerly based around. That could 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.
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. People get separated by time and space, or by how their lives are organized, and it may not really feel like you’re friends anymore. 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. 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.
2. Betrayal – While many friendships slowly fade away out of existence, occasionally they go out with a bang, and people explicitly say, “This friendship is over.” 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 become 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. 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.
The second type of betrayal which causes a hard break in a friendship is what we usually think of when we think of betrayal: Throwing your friend 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. 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.
3. Mismatched Expectations – People often remain friends to the extent that they fulfill each other’s expectation of the relationship. This is a bit tricky because 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 they’re always the one to initiate those latter two things, they gradually grow 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. 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. It’s probably best to discuss expectations with your friends to resolve such differences, but 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 they deem to be the inherent flakiness of their friend, and begins to think, “Well, if they doesn’t care, I don’t care,” and stops reaching out. 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 their end. And the friendship dissolves.