How to Break Up With a Friend

But it's not you, we swear

It's just before 2 a.m., and the clamor of the phone ringer yanks me out of the early stages of sleep. I fumble for my cordless and mutter a muted, "Hello?"

It's Katie (names have been changed to protect the innocent — and me), an on-and-off acquaintance I've known for about three months, who's decided to call in the dead of night (read: after last call) to deliver a deluge of drunken drama. Over the next half-hour, I'm subjected to diatribes concerning her shitty job, annoying roommates, and other crises stemming from her tragically severe low self-esteem.

As politely as possible in my somnambulistic state, I try telling Katie I'm wiped out and need to mosey, but she brushes me off because she's "really upset" and doesn't have any other friends to talk to.

Go figure.

An occasional case of after-hours drunken dialing from Katie wouldn't be so bad if it weren't also for the constant stream of e-mails, instant messages, MySpace posts, and other communiqués where I'm treated like an emotional punching bag. I've asked her a few times to stop dumping on me so much, but after a few apologies, she'll return to the same behavior the next day. Halfway through her latest epic about getting turned down by guys at the local tavern, I decide it ain't just sympathy fatigue I'm feeling after muttering "You just gotta be positive" for the thousandth time. I figure it's time to ditch my so-called friend.

I'm certain that I'm not alone, as many are burdened by mere acquaintances who've become massive annoyances. They've transmogrified from friends into vampires who feed off your time and energy. Pals with problems are common, but there are poisonous people who constantly drain your patience, emotions, schedule and pocketbook, with little or no reciprocity. Some easygoing cats, like myself, choose to endure the drama, quoting that line from Trainspotting: "He's a mate, you know, so what can you do?"

Still, shutting someone out isn't an easy decision, especially if there's a long history between you, or even if it's only an intense three months. But if you've repeatedly tried addressing or repairing the person's problems with no hope in sight, it might be the only solution.

Vincent Waldron, an interpersonal communication expert at ASU West, recommends analyzing your friendship to see if it's permanently wrecked. Performing a cost-benefit analysis might also help.

"If you're getting more costs than benefits, when friends give more pain or drain energy than you're getting from the relationship, then it's probably a signal that things need to be made equitable again or that you need to disconnect completely," says Waldron, who's ended a few friendships himself. "Don't do that . . . because sometimes dysfunctional friendships can change as people and mature, and you might wish you still had that friend in your life."

Once you've made up your mind to shut them off, make sure you clear up any unfinished business before sealing off that door, whether it's reclaiming your copy of Whodini's Escape LP or fulfilling your promise to pet-sit while they're in Hawaii.

When you're ready, there are two methods to cut your soon-to-be-ex-friend adrift: passively or directly. The first path is arguably preferred since it's more deceitful and therefore involves less confrontation. Calls are ignored, e-mail or other messages aren't replied to, and you generally make yourself unavailable to the person and her whims. When responding, you generally make excuses about how you're busier, you have a new relationship, or similar distractions. The eventual goal is that you'll grow apart from the person and she'll eventually get the hint to get lost.

James, another friend of mine (but one I'm currently on good terms with), went through such an ordeal when 86'ing a recent acquaintance. He ceased contact because he had tired of all the drama, as well as the unsolicited advice, insults, and criticisms heaped upon him, especially over MySpace.

"You have those friends who deliberately try to start shit and spin it so you're the asshole, and character assault you when you don't accept their advice," James said. "I took the passive approach 'cause I didn't want to feel guilty and so it wouldn't bite me in the ass later through our mutual friends."

After a few weeks of deleting her e-mails or tersely replying to the occasional missive, his friend sent a stormy letter informing him the friendship "was ceasing to exist."

Mission accomplished.

Although there's less stress involved, the passive method ironically seems to involve much more effort in avoidance or maintaining a façade of friendliness, which is why Vincent Waldron recommends being direct.

"It's best because everyone's clear about the status of their relationship," Waldron says. "There's no need spending extra energy being avoidant; you get it on the table and are able to control the reasons for ending of the relationship, rather than that person being able to present their own reasons or draw the wrong inferences."

But unless you're some masochistic character from a Neil LaBute drama, or you'd like to attempt a more deliciously vicious way of breaking up with a friend, he adds, there's no need to be an asshole about things when you drop the bomb. Nor should you lie and try to temper the shock of separation with the tired "It's not you, it's me" cliché. It's better to concentrate on being explicit and truthful about the reasons for the breakup instead of being insulting or practicing self-deprecating techniques.

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