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Why is a friendship breakup harder than a romantic relationship breakup?

By Teodora Stoica

Broken Heart

“Friendship has no survival value; rather it is one of those things which give value to survival”

C.S. Lewis


Societal norms and expectations surrounding the loss of a romantic partner are often more recognized and supported compared to the loss of a friend. There are established rituals and cultural frameworks for grieving the end of a romantic relationship, whereas the loss of a friend may not receive the same level of acknowledgment or support. In combination with lack of societal support, the dissolution of delicate friendship bonds affects our identity, reconfigures our social connections and triggers feelings of shame - all making a friendship breakup just as, if not harder, than losing a romantic partner.

Is there anything more beautiful than the unexpected gift of friendship? Someone who, for no other reason than simple delight of your company, selflessly provides moments of comfort, joy and understanding? It is no surprise then, that experiencing the chilly consequences of a friendship dissolution creates similar feelings of distress compared to losing a romantic partner. Similar, but not the same.

Researchers in the Netherlands studied the relationships of 604 people and found that over half of friendships expire after seven years. Even experiencing strain in friendships, such as doubting that a friend will be supportive when needed, is a high predictor of chronic illnesses later in life. Enduring friendships on the other hand, are associated with better long-term health, well-being and life satisfaction.

What then, makes friendships such unique relationships?

Unlike romantic relationships, friendships are not mutually exclusive, voluntary, and based on equality—not expectation. These aspects allow some friendships to simply fade away with minimal or no formal closure.

Since friendships are also not bound by rigid institutional norms, their dissolution is made more difficult when major problems arise. Irene Levine, friendship expert and author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend says, “Outsiders to the friendship may not appreciate the significance of the loss or offer up much sympathy. When someone breaks up with a lover or divorces, everyone rallies around her with support. The same isn't true with friendship endings.”

Both romantic and friendship breakups lead to decreased feelings of acceptance and self-esteem. Both result in heightened aggression. Both activate brain regions associated with physical pain (such as the anterior cingulate cortex and insula), which suggests breakups may involve overlapping mechanisms with physical and emotional pain. Yet romantic and friendship breakups have slightly different psychological consequences on mental health.


Attachment to another is carved out by brain regions that support the innate social need to bond (prefrontal cortex and the posterior cingulate cortex). This system undergoes a drastic change as individuals detach from their former friend and reconfigure their social connections.

The brain's social cognition processes, involved in perceiving and interpreting social cues, is deeply affected following a friendship breakup.

Unlike romantic attachment that involves a heightened level of emotional closeness and an intense bond characterized by romantic love, passion, and the desire for a lifelong partnership, friendships involve the type of emotional intimacy that often centers around sharing personal thoughts, feelings and experiences, providing a safe space for vulnerability and empathy.

However, like in romantic breakups, the brain's capacity for resilience can contribute to healing. Over time, brain circuits associated with the pain of a friendship breakup may weaken, while circuits related to forming new friendships and resilience may strengthen.


Close friendships play a significant role in shaping our identity. Friendships provide emotional support, acceptance, and validation. When friends understand and appreciate one's values, beliefs and personal experiences, it can reinforce and shape aspects of self-identity. Friends can also contribute to one's self-concept by offering affirmation, empathy and understanding. Importantly, friends often encourage each other to be authentic which helps with individual growth.

When a friendship ends, individuals may question their own self-worth, feel a loss of social support, and struggle with a sense of identity disruption. It may require time and introspection to reestablish a sense of self and redefine one's social identity, along with rebuilding self-esteem and prioritizing self care activities.


Ending a close friendship can trigger a grieving process, similar to what is experienced after the loss of a loved one. Individuals may go through stages of denial, anger, bargaining, sadness and acceptance as they come to terms with the end of the friendship. This grieving process is a natural part of adjusting to the loss and reconfiguring one's social connections.

However, adults tend to feel deep shame since there’s an expectation to have “friendships figured out.” It’s common to hide feelings, unlike the emotional outpour that may occur with a romantic breakup. Shame and fear after a friend breakup can feel isolating. In these cases, it’s crucial to reach out and talk to loved ones or a professional healthcare provider.

As part of the grieving process, forgiveness is also important. If you blame yourself for what went wrong, you must learn to accept the experience because you can’t change what happened. You can use your mistakes as a learning opportunity to become a better friend in future situations.

More research is needed to better support individuals going through this unique experience and develop interventions to promote emotional well-being and eventually, the formation of new friendships.


Thank you to our community member who asked this question! If you have any questions about mental health, send them over to our questions tab or reach out to us on Instagram or Twitter!


If you’re interested, check out some of the sources I used in researching this answer! All sources used for this answer are strictly evidence-based.

  1. NWO (Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research). (2009, May 27). Half Of Your Friends Lost In Seven Years, Social Network Study Finds. ScienceDaily. Retrieved June 19, 2023 from

  2. CHOPIK, W.J. (2017), Associations among relational values, support, health, and well-being across the adult lifespan. Pers Relationship, 24: 408-422.

  3. Amati, V., Meggiolaro, S., Rivellini, G., & Zaccarin, S. (2018). Social relations and life satisfaction: the role of friends. Genus, 74(1), 7.

  4. Social exclusion: Psychological approaches to understanding and reducing its impact. Citation. Riva, P., & Eck, J. (Eds.). (2016)

  5. de Boer, A., van Buel, E. M., & Ter Horst, G. J. (2012). Love is more than just a kiss: a neurobiological perspective on love and affection. Neuroscience, 201, 114–124.

  6. Vieth, G., Rothman, A. J., & Simpson, J. A. (2022). Friendship loss and dissolution in adulthood: A conceptual model. Current opinion in psychology, 43, 171–175.

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