Friendship Breakups Are Our First Heartbreaks

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The scenario is as old as elementary school. Two girls become inseparable — not just BFFs, but essential to each other’s breathing. They share a vocabulary, a wardrobe, a thicket of secrets. “They aren’t hitting on each other, not precisely, though they are in a constant state of arousal that borders on the insane,” wrote Emma Straub in an essay for The Paris Review. “No other love is like the love of a teenage girl.”

Until one of them gets a boyfriend.

Or maybe she moves away. Or maybe she falls in with a group of popular kids. Whatever the precipitating event, this moment is traumatic — whole parental-help books have been written about helping daughters through the early ups and downs of female friendship. Rookie, the teen website I wish I’d had growing up, has identified “Eight Stages of Best Friend Breakup Grief.” But surprisingly few adults call this life event what it was: our first heartbreak.

In adulthood, friend breakups rarely seem so dramatic. Maybe it’s because it’s harder to form those intense bonds as we get older and busier. Maybe it’s because friend breakups tend to happen more slowly or less visibly when you’re not walking the halls of middle school every day. Or maybe it’s because we’ve come to expect breakups: Get married? Lose touch with a few friends. Have a baby? Lose touch with a few more. Grown women are more likely than their teenage counterparts to downplay the end of a friendship, because friends don’t fit neatly into the package of things that are supposed to matter most in adulthood. There are accepted ways of acknowledging a deepening romantic relationship — being exclusive, moving in together, getting engaged — and an expected script for when that relationship ends. Not so when it comes to a close friend.

Even when we swear up and down that our friends are the most important people in our lives, it can be surprisingly difficult to prioritize platonic love. Of all the traditional milestones and events to celebrate them, precisely zero have to do with friendship. (Unless you count the bachelor/ette party, which, when you think about it, only celebrates friendship in relation to romantic love.) We talk ourselves in circles about the importance of work-life balance, but take it for granted that “life” is shorthand for “caring for a sick relative” or “taking the kids to soccer practice,” not “hours of deep conversation with a best friend.” This has real consequences. Need to work from home because your kid’s got the day off school? Fine. Need to leave work early because your good friend is going through a tough time and needs some one-on-one with you? Try getting that explanation past your boss.

Which is sort of shocking, given what we know about the importance of having close friends. “Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships,” sociologist Rebecca G. Adams told the New York Times a few years ago. The Mayo Clinic suggests patients prioritize their friendships if they want to be physically healthy. Ancient Greek philosophers saw friend-love as divinely transcendent, sometimes coexisting with but always superior to the bonds of physical attraction and pleasure. I love carnal sex as much as the next red-blooded American woman, and I’m probably grossly oversimplifying the Classics, but this rings true. The idealized long-term romantic relationship has more in common with friendship than it does with a purely sexual fling. (How many loving couples refer to each other as “my best friend”?) And yet somehow, devoted friendship — transcendent love without the sexual component — is seen as optional, a less pressing concern than either work or family. Or worse, a relic from childhood.

Lifelong relationships of any sort are a rare and impressive feat, but long-term friendship is at least as viable and rewarding as long-term romantic love. And interesting things happen when you acknowledge that fact in public. My friend Aminatou Sow and I have a podcast called “Call Your Girlfriend.” We don’t talk much about romantic relationships, but we do talk a lot about friend dynamics — which is apparently the podcasting equivalent of hanging a sign that says, “The Friendship Doctor Is In.” We get a lot of email from listeners, mostly women, who aren’t sure how to reconnect with an estranged bestie, who want to push their friend to find a new job but aren’t sure where the boundaries are, who feel guilty about disappearing on what used to be a close friend. I’ve been struck by the fact that almost everyone first thanks us for taking friendship seriously — as if they’ve been sitting on these questions, but felt their preoccupation with the difficult aspects of friendship were somehow overly dramatic.

When you give women permission to express how important friendship is to them, their response is immediate and overwhelming. It’s something that we clearly think about a lot, but we struggle in the absence of scripted ways to celebrate and honor those relationships well into adulthood, when free time is scarce. Some marketers have caught on — last year Travel + Leisure touted “Best Girlfriend Getaways,” and it wasn’t talking about lesbian travel. But mostly, it’s on us to create the traditions and routines to recognize friendship as the important relationship it is. A set-in-stone weekly hangout or phone call? Perfect. An annual trip on which no spouses or partners are allowed? Awesome. Next week, many people will celebrate Friendsgiving, that venerated tradition of opting out of family drama. I’d argue, though, that it doesn’t need any special portmanteau. You can invite only friends to the table and just call it Thanksgiving.

Friendship Breakups Are Our First Heartbreaks