It often comes out of the blue, that moment when you discover that you are in a friendship break up. It has happened to me and I have supported many people who have gone through the confusing and perplexing experience of losing a friendship. Reeling from the shock for weeks even months, as they try to make sense of where it all fell apart.
And if this has happened to you, you will remember in the early weeks and months feeling so raw, confused and rejected. What you are actually experiencing is akin to grief. Loss of a confidant, someone who shared laughs, shares common experiences and the highs and lows of life. That person got you and you them, it was fun. It became a bond, a relationship and when it ended, yes it was a loss. A physical and emotional loss.
Now I am not trivialising grief, I have lost family dear to me, many of you will know that kind of grief. The reason I am introducing you to a model of grief is because I find in my work it is useful in lots of contexts beyond the loss of a loved one. So stick with it and you will experience a great sense of understanding and comfort from what I am about to share.
The Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s grief cycle can be applied to losing a job, a precious sentimental item, the ending of a friendship or relationship. Here is how I help my clients make sense of their experience.
The key thing to remember is that this cycle is a bit like snakes and ladders. You may not travel through it phase by phase towards healing and recovering from the loss of your friendship. You may step in and out of phases, think things are getting better only to find you have slipped down a snake and feel terrible again. This pattern may repeat several times before you get to recover and move on.
So in no particular order here are the phases:
- Shock and denial
The friendship is over and you have know idea why. All you have to go on are clues. When your friend starts to behave differently towards you, creating distance and not being their unusual selves in the relationship you sense something is up. Then at some point they either leave you to figure out that the friendship is over or maybe they will be courageous enough to tell you. Whatever leads to that moment of realisation, the reaction is shock, it is denial, it is disbelief. You are left with so many questions and searching, searching to make sense of the situation. Shock and denial can last for a long time. This phase can be an emotional roller coaster. When you can’t take this phase anymore there is a shift to one of the other phases.
In my work I encourage my clients to work with all emotions, even those difficult ones like anger. It is my view that all emotions are useful, they have a message, an inner wisdom. This is the essence of developing your emotional intelligence. The key is getting passed the physical feeling of the emotion. You then learn to sit with feelings to understand what is important here. Often I find in friendship breakdown that the problem is a conflict of values. And when we feel shocked then angry with what has happened, often it is because we value others and respect their feelings. We would never treat a friend the way we are being treated by the frien-emy. This emotional reaction is to be expected. It is a sense of injustice and all you want is the opportunity to put things right, but the frien-emy wont let that happen. You are powerless; at least this is how it feels.
At some point you will decide to invite your former friend to have a conversation. For the purposes of trying to understand each other’s point of view. You are willing to understand and accept your culpability, if only you had a clue what that was! Often the frien-emy wont let this happen, they block it. They can’t have that grown up, straightforward conversation. This is not about getting the friendship back. The purpose here is to understand what happened, to understand their side of the story. I won’t get your hopes up – it is unlikely that you will ever get to the bottom of if. This is the beginning of you letting it all go, because the only person suffering is you. Enough is enough! It’s time to face facts. You are not going to get what you want from this person.
Then you hit a personal roadblock, a wall. You begin to realise that no matter what you do. No matter how hard you try to prove that you are a good, decent, honourable and worthwhile friend, it is falling on deaf ears. It hurts so much you shut down. Now I am not suggesting this is full-scale depression. What you might experience is moments of feeling low and despondent, sad and fed up. This is another difficult yet necessary part of your healing journey. Hold onto the knowledge that this, like all of them, is a passing stage, you will get through it.
At some point you arrive in the destination, which I often describe to clients as the new beginning. Acceptance becomes a starting point. This is the stage where you can talk openly to others about what happened without a false sense of shame or responsibity. Because here’s the thing. When the frien-emy is not willing to be part of the solution, they remain firmly the problem, not you. If they wont enlighten you, they are investing in the problem and not the friendship. As you reach this point you are ready to heal. You may do this yourself through the simple act of accepting the situation for what it is. If you have been going to therapy, this is the stage your therapist can really hold the space for you to grow out of the difficulty with greater self awareness, self assurance and a sense of knowing who you are as a decent, true and good friend. This is when to turn around and appreciate your true friends, those who see you for who you are. They see your strengths and weaknesses, your values and beliefs, your highs and low and value all of who you are. Because you are a human being, you matter.
How to cope with it?
I think the first step is to accept this is a loss, a grief. When my clients recognise that how they are thinking and feeling is okay and worthy of a supportive conversation, the prison of the difficult friendship is dissolved and you get to rise again, stronger, a better person for it.
So go forth, you will be fine, they may not heal as well as you, but that is their journey, they will keep repeating their friendship pattern until they get help to break it. For you, focus on your path and keep moving forwards.
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