Dear Dr. Andrea,
For more than 20 years, I have called the same person my best friend — a woman I met in ninth grade. We were like sisters for many years — dealing with teenage drama, going to college close to each other and then experiencing the busy years of career-building and dating. As I approach 40, I’m taking stock and being honest about the fact that she and I haven’t had much in common for a long time. She is miles away from me politically in ways that make me feel like we don’t share the same morals, and although we are both married with one child, our husbands couldn’t be more different, nor our style of parenting, and I disagree with a lot of what she says and does. I always felt like I would keep her in my life no matter what, because we share so much history and our parents are close. But the events of 2020 have made me want to conserve my energy for the relationships that really mean something to me.
I feel done with our friendship. I can’t claim to even like her much as a person anymore. We check in by phone every couple of months and celebrate each other’s birthdays with cards and interact on social media. But I really do want to end it. I don’t want to be a bad person in this scenario, but I also am not out to change her mind about anything. I know I owe her some sort of explanation but what if that just means we both just go round and round trying to convince each other of our viewpoints? Honestly, I dread interacting with her at this point because I feel like her true colors are being revealed. How do I do this?
— I Want Out
I’m usually the person who says, “Friendships come in all levels!” and “We shouldn’t be friends only with people who are like us!” and “It’s good to keep contact with those who knew us when we had those terrible bangs!” But there’s an important difference between political disparities and deep, troubling moral incompatibilities. Judging by how you put it, it’s not like you two just disagree on tariff policy.
Now, sometimes, these types of friendships can be treated like family — people you wouldn’t have necessarily chosen to hang out with had you met as adults, but who have known and loved you long enough that you stay in each other’s lives for that reason alone. The fact that your respective parents are close could make this a potential option.
Then again, if people with the shared history of a marriage can get divorced, then why be beholden to shared history as friends if the compatibility is truly gone?
It’s actually the amicable divorce model I see as the answer here. It beats the unspoken fade-out (which is more appropriate for casual friendship) or the “let’s stay together for our parents” spin on the gritted-teeth marriage.
Just keep three basics in mind: clarity, respect and de-escalation.
Please don’t give in to the urge to ghost your friend, as strong as it will be (especially since what I’ll suggest will be awkward). Twenty years deserves better than that.
But don’t give in to the urge to finger-point, either. You’ll likely just taint the memory of your relationship further.
Give this sample script a whirl, in your own tone and voice, and see where it takes you:
“This is hard to talk about, but when we have these calls, I can’t help but think about how much has changed, and how much I’ve changed since we were more in each other’s lives. I know you’ve moved in a different direction as well. We could hash out all the ways we’re different but I don’t want to hurt you, because our history will always mean something to me. I guess what I’m saying is I see my life moving in a different direction now, and I think it has been for some time. I hope you’ll understand if this is likely our last phone call, at least for quite a while. I felt like I owed it to our friendship not to just disappear without explaining myself, as awful as this feels. I really do wish you well.”
Yes, I know this sounds hideously uncomfortable, but I guarantee the other methods are worse. And yes, it may sound like a news release for a celebrity divorce, but when you really think about it, that’s clarity, respect and de-escalation in a nutshell, right? That far beats confusion, condescension and conflict, and is a much healthier path. (Those publicists are paid well for a reason.)