They were the awesome foursome. And Just Like That…Then there were three. A main, beloved and prolific character was noticeably absent from the recent Sex and the City spinoff in a case that was art imitating life. Kim Cattrall, Sarah Jessica Parker and their respective television personas Samantha Jones and Carrie Bradshaw famously feuded both off and on screen in a scenario that was all too relatable—the adult friendship breakup. Insert Carrie’s narrator voice: “I couldn’t help but wonder—how do you heal your heart when your shoulder to cry on broke it? Are bestie breakdowns more painful than boyfriend breakups?”
“I think some women feel confused by the intensity of the emotions surrounding losing a close female friend. There is shame attached to it ‘I shouldn’t be feeling like this over a friend. What’s wrong with me?’ Shame often keeps us quiet, so we don’t talk about it.” According to Natalia Rachel, therapist, speaker, writer and founder of Illuma Health Singapore, who specialises in helping women heal from trauma, “the biggest reason for adult, female friendships ending is due to personal change and growth. The second is simply the weight of dysfunction over time.” However, when we are faced with this often gut-wrenching conundrum, we are left with two main scenarios moving forward: “1) I want to let go of this human or 2) I want to find a way to repair the relationship.” So how do we identify what is irreparable? What is toxic? What can be redeemed?
For Phoebe*, 31, salvaging the connection with a colleague was out of the question. “There were quite a few red flags sprinkled throughout the beginning of our friendship: lack of long term friendships, unexplained secrecy, extreme vanity, a habit of infidelity, etc. But nothing directly affected me (in the beginning) that was enough cause for concern. We bonded so quickly at the start, so I made excuses to myself why I didn’t need to let those seemingly tiny warning signs affect our relationship.”
But when the red flags turned into outright Machiavellian manoeuvres, Phoebe felt she had no choice but to take action. “It wasn’t until a friend let me know that she was being dishonest with me and was asking our mutual friends to lie for her as well. Long story short, there was a work project that was going well for me that she wanted for herself. It was at that moment when the penny dropped: she couldn’t be happy for my successes without wanting them for herself, and she would use any means necessary to get ahead. I was concerned about the blatant dishonesty in the situation. If she was lying to me about this, what else was she lying about?” A breach in trust in a friendship can mark a major turning point. “I felt that I had been so open and generous and caring to her, so this hurt me deeply. I spent weeks questioning myself, feeling sick about it all trying to figure out what went wrong, and why hadn’t I seen it sooner. I didn’t need this toxicity in my life, and I made the decision to end the friendship” she adds.
“We need to honour the emotions that arise, which may span from grief and anger to confusion, betrayal and helplessness. This is a process that will often link into deeper attachment wounds (usually maternal). We will not only look at the emotions at play, but the relational patterns that led us to love this person and feel betrayed by this person.”
While this conclusion may seem harsh; with age, we hope comes wisdom. “I’m in my 30s, so I wanted to be extremely mindful about how this was handled—I didn’t need an angry blow out or a big accusatory speech. I kept all of our communication to “I feel” statements (i.e. I feel hurt when it seems I’ve been lied to).” While she felt blindsided by her friend’s disloyalty, Phoebe prioritised a more considered approach than a need for closure. “Whenever I am dealing with a difficult situation and am not sure what to say, I often think about how I would come off if they were to retell the story to someone. This helps provide a different perspective to what you want to say and what you should actually say.” And being an adult was key to this, “I think at an earlier stage of my life, I would have been frustrated with a perceived lack of closure since the fallout happened so quickly with very few words exchanged. She never said sorry or fought for the friendship and that is all I need to know to move forward with confidence.” In Phoebe’s eyes, as painful as it was, dissolving this platonic union was necessary, but it didn’t come without some ambiguous feelings. “In a way I feel bad for her. It would be hard to lose a close friend, and her reaction could be a self-preservation tactic. As strong as I felt it was right to end the friendship, I am human and we have a history, I can still empathise with her.”
From a therapist’s perspective, Rachel argues that there’s an art to letting go. “We need to honour the emotions that arise, which may span from grief and anger to confusion, betrayal and helplessness. This is a process that will often link into deeper attachment wounds (usually maternal). We will not only look at the emotions at play, but the relational patterns that led us to love this person and feel betrayed by this person. This can lead into ‘relational restructuring’ work, which sees us becoming very conscious/intentional in the ways we cultivate and maintain relationships.” Whereas on the flip side, in order to repair a relationship, “we need to do a lot of work around empathy and compassion, finding ways to traverse the gap between our experience and theirs. Where are the lines and limits for the relationship moving forward?”
