Girls' Night In - how to break up with a friend 🙅‍♀️

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I have outgrown a friendship.

This person would like to see me much more often than I would like to see him. When he reaches out to invite me out, I typically decline the first two or three invites, but I do not feel I can decline each time, so I eventually agree to go out. Then, I feel a sense of dread that I am going to be wasting part of my weekend spending time with someone who does not add value to my life anymore.

The hangouts have become like therapy sessions for him—with me listening to hours of his life updates and problems and hardly getting a word in otherwise.

How do I set better boundaries without being mean? —Megan

Hi Megan,

I shared your question with a few experts, and they all mentioned how important it is to seek help for issues within friendships, in the same way you might for romantic or professional relationships (psst: if you haven't yet read our past issue about setting boundaries with partners, check it out!). So, thank you for asking this! 

You asked about setting friend boundaries, but you also mentioned outgrowing the friendship. Could it be time to move on altogether? I know this is tricky territory, especially if you've known the friend for a long time. Here's what the experts had to say:

how to tell if it's time to move on from a friendship

  • Outgrowing a friendship doesn’t mean they greatly offended you or that you don’t still admire them. Danielle Jackson, a friendship coach, speaker, and founder of the platform Friend Forward, said it's normal to move on from something that you once really cherished. She suggested thinking about your conversations. For these not-as-close friendships, if you’re struggling to think of things to talk about with him, or if you're feeling like you no longer relate to what he does talk about, it could be time to move on. 

  • “Understand that conflict and tension and awkward moments are inevitable in friendship,” says Jackson. “You cannot leave every time it gets uncomfortable, but you can determine what your capacity and what your deal breakers are.”

  • There are also some signs that it’s absolutely time to end a friendship. “If you feel like your friend doesn’t value an identity that you hold dear," that could be a sign, says Dr. Marisa G. Franco, a researcher who writes about friendship in her Psychology Today column and has a forthcoming book on the subject. “If you have a friend who is manipulative or who guilts you, or if they constantly show disapproval of you, that’s a reason right there,” says Jackson.

The way you’re describing declining your friend’s invites sounds like what Dr. Franco calls a "slow fade."

"While people resoundingly say they want transparency when they’re dating someone, they don’t always say that about friendship," she says. That's why, with acquaintances or friends you're not too close with, it might be better to slowly back away and see if they also invest less into the relationship.

In your case, if he’s still reaching out and not getting the hint, or if he’s someone close to you, you'll want to have a more direct conversation. Dr. Franco also says "people need closure for grief. For someone to grieve the end of a relationship, they need to understand why it’s ending."

how to have the breakup conversation

  • Focus on yourself and your own needs, as opposed to a friend’s actions or disposition. Dr. Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist, friendship expert, and researcher offering therapy and workshops, suggests opening the conversation from your perspective. "Instead of saying 'You drain my energy' or 'You’re always talking about yourself and frankly it’s exhausting,' it can help to say something to the effect of: 'I feel like I’m not in the best place to give you the support you need right now.'"

  • Give him space to respond. Jackson says to remember that you’ve had time to think about why the friendship isn’t working for you before starting the conversation, but your friend hasn't. He might want to ask questions or defend some of the things you point out (which is okay!).

  • Don't backpedal. "You have to stand firm in your position, deliver it with compassion, and uphold it when you leave," Jackson says. Not standing by your decision is the equivalent of giving mixed signals when dating someone—don’t confuse your friend further!

If you do want to continue the friendship, here are some tips for setting those boundaries.

how to set boundaries with friends

  • A few sample scripts: 

    • Dr. Kirmayer suggests saying something like, "I really want to hear you out. I’m also feeling like I need a bit more space to share. Can we talk about that?"

    • Dr. Franco recommends a phrase like, "I notice in our interactions, we’re taking a lot about the stuff you’re going through, and I miss our relationship feeling more full, where we would do these activities together and talk about these other things, too."

    • Gently saying something like, "'Can I have you listen to something I’m dealing with for a bit? Because I actually wanted to get your opinion on something' trains that person to realize that they may have been centering themself in the conversation," says Jackson.

  • Think about it from his perspective. "We need to get into the habit of asking ourselves whether we have really expressed our needs and perspectives as clearly as we think we have," says Dr. Kirmayer. Especially if he's going through a tough time, he may not have picked up on how much he's venting to you.

  • Help him find a more appropriate outlet. "You could say 'I know that this situation has been going on for a long time, and I’m honestly not sure how I can help,'" says Jackson, before pointing him to what could be a more appropriate resource, like an actual therapist.

Lastly, if you're reading this and suddenly worried that you are the friend overwhelming someone with your problems, Dr. Franco shared some words of encouragement: "I think most people actually struggle to ask for support from their friends rather than overburdening them. When you’re not overwhelming your friends, they often feel honored by that vulnerability, closer to you, and trusted." You can always check in from your side to see if your friends find your conversations imbalanced.

This is definitely a tough situation to be in, and I hope the tips were helpful. Good luck, Megan! —Mary Anne, Associate Editor at GNI

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