it's complicated

How to Get Through a Breakup Without Losing Friends

Illustration: Laia Arqueros Claramunt

Welcome to “It’s Complicated,” a week of stories on the sometimes frustrating, sometimes confusing, always engrossing subject of modern relationships.

Breakups are crappy for many obvious reasons, but they also have a sneakier way of making you miserable: When a relationship ends, you don’t just lose your significant other. You lose friends, too. In 2012, a U.K. survey found that British men and women lose an average of eight friends when they end a romantic relationship. This includes mutual friends between the couple, as well as friends they’d made before and after the relationship began.

While the survey results should be taken with a grain of salt — this wasn’t exactly a scientific study — the findings do hint at a larger issue, one that a good friend of mine recently summed up succinctly: “Most people are insufferable after breakups.” In the immediate aftermath, you’ll likely abandon some activities, regularly scheduled events, and people. You might self-isolate, or drink your way through the week, or obsess over every one of your ex’s social media updates to anyone close enough to listen — all of which can affect your surviving relationships for the worse. As psychiatrist Suzanne Lachmann wrote in a Psychology Today column, grieving the end of a romance can turn people “flaky, distant, insensitive, even dismissive,” with no easy fix; your interactions with people around you can devolve into “fear, despair, disappointment and shame turned outward.”

In short, breakups and their accompanying emotions tend to be perfect storms for the destruction of friendship. But with some effort and some clear thinking (and, unfortunately, some pride-swallowing), you can emerge on the other side of the mourning process with your bonds intact.

Make it easy for them to stay neutral.
These are some of the trickiest relationships to navigate. Often, friends you met while dating your now-ex will feel like they need to pick sides. And if these friends were originally your ex’s, chances are they’ll feel compelled to stick with him/her. Which means that to hold onto these friendships, you may have to make the first move, as hard as that sounds, and avoid pettiness, as tempting as it may be. It’s up to you to make sure that when you reach out to people, they know right off the bat that they won’t be caught in any sort of crossfire. If you’re on okay enough terms with your ex, it could be helpful to have a conversation with them about these friendships, to make sure you’re both on the same page.

If it’s impossible for you two to be in the same room, though, you can still arrange your own separate hangouts with mutual friends. And at all costs, avoid fighting over these friends. They’ll probably feel uncomfortable being the subject of a turf war — so uncomfortable, in some cases, that this sort of drama could cost you their friendship. Instead, stress how much them mean to you, and explain that though the source of your original connection might be gone, the bonds remain intact.

Take things slow.
In all likelihood, you spent less time with your friends as one half of a couple than you did when you were a single person. The issue, of course, is that you’re not one half of a couple anymore, and after letting your friendships lapse or weaken, you now need them more than ever.

And while you may want to rush back in to things, that’s probably not the best strategy for rebuilding your social network. If you’ve been regularly blowing someone off for a while, resist calling them right away. This sort of behavior will come off as selfish, if not downright disingenuous — and while there’s a chance many friends might look charitably upon your post-breakup selfishness, there’s also a good chance that a friend you’ve alienated in your happier, coupled times might not feel inclined to give you the benefit of the doubt.

Instead, rely on the people you’ve kept in closer contact with. Then, once the initial pain of the breakup has ebbed, slowly begin reaching out to the ones you’ve been less reliably in touch with. They may be slow to respond at first, but given time and effort, you’ll likely be able to re-cultivate the bonds you had before — or at least, the ones that truly matter.

Don’t abuse your friendships …
Even the friendships that have stayed strong should be handled with care. In the rush of grief and pain that follows a relationship’s dissolution, you may be tempted to pour everything onto your best friend’s plate, but it’s an urge you should try to resist. A good friend will be there for you, but that doesn’t mean you should expect them to consistently drop everything and come over at a moment’s notice when you’re hit with a fresh wave of sadness, or take calls at all hours of the day and night. They have their own lives, their own schedules, and they’re dealing with their own problems.

That’s not to say that you can’t seek out a friend’s emotional support. Just make it clear you’re reaching out to them because you value them and the kind of support they can give, not because you need to dump on the closest person available (even if that is sort of the case).

… but don’t be afraid to ask people for help.
On the flip side, don’t feel like you need to hold your friends at arm’s length, either. If you’re going through a particularly tough breakup, chances are all you want to do is a lot of nothing — and in this state, you might find it difficult to believe that a friend might want to lie on that couch and watch TV with you, or bring you takeout, or take you out for a walk. Just remind yourself that a good friend would genuinely want to help, so you can feel okay about accepting an offer for time or company when it comes your way. And besides, allowing your friend to feel useful is better than making them feel pushed away: Altruistic behavior triggers the release of feel-good hormones like oxytocin, and as Stanford researcher Francis J. Flynn has written, we’re particularly hardwired to enjoy helping people we consider to be in our “tribe.”

In other words, people like to be needed. And some level of mutual reliance is necessary for a close friendship, anyway. So if you’ve been craving some quality time with an old friend, ask them to come over, sit on your couch and feel crappy with you. As humdrum as these hangouts might seem, they could form your breakup’s silver lining.

How to Get Through a Breakup Without Losing Friends