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How (and when) to end a friendship, according to experts

Here's the best way to break up with a friend you've outgrown — plus, how to cope with the loss.

Friends are meant to stick by our side through thick and thin.

But as we grow and evolve as people, so do our friendships. While many of us hope that every friend we make is a "for lifer," not all friendships are meant to stand the test of time. Naturally, this means that the friends that you start out with at eight are not necessarily the same people that you are gonna be spending time with at 80

It may sound easy to determine if your friend should be around for reason, a season or a lifetime, but it's really anything but. While there is endless advice on how to break it off with a romantic partner, the same rules don't always apply to friendships, especially when you throw mutual friends, complicated pasts and sensitive feelings into the mix.

For that reason, we went straight to the experts to better understand how — and when — to end a friendship while protecting your heart (and theirs).

So, whether you recently moved away from the other person or just feel a distance that therapy cannot mend, follow the tips below.

When it's time to end a friendship

In a perfect world, a friendship should be a reciprocal relationship. If the friendship feels uneven, consider where this feeling is coming from. To do this, licensed therapist Susan Zinn recommends evaluating your NDWVs: Needs, Desires, Wants and Values. 

“What are your NDWVs for the friendships that you have and how do these core characteristics compare to that of your friend’s,” Zinn told TODAY. “This will help you determine whether the relationship is working and understand where any inequalities may be coming from.”

It is especially important to keep this in mind if you have brought a problem to your friend's attention and they still refuse to change. More often than not, this is a sign that it's time to reevaluate the friendship.

Dating and relationship expert Angela N. Holton adds that you should note if the friendship is causing consistent stress or sadness.

"If the unchanged behavior is creating disharmony in your life ... it’s keeping you up at night or causing grief and you can’t get past it ... it’s time to reevaluate," Holton told TODAY. "If you have already done this before, it’s probably time to move on."

Signs that your friendship is unhealthy

It's often easier to judge from the outside looking in, so try to remove yourself from the situation before determining if your friendship exhibits toxic traits.

Zinn recommends asking the following questions:

  • Does your friend show interest in your life?
  • Is your friend manipulating or controlling?
  • Is your friend reliable?
  • Do you feel neglected or judged by your friend? 
  • Is your friend emotionally draining?
  • Does your friend they have a negative impact on your life? 

Expert tips on how to end a friendship

Now that we've got that out of the way, how do you actually sever the tie? While there isn't an exact formula for ending a friendship, there are three steps you should take when you're ready to do so.

  1. Journal. Take time to reflect on your relationship and why you allowed this person to stay in your life for so long. “I find journaling your feelings is important because you are really seeing what’s working or not working,” Zinn said. 
  2. Confront your friend. Be clear with them about how you've been feeling and why you think it's time for the relationship to end. “Confrontation does not mean anger or drama; confronting the situation is better than avoiding it," Holton said.
  3. Talk in “I” statements. Remember that you can only speak to how you have been feeling in the friendship. Zinn suggests using phrases like "what I need, what I want, what I value and what I desire.”

Unhappy Mixed Race woman texting on cell phone
Ending a friendship over should be the last resort, according to Holton.Jamie Grill / Getty Images stock

When it's OK to end a friendship over text

Let's get this out of the way: It's almost never acceptable to end a friendship over text. While, yes, texting a friend may be easier and less confrontational, experts agree there are more mature ways to end things.

“Adults must show up as adults in relationships and meet in person or via phone/FaceTime to have these tough conversations," Holton said, adding that this will ultimately "build stronger character and communication skills.”

Nevertheless, there are always exceptions. If you feel unsafe around the person, think seeing them in person may sway your decision or they make it difficult for you to stand up for yourself, then go ahead and send a text.

"If you’re afraid to disappoint someone and have a pattern of masking one’s own feelings in order to gain approval of someone else, send a text or email," Holton said.

But don't do it alone: "Have another friend, family or therapist coach you through the process so that you’re able to stick to your decision and create a real break in the relationship," she added.

What to do after ending a friendship

There are a lot of emotions that bubble up after the loss of a friendship — even if it was by choice. In the days following, show up for yourself by doing the following:

  • Reflect. While you may have been the one to end the friendship, it is important to understand the role that you played in the relationship not working out. “Take ownership and accountability for the parts that [you] played instead of being defensive and blaming someone else,” Holton said. 
  • Grieve. Give yourself time to deal with the difficult emotions that may arise in the process of losing a friendship you once cherished. “It’s a loss, it’s painful, it’s gonna take time,” Holton added.
  • Move forward. Even though this friendship didn’t work out, there are still people out there that love and understand you. Use this time to examine your NWDVs, so you can put your best foot forward in future friendships. "[Tell yourself] that I am choosing people to be in my life and surrounding myself with people based on what I really need, want, desire and value," Zinn said.