Joey*, 39, found a closed door approach wasn’t the right solution when she realised her childhood friend was no longer making her happy. “Being an only child, my close friends are my family. After 25 years, you become like sisters. You know each other so well, almost too well. And just like sisters, while you are super comfortable, you tolerate a lot.” However, after a few moments of clarity, it became apparent that this particular figure was an emotional drain. “She’s a glass half empty type person (which is fine, we are all different), but I took stock that she was always caught up in some type of drama and loved to chat constantly. During Covid isolation periods—when life was feeling pretty hard, you really start to notice who in your life gives you energy and who sucks it out of you. After going through a breakup and being thrust into a three-month lockdown on my own, I needed to surround myself with positive people—people who give you good vivacity, support and space. As much as I cared for her, I started to become hyper aware of how she wasn’t the best listener and of her passive-aggressive comments and thinly veiled digs she would make about me and others. She also expected a lot, and if I wasn’t available, then it was an issue.”
“Be open to listening, growing and forgiving—you would hope ultimately your friends just want the best for you. Hear their perspectives. See moments like these as positive change. Once you have given each other space and time, you are allowed to forgive and move forward if you’re on the same page.”
In the face of all her friend’s downfalls, Joey decided to map out some protective mechanisms thanks to the guidance of her therapist. “I made some changes. I pulled back on how much time I was giving her and was transparent with how some of her comments made me feel to put up some healthy boundaries. I was honest. As hard as it was, I had felt this way for a while and needed to tell her where I was at and hoped she would be open to hearing it. Afterwards I felt like a weight had been lifted off my shoulders.” While she was able to get her feelings off her chest, Joey was conscious that communication is a two-way street. “Be open to listening, growing and forgiving—you would hope ultimately your friends just want the best for you. Hear their perspectives. See moments like these as positive change. Once you have given each other space and time, you are allowed to forgive and move forward if you’re on the same page.”
Likewise, Rachel agrees these things are not always so binary. “I don’t believe anything is so black and white. If we truly want healing and change in our relationships we have to allow others the opportunity to be new, to grow and show us that they value the relationship as much as we do. This requires communication, compassion, time and patience. The amount of these things we are willing to give is the biggest indicator. We have to ask ourselves ‘how much am I willing to put into repairing this relationship?’ And secondly, ‘what are my expectations of the other person in this repair process?’ Relationships are dynamic, so it’s about how both people come to the table. The answers may change over time. It’s also possible to decide that we need a break, but leave a door open for future reconnection. As with any relationship transition, communication and kindness are the essential ingredients.”
Learning and healing
Losing someone who is your soul sister, ride or die, maybe your confidante or even your mentor is not only an excruciating experience, but can be thought provoking too. It’s as if to look into the looking glass. We may discover some things about ourselves in the process, a deep self-reflection born of the discomfort of heartbreak. “Many of us have a tendency to people-please. In trauma terms, this is known as ‘the fawn response’. Essentially keeping the peace and making other people happy makes us feel safe or worthy” says Rachel. “When we are fawners, we self-abandon. That is; we do not meet our own needs or set boundaries in favour of maintaining relationships. This often leads to feeling unloved and resentful, which over time becomes unmanageable. We need to learn to put boundaries before belonging, and look after ourselves so that we orient ourselves to relationships that are healthy, reciprocal and inter-dependent.” According to Rachel, significant questions can be raised as a result of this scenario. “Relationship endings are an opportunity to self-inquire, why did this happen, and what kind of healing work do I need to do to cultivate the kind of relationships I crave?”
Joey is now more mindful of how friends make her feel. “Trust your gut or the way your body reacts to a person (if it tenses up etc), it hardly ever lets you down.” She’s also not afraid to reassess relationships by asking: “Would you let a family member or partner treat you like this and not address it? So why let a close friend treat you this way?” Phoebe retrospectively is more appreciative of the ones she holds close. “As we get older, we have a limited bandwidth for relationships and I am choosing to invest in fewer, deeper friendships than more, surface level ones. There’s no sugarcoating or ego fluffing and I can count on them for the straight, honest truth.”
These kinds of conscious relationships that encourage vulnerability and authenticity and foster high levels of emotional intelligence are the ones that are “designed to enhance individuality, rather than demand a state of merging or co-dependence” according to Rachel. But to again borrow from Carrie, “but I couldn’t help but wonder, did our therapist still believe in the concept of sisterhood despite the prevalence of girlfriend grievances?” Rachel answers: “Absolutely! The power of women coming together in total support of each other and the rawness of their loss and desire is incredibly profound and a wonderful source of healing. Sisterhood is a place where we can take off our costumes and come together as the complex, messy and wondrous women that we are—soft, fiery, fierce, loving and kind.”
*Names of persons have been altered for privacy reasons