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Dear friend: It's over 'tween us

  • Story Highlights
  • Most people end a friendship by just losing contact with other person
  • Expert: If you choose to end it, stick to it and maintain boundaries
  • Author: If emotions are high, it's OK to end it by letter or e-mail
  • And while burning bridge to friendship, don't burn the former friend
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By Liane Yvkoff
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(LifeWire) -- Weddings are supposed to be a time to celebrate new beginnings. But for Shay Nowick, whose friend asked Nowick to be a bridesmaid at her wedding, it was the beginning of the end -- of their friendship.

Even before the wedding, Nowick says their relationship had been "rocky."

"She was one of those friends who made you feel bad if you didn't call," Nowick, 36, a technology director in San Francisco, says of her former pal. Still, she wanted to support her friend on her special day.

But as the wedding approached, Nowick says, she felt overwhelmed by her friend's bickering and constant demands. On the big day, smiles were few and far between.

"By the end of the day, it was clear we weren't going to be friends," she says.

Soon thereafter, they argued on the phone. Her friend hung up on her, Nowick says, and that was that.

When friends grow apart, commit acts of betrayal or demand too much time and energy, what's the best way to end the relationship?

There are right ways and wrong ways, says Kerry Patterson, a consultant on human interaction in Provo, Utah. "It's one thing when it dies a natural death, but when it's one-sided, you have to be really sensitive."

Pulling a disappearing act

The most common way people choose to break up is to withdraw and stop communicating, says Patterson, author of "Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations and Bad Behavior." In such cases, the other person should be able to pick up on the cues.

That's what happened to Nicolette Schumacher, 24, a sales account manager in San Francisco. After living together for four years and helping each other through everything from boyfriends to bad hair days, her best friend "just disappeared."

"We had no falling-out, no fight. We were really good friends," says Schumacher. But her friend gradually ceased to follow through on plans, stopped taking her phone calls, and didn't return repeated e-mails and voice mails. Schumacher got the hint, but she didn't know why.

"It totally caught me off guard. It's like losing a family member," she says.

Mailing it in

If you want some final contact but a live conversation is too hot to handle, you can put it in writing.

"People say that if you're really angry with someone, you should write a letter because it captures so much more," says Christen O'Brien, a conference director in San Francisco who had frequent spats with a friend whom she describes as "really needy."

But it was a guy who caused their relationship's ultimate demise. When a man her friend was eyeing fancied O'Brien (although O'Brien says the interest wasn't returned), a fight ensued after the friend sent O'Brien a heated e-mail. They traded several e-mails and O'Brien says she stopped responding.

Is such behavior acceptable? That may depend on the type of friendship, cautions Patterson. He says people use e-mail as a way to avoid face-to-face conversation.

"You can do it, but it's the least polite and helpful. But it's also the safest because it won't lead to a conversation that you can't handle," says Patterson. However, he adds, "I've never heard of it used in any but a disdainful way."

Months later, O'Brien's friend e-mailed her, seeking to rekindle the relationship. O'Brien has yet to reply. "Even though I have a lot of feelings for her as a friend," she says, "I think it's best we don't talk."

That's what Sheila Heen, a lecturer on negotiation at Harvard Law School, advises: If you've made a decision to end a friendship, stick with it and enforce boundaries, she says.

Should you discuss why?

Having a conversation with the friend about what happened and why might open the door to a painful and unproductive negotiation -- or it could save the friendship.

Schumacher, the sales account manager from San Francisco, would have appreciated having that conversation. "I just feel bad because I don't know what I could have done. There's nothing I can think of."

If a friend is breaking up with you, Patterson says, "you can be gracious and say you don't want to be needy, or you can ask for feedback."

If you go with the latter option, Patterson says, "Ask for specificity. Many times they'll say, 'It's not you, it's me.' But that's a big lie, because there's two people in a relationship."

But no matter who's doing the breaking up and how, Patterson says, the main thing is to be careful with your friend's feelings: "Make sure that when burning the bridge, you don't burn the person."

LifeWire provides original and syndicated lifestyle content to Web publishers. Liane Yvkoff is a freelance writer in San Francisco.

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