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How to Take a Friendship Break That Doesn’t Turn Into a Breakup

Photo: Thorsten Milse/robertharding/Getty Images

Toward the end of high school, one of my best friends and I had one of those petty fights, the kind that seem super-serious and legitimate when you’re 17. She told me I had no common sense, I replied that she was immature, and in a matter of minutes, we went from virtually inseparable to very separate.

We didn’t speak for most of our senior year. We both found other friends and did other things, avoiding each other like the plague — which isn’t impossible when your graduating class clocks in at 200 students, but it is difficult. And it sucked.

A few months after graduation, I learned through a mutual friend that she and her boyfriend had broken up. I sent her the most tentative Facebook message (hey, it was 2007) of all time: “I’m still here, if you ever need me.” She replied shortly after. We reunited over sushi, and thus ended our friendship break.

Friendship breakups aren’t all that uncommon. People move away, grow apart, and, clearly, fight. But friendship breaks are a different story. And while they’re often healthy — and, sometimes, the best or only way to preserve things in the long term — they’re also tough to initiate and navigate. Sometimes, like in my case, they happen suddenly and with zero intentions to reunite. In other situations, they’re more of a slow burn.

Katie, 33, says she took a break from her best college friend after a few tense exchanges, like when the friend pressured Katie — then a grad student with the budget to match — to go on an international bachelorette-party trip. “We’d probably been friends for about ten years at the time of the break,” Katie says. “I felt that little boundaries had been crossed so many times, and that the relationship had stopped being enjoyable and loving.” For four years, she and her friend sent only the occasional text message. Then, a year and a half ago, the two women randomly relocated to the same town. “She asked whether I would like to meet,” Katie says, “and we took it slowly, speaking on the phone and going for lunches and a few nights out.”

Once you reconnect, you may find that your friendship is totally different, for better or for worse. “A friendship break allows both friends to take a deep breath, reassess the situation and see if they even miss each other during the cooling off period,” says sociologist Jan Yager, author of When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal With Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You. “When they do reconnect, it might be with a new perspective.”

In some cases, seeking that new perspective can be all the reason you need to hit pause. If you notice you’re fighting more often than usual or you feel like something is off in the friendship, you could probably use a break from your friend, says Nicole Zangara, a licensed clinical social worker in Phoenix, Arizona, and author of Surviving Female Friendships: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. “You might also feel overwhelmed by the friendship,” she adds, and just in need of a breather.

That was the case with Amanda, 34, who’s been busy caring for a new baby and focusing on her career. “Since my best friend got married and I had children, I’m finding myself making less time for her,” she says. “I think our values don’t align right now because of my own state in my life: I’m a new mom, working from home and totally overwhelmed.” She just doesn’t have the bandwidth to be a good friend at the moment, though she plans to get back together (in a sense) in the future.

But even if, like Amanda, you have the best intentions, there’s no easy way to take a break that both sides know is truly temporary. A conversation like this can turn south really quickly. (After all, no one enjoys hearing their friend say: “Hey, I need less of you in my life for a while.”) But it’s possible to initiate a friendship break without it turning into a breakup. Here, how to do that successfully:

Be kind.

Say you’re ending a romantic relationship of several years. Are you going to tell your soon-to-be ex that you hated how he always ran 20 minutes late? Unless he did something heinous to end the relationship, probably not. You should approach this the same way. “Come from a place of love,” says Zangara. “Explain that because you care so much about the friendship, you don’t want to just cut it off or avoid your friend.” Petty comments or old grudges won’t fly if you hope to revive things down the road.

Talk it out.

If you think the break would likely be mutual, or sense that your friend is contemplating it, too, you can be a little more straightforward. Yager suggests saying something along the lines of: “I really value our friendship, so let’s take a break and both cool off so we don’t say or do anything that our friendship can’t recover from.” If you’re that close, Yager says, you’ll probably have an idea of whether this direct approach will be appreciated.

You don’t have to make it official.

If, on the other hand, you think verbalizing your intentions would backfire, there’s no rule saying you have to have a meeting about this. Friendship breaks may happen organically — and without becoming a big deal. “It’s amazing how often this happens,” says Zangara. “We take breaks all the time, but we just may not call them ‘breaks.’” If you don’t talk to your friend in a few months, then randomly run into him at a coffee shop and make plans for dinner, that’s essentially a break.

Remember why you’re doing it.

If you find yourself feeing bummed that your friend is MIA, or doubting yourself, ask yourself honestly if you think some time apart will ultimately make the relationship better. As long as the answer’s yes, you’re probably doing the right thing. “It may make a friendship even stronger once the friends reconnect, since they’ve survived a disappointment and crisis,” explains Yager. She compares it to weathering a rough patch in the marriage. Post-break, your friendship is literally tried-and-true.

Get some perspective first.

That said, it’s not something to enter into lightly — the last thing you want is to regret taking a break from a friend, whether it’s because things are weird afterward or just because you miss her in the interim. “Sometimes, I feel that I massively overreacted to a situation that could have been resolved if I spoke more honestly at the time,” says Katie. So if you’re pissed at your friend but haven’t exactly told her why, consider being up-front about it. Sometimes, a break is best. And sometimes, all you need is to talk things out.

How to Take a Friend Break That Doesn’t Turn Into a Breakup