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Anna G. Larson, Published July 20 2013

Friendship unraveled: Think schoolyard breakups are hard? Ending a friendship is even tough for adults

FARGO - Not everyone needs an Ethel Mertz.

Pam McGee, of Fargo, refers to the fictional “I Love Lucy” character to make a point about friendship.

Society pressures people to always have a best friend, to be an Ethel and a Lucy, but sometimes, friendships end, and it isn’t easy, McGee says.

“I think there are many Ethels and Freds in our lives. I think people come into our lives when we need them, and they leave when we don’t,” she says.

McGee, 48, ended a long-time friendship six years ago because the two women grew apart. She says it was more difficult than a romantic breakup.

“We have a social process for that. You say, ‘I don’t want to go out with you anymore, let’s just be friends.’ But what do you say when you’re breaking up with a friend?” McGee says.

Before deciding how to end a friendship, it’s important to determine if it’s necessary, says counselor Holly Hegstad of Knowlton O’Neill & Associates in Fargo.

Sometimes, friendships can be saved if issues can be resolved, she says. If issues can’t be worked out, it’s vital to keep the person’s feelings in mind and not act out of anger. Explaining why the friendship has to end is the first step in a healthy friend breakup, Hegstad says.

“If there can be some type of explanation that is respectful and doesn’t attack another person’s character, that’s probably the best thing you can do,” she says.

Giving the person a reason the friendship has to end also helps both parties move on emotionally, although it can still be painful and awkward afterward for both people, Hegstad says.

It still stings when McGee crosses paths with her ex-friend, in real life or on social media, but she says it was the best decision for her life at the time.

“When people try to change me, then I can’t stay friends with them. I need to remain authentic,” she says. “I just had to accept that we’re not going to be friends anymore. It feels better, but I don’t know that it will ever feel OK.”

A breakup with a close friend can be much more painful than ending a romantic relationship because a close friend might know more intimate life details than even a romantic partner, says John Altendorf of Altendorf Counseling in Fargo.

“It is sometimes much easier to find another romantic partner than it is to find another close friend you can trust and discuss anything,” he says. “The longer the friendship, the harder it is to break up with them.”

McGee considered her friend of 20 years a “graveyard friend,” or someone she’d remain friends with forever. She recalls talking with her husband about breaking up with the friend. He suggested that she be straight forward with her friend and move on with her life.

It wasn’t that simple, McGee says.

“I think we, as women, tend to validate ourselves by our circle of friends and how many we have,” she says.

Breaking up with a friend is different for men and women because the emotional support women lose can be devastating since they’re more likely to rely on friends for advice and support, Hegstad says.

“It can be like a divorce,” she says.

McGee ended her friendship because the two women no longer had similar values, and they didn’t live near each other anymore. McGee’s phone calls were often unanswered, and the friend stopped sharing details about her life.

Reasons for ending friendships are similar to reasons for ending romantic relationships, Hegstad says.

If a friendship is controlling, one-sided or abusive in any way, it could be time to end it, she says. Sometimes, it’s more difficult because there’s not a significant reason for the friendship to end other than the two people don’t have as much in common anymore, Hegstad says.

“Their lives changed enough that the relationship that used to sustain the friendship isn’t there,” she says.

As McGee learned, friendships can end at any time in life, but changes in friendships are more likely to happen during a life change, Altendorf says.

For example, when a college graduate is pursuing a career and some friends are more interested in partying, the dissimilar lifestyle can lead to friend breakups, he says.

But, with each breakup, people know themselves better and have a clearer picture of the type of people they want to be friends with, Hegstad says.

“Any friendship that you’re in will teach you about yourself and others and hopefully make you a better person,” she says. “New people will fill those roles of friendship. There’s hope out there.”

Today McGee says she’s learned to apologize when she’s wrong and set boundaries for what’s acceptable in relationships.

“I think true friends make their friends a priority,” she says. “I honestly believe that female-to-female relationships are some of the hardest relationships ever. I just wish we could cut each other some slack. That’s what I’ve learned about being a friend and having a friend.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Anna G. Larson at (701) 241-5525

Signs your friendship is unraveling