What to Do When It’s Time to Break Up With a Friend

And answers to five other tricky friendship questions.

friends-talking-couch
Photo by Morsa Images / Getty Images

Let’s face it: Friendships require just as much work as any other relationship. And, for some reason, it’s not as easy to tell a friend when something’s bothering you. Luckily Real Simple’s Modern Manners columnists Catherine Newman (etiquette expert and author of the parenting memoir Waiting for Birdy) and Michelle Slatalla (professor at the Columbia University School of Journalism and former columnist for the New York Times) offer advice on what to say when you’d rather not say anything at all.



My husband and I love our pals, and it’s fun to have them over to our house. But we’ve encountered a problem: A few of them don’t know when to leave! At the end of the evening, my husband and I can be yawning and bleary-eyed, offering monosyllabic contributions to the conversation just to be polite, and they don’t take the hint. They leave only when they are tired. On other occasions, these friends drop by unannounced at dinner-time and then don’t head out until they get hungry. How can we politely signal that they’re overstaying their welcome? — K.O.

Do what many Chinese malls do at closing time: Play Kenny G’s “Going Home” to cue your guests to pack it in. Or get out the vacuum, like our local café does when they decide that it’s time for you to amscray. Or, hey, just talk to your friends, who will be unlikely to take offense. After all, they probably don’t understand that you’re weary. Once they do, they can just move the party somewhere else. Suggest as much: “You know we love having you,” you can say. “But we get tired earlier. We’ll have you back soon, but for now there’s a great bar down the street that you guys should try."

Likewise, if they pay you a surprise visit when you’re sitting down to dinner, tell them directly that it’s not a good time and offer an alternate plan for the near future. As far as problems go, it’s a fabulous one. You guys must be a lot of fun if these delightful folks are so eager to linger.

I often think that my best friend—let’s call her Janice—wants to be the only person in my life. One example: I recently hosted a girlfriend of mine who was visiting from out of town. This happened to be the same day as Janice’s birthday. I invited Janice to join us, but she refused. (She doesn’t like the other woman.) As a result, she was upset with me for not seeing her on her birthday. I adore Janice, but how do I make her realize that I need other friends, too? — L.L.

It sounds as if Janice’s possessiveness is threatening to damage your friendship. Because she is being both jealous and inflexible, you may end up spending—and wanting to spend—less time with her in the long run. But if you address this problem now, there’s a good chance that you and Janice can weather this stormy phase and cherish each other’s companionship for years to come.

You might try gently communicating your conflicted feelings to her. “I value our friendship,” you can tell her, “but other people matter to me as well. Take your birthday: I would have loved to see you, but I couldn’t abandon my guest. I would have liked for you to get to know her better, and maybe you would really like her if you did. But if you’re unwilling to compromise in these types of situations, I won’t be able to see you as much.”

You’ll be expressing your own needs while also alerting your friend to the downside of demanding exclusivity. Plus, you’ll encourage her to loosen up and expand her horizons, which is what she’ll need to do if she wants to have a thriving community of friends, the very kind that you are sensibly trying to create for yourself.

My husband and I have been friends with another couple for 12 years. But we’ve grown apart from them, as it’s become clear that our values and views on most things, like money and faith, differ from theirs. We’ve tried to gently withdraw contact, but they don’t seem to get the hint and I don’t want to be rude and ignore their calls. What is the kindest way to say, “I don’t want to be friends anymore?” — F.S.

A friendship may be as nourishing and important as a romantic relationship—and just as hard to bring to an end. You and your husband haven’t had a falling-out with this couple; you’ve merely drifted away from them, your differences crystallizing as you’ve grown older. Ideally they would stop contacting you, given your lack of responsiveness. (People don’t tend to be gluttons for rejection, after all.) And then you would be left with a comfortable old fondness on the occasions when your paths crossed. Since doing a slow fade out of their lives doesn’t appear to be an option, your best bet is to have a face-to-face meeting, however awkward it may be. You’ve been friends with them for a long time, so you owe them an honest and in-person explanation of your feelings.

