February 8, 2018 | Posted in Grief
No relationship is perfect—and even our very closest, best-of-best-friends-forever bonds can deeply disappoint us, or, worse, break apart. Whether it’s a case of someone saying the wrong thing, falling through on an important commitment, or simply fading away, we can’t always control what goes wrong in our friendships. But we can determine how the breakup—or make-up—affects us emotionally, says LA-based depth psychologist Dr. Carder Stout who specializes in relationships (and frequently contributes to goop—see here). Here Stout talks about why it’s especially painful to break things off with your former ride-or-die—and how building resilience and shifting your perspective can potentially save a friendship.
A Q&A with Carder Stout, Ph.D.
What’s the psychology behind friendship breakups—why are they so painful?
Regardless of how long it’s been, when we talk to certain friends, it’s as if no time had passed at all. We drop into the same rhythm, finish each other’s sentences, and feel completely understood. We may even consider some friends family because we’ve shared so much with them—heartsick moments, secrets that no one else knows, the depths of our insecurities. Instead of judging us, these friends embrace us.
It’s always hard to imagine something coming between a friendship but even strong relationships crack sometimes—and it’s devastating.
Why does it hurt so acutely when we split with a close friend? It makes us question ourselves. Sadness and anger are likely two of the emotions brewing; there is also fear, guilt, confusion. If we feel undermined or betrayed, we may ask ourselves if we knew the friend as well as we thought, or if we misjudged her character. If we ourselves have caused the fissure, we self-criticize.
“Why does it hurt so acutely when we split with a close friend? It makes us question ourselves.”
Either way, we’re grieving a part of us we think we can’t be without. But truthfully, this is not the case: We will continue to love and thrive even in the absence of this person who may well have left an indelible mark. It may take time, but inevitably, you will grow to see that no one in the world has the power to define you (other than yourself). You are dynamic, strong, and divine—even if it doesn’t seem like it in the moment.
How can we grow into this perspective?
Imagine a psychological immune system that defends and preserves your emotional well-being (like your physical immune system that protects from germs, bacteria, viruses, disease). When our psychological immune system is strong, we feel balanced and self-assured. But most of us do not take the time to fortify it, and so we become easily disturbed, exhaustingly sensitive, and more susceptible to fear and doubt. Worse, we can lose connection with who we are. Our ego, or sense of self, may vacillate over a lifetime, but learning to love ourselves (warts and all) and staying true to our guiding belief system is imperative if we want to thrive emotionally—no matter what the situation. This psychological immune system is critical in relationship crises.
Don Miguel Ruiz, in his wonderful book The Four Agreements, writes about the goal of not taking things personally. He says that his emotional response is exactly the same when he receives the highest praise or the worst criticism. This is because he knows who he is, and therefore his ego is not influenced by others. Wouldn’t that be nice? If you could get to a place where you didn’t care what others thought of you? I mean really didn’t care. Well—you can.
First, examine what you stand for. If you believe in honesty, but are telling white lies and stretching the truth, your ego is in a constant state of taking hits. If you believe in the importance of family, but you have a rift with one of your siblings that you haven’t diffused, your sense of self will continue to be drained. If you believe in the sanctity of marriage, but you’re cheating on your spouse, you’re going to experience distress. The goal is to find a lane that is parallel to your most ardent beliefs—and stay in it.
“He says that his emotional response is exactly the same when he receives the highest praise or the worst criticism. This is because he knows who he is, and therefore his ego is not influenced by others.”
When we’re truly operating from a place of authenticity, friendship fissures do not have the same power over us—because we still know who we are and there is much less questioning and reckoning to be done.
What about instances when a friendship might be salvaged—what could help?
When our psychological immune system is strong and we’re comfortable with who we are, we’re actually better equipped to weather the challenges that may come up in friendships, such as:
The most influential friends tend to push us to grow by opposing our viewpoint and/or challenging our perspectives. But it can be uncomfortable when friends become radically dissimilar. It may seem logical to let yourselves “grow apart” in these instances, but I say do the opposite: It’s through opposition that we more fully develop our beliefs, so lean in. If your emotional immune system is strong, you won’t perceive opposition as hostility (also, remember that what your friends have to say is much more about them and much less about you). So don’t be afraid to keep a friend close even if they have views that oppose yours.
Getting Let Down
The truth is, we can’t control anyone besides ourselves—it’s narcissistic to believe otherwise—and sometimes even the best people make mistakes or let us down. Instead of breaking up with your friend because they have ignored or disappointed you, try to be mindful of times you have done the exact same thing to someone else. This will hopefully allow you to find compassion and avoid judgment. Attempt to forgive your friends for their shortcomings and remember that those qualities, at one point, may have resided in you.
“We cannot control anyone besides ourselves—it’s narcissistic to believe otherwise.”
If you feel a friend has wronged you, you might choose to think on it instead of reacting immediately in anger. While anger may seem like the appropriate response at the time, ultimately it may cause irreparable damage to the friendship. Instead, recognize yourself in your friend, and take a moment to let the stinging subside. Wait until you’re ready and work to forgive them. It may seem counterintuitive, but it will set you free.
What’s most important when it comes to strengthening our “psychological immune system”—and by extension, our friendships?
Be true to your values. Double down on all the things in your life that promote self-love and healing. If it suits you, learn to meditate; walk by the ocean with your feet in the sand; eat whole foods; limit the time you spend on your computer/phone. Allow your curiosity to lead you down uncharted pathways; engage in conversation with a stranger; hold hands with your children. Give yourself permission to make mistakes. Forgive others every day; forgive yourself every hour; don’t hold resentment tightly. Look for the beauty in the world; laugh at yourself; laugh with others. Be present.
When we can do these things, there are fewer reasons to break up with a close friend, and a better chance at loving them even more.