When Friends "Break Up" — The Psychological Damage After Friendships End
Society sees friendships as far less important than love and life partnerships. But psychologists warn that the end of a close friendship can leave the "grieving" side in need of therapy.
BUENOS AIRES — It was Wednesday and Sofía, a 31-year-old woman living in Buenos Aires, was having a good day. She'd had a productive work meeting in the morning and her usual gym class in the afternoon. But as she walked home listening to music in her earphones, she felt an acute pain, first in her chest, then throat.
It wasn't a heart attack, but she panicked and began to cry. What prompted the reaction, she realized later, was the music she had just heard: a song that brought back teenage memories of a former friend. Sofía told her therapist the next day that the end of the friendship had upset her greatly, and until that moment had suppressed the grief.
The friend hadn't died, there had been no fight or exchange of ugly words, but the two had drifted apart, irreversibly, Sofía felt. None of this, she told the psychologist, made it any less troubling or hurtful.
The song that had triggered her anxiety was 11 y 6 by Argentine Fito Páez. It took Sofía back to her 16th birthday, which she spent with her friend. That girl "was" her teenage years, she explained and without her "a big part of what we lived together now is gone."
The end of a strong friendship causes bona fide grief, even if it is often ignored. More and more specialists believe that it needs to be processed, and perhaps treated, like one would the end of a love affair or partnership.
Friends are "the family we choose," says Claudia Borensztejn, a psychiatrist and Latin American representative for the International Psychoanalytical Association.
At times, she adds, estrangement from "certain friends can be like falling out with a brother." People tend to suppress all types of grief, she says, but with friends and especially if there is no dispute, "you'll very probably go through it unconsciously." For some people, Borensztejn says, the loss of a friend is like "losing a part of themselves."
She says relations blow hot and cold over time and "become less intense or important, either because you change locations or are at a different stage in life (one has children, the other doesn't)," or end in a fight, "which is normal."
But people rarely give these changes the same weight as events inside a couple.
The COVID-19 has had an notable effect on all kind of relations, says Borensztejn. "I think that famous essence of friendship, of standing by someone in tough times, became real" during the pandemic, she says, and even fortified "the significant relationships."
This happened in myriad ways, like delivering groceries to friends in confinement or even handing them a thermometer, as "less relevant relations were paused."
Borensztejn compares the pandemic to moving into a smaller flat. "We had to keep what we thought was more essential. Overall, the best friends stayed." Ideological differences also pushed people apart in this time, she says, though "that's nothing new, it always happened."
People rarely give these changes the same weight as events inside a couple.
Alejandro Schujman, a psychologist specializing in interpersonal relations, says the pandemic widened friendships as it gave people time to "reconnect and recover ties." People may get closer in difficult times, he says, and through lockdowns "people thought up ways of keeping in touch and even reinforcing some relations" online.
Bench with a view
Friendships strengthened during the pandemic but many people also grew apart.
Schujman says broken friendships don't get the attention they deserve, often because of the calculation that one has many friends, but just one romantic partner. In all his years of providing therapy, often for couples, he's "never had a request for relations therapy concerning friends."
Something always happens to us when we lose a significant relationship.
And yet, Schujman concludes: "friendship is as necessary, essential and valuable as having a partner."
Psychologist, sociologist and lecturer at the University of Buenos Aires Martín Wainstein puts it this way: "Something always happens to us when we lose a significant relationship. There is always a gap, whatever you might say." People can overcome this with ease or suffer "the rest of their lives," as they would the end of love.
For Gastón, a 30-year-old living in Buenos Aires, he remains baffled as to why a very close friend decided to shut him out of his life.
"The last times I wrote several times to see him... but got a 'No' every time." He recalls no incident or conversation that might have offended the friend.
"I imagine I'll give him a hug if I see him on the street," he says, adding, "I feel bad. I don't know if I can speak of grieving, but I miss him and hope we can see each other again."
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