When you meet with them, take responsibility for the parting, rather than casting blame. (Think: “It’s not you—it’s us.") Muster your best nature and say, “Your friendship has meant a great deal to us, but we feel we’re not so compatible anymore.” Tell them that you aren’t comfortable with many of their stances on important matters. They may feel sad or angry, but ultimately you will be doing them a favor: freeing them to spend time with people who take greater pleasure in their company.

I have a few friends and relatives who arrive 10 to 15 minutes early every time I host a gathering. How can I politely tell them to arrive at the designated time? — A.W.

In my experience, the early birds are just afraid of being tardy. Which is laudable! But their good intentions make it no less annoying when they arrive on your doorstep while you are vacuuming or (worse) only half-dressed.

Happily, there’s an easy solution to this dilemma. Tell these folks that hosting is important to you and that you really want everything to be in place before anyone arrives—even people as dear to you as they are. Think they’re too sensitive for such straight talk? Then try this sneakier approach: Before your next event, tell the early arrivers that the party starts half an hour later than it does. When they show up 15 minutes after the appointed hour, you’ll be glad to see them. Warning: They will almost certainly notice that, for once, they didn’t get to your home first. If they mention this (in horror, no doubt), lean in as if sharing a secret and whisper: “I’m conducting an experiment and told a few guests—the ones who are chronically late—to come earlier than usual. Don’t you think my plan worked perfectly?”

About once a month, I go out to dinner with my group of girlfriends. No matter the topic, one member of our party always interrupts and dominates the conversation, talking about only herself and her family. We have heard the same stories on numerous occasions. How can we politely let this person know that we would like her to be quiet from time to time? — Name withheld by request

My husband, Michael, and I used to have a friend who droned on so incessantly that, on one occasion, Michael popped in earplugs and glazed over—with orange foam cylinders sticking visibly out of his ears—while she was talking. And, no, she didn’t notice.

The thing is, certain people go on and on because there’s something they need from others: attention or validation, esteem or support. The irony is that her incessant yakking, which exasperates all of you, is not going to meet those needs. Your friend would feel better about herself if she learned to listen, respond, and become a valued member of your group. So muster your tenderest feelings about her—remember why you became friends with her in the first place—and try to understand her state of mind. Then take that understanding and gently encourage her to learn better habits. Perhaps she simply doesn’t know how to hold back in a conversation, and you and your friends can show her how. For example, the group might start every dinner by checking in around the table so that everybody gets a turn to speak about whatever is most pressing from the past month.

Later in the evening, if your friend resumes her habit of interrupting the discussion, you can kindly point that out to her: “Can you hold that thought? Elizabeth was still talking.” Ultimately you’ll be doing her a favor by modeling positive engagement and leading her out of the bog of self-centeredness.

I have a good friend whom I meet for lunch once a week. I very much enjoy having her as a friend. My husband and I occasionally go out with her and her husband, but lately they’ve been asking us to do something with them almost every week. We don’t want to be more than occasional couple friends. We are not very social and enjoy being at home. We are now telling little white lies to get out of doing things with them, but we don’t like being dishonest. How do we tell them that we would rather not be as social as they want to be without hurting their feelings? — S. M.

It’s tempting to keep declining the invitations with little white lies and assume that they’ll eventually get the message. I’ll admit that might be my first inclination. But as you say, this is dishonest, and lying often creates more problems than it solves. So in the interest of truthfulness, say something to your friend, since yours is the primary relationship here. “I’m sorry it’s not working out for the four of us to get together often,” you might say. “I love meeting you for lunch, but my husband and I are homebodies. We just don’t like to go out that much.” (Happily, the truth is not an incrimination of their company; it only points out that the problem is the frequency.) I’ve been through something similar. A dear old friend of mine and I tried to integrate our husbands and children, only to discover that what was most precious to us was, really, our dear old friendship. If my situation is a good predictor, you might have a brief awkward patch, but the friendship will regain its equilibrium.