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A friend once asked me for advice about some infighting that had broken out in her clique. Everyone had started ganging up on her, and she didn’t know why or what she should do.

Barely blinking, I shrugged and said, “Just … leave the clique?”

I was being reasonable. And yet the truth, as I’ve learnt, is never this simple.

Instead, many of us stay in unhappy friendships, overlooking the micro-aggressions, struggling to prove ourselves, and allowing peer pressure to distort the way we live. We accept that this is how our friends have always been, and that this is how they always will be.

We stick it out through thick and thin. After all, isn’t this what friends do?

To me at least, this way of thinking has always been flawed. Because the fact is, we grow up, we change, we grow apart. This is the reality of our human experience.

Yet many of us stay friends with people we can no longer relate to, often for one simple reason: We’ve been friends since forever.

We can’t imagine having to make new friends, and when we see unpleasant strangers in the people we once saw as our closest friends, it makes us feel like there’s something wrong with us. So we just deal with it.

At some point in a friendship, you might find yourself asking, “How am I still friends with this person?”

There is some wisdom to the saying that we are who we choose to surround ourselves with. And as young adults, this becomes especially true.

If we’re gym rats, we want to be friends with people who gym. If we’ve started collecting art, we want to befriend those who can tell Monet from Manet. Or maybe we want to feel like and be seen as corporate mavericks, and so we only hang out with people pursuing ambitious or high-profile careers.

Whatever it is, friendship, as we get older, becomes a careful negotiation between personal branding and personal happiness.

When we’re younger, we care about the small but significant things—common interests, common dislikes. As adults, we care about the big but ultimately ego-driven things—who we’re trying to become, how we want to be seen.

Ultimately, whether it’s the places we go to or the people we spend time with, we want all this to reflect how we see ourselves.

And so, at some point in a friendship, you might suddenly find yourself asking, “How the fuck am I still friends with this person?”

Maybe that friend is late and offers no excuse, and you realise that this has happened a million times. Or that friend talks down to a server at a restaurant, or you find their lack of direction in life exhausting to discuss (yet again).

In that moment, it doesn’t matter that you’ve always been there for each other, or that you have the same taste in books and movies. In that moment, that friend becomes a stranger, and you realise that things haven’t been the same for a while now. In fact, you dread every occasion on which you have to “catch up.” You’ve just learnt to not think about it so much.

So you ask yourself, “What if we just stopped hanging out and being friends?”

Then you realise that this isn’t Facebook. You can’t just unfriend someone.

But what if you could?

Like romance, platonic connections can be built on things that change or turn out not to be what we thought it was.

As things stand, there are only two ways to end a friendship: by fading out of someone’s life or by falling out with them. I’ve done both, and while I regret none of the friends I’ve lost, these approaches are far from ideal. Both require careful orchestration, along with sensitive, delicately handled conversations.

In an ideal world, I would like to be able to break up with not just incompatible romantic partners, but with friends too. To be able to tell someone that our lives have taken us in different directions, and that I no longer find our time together meaningful.

I imagine this conversation to be perfectly calm and mature, requiring no more than a nod and perhaps a murmur of agreement. After that, if we ever run into each other again in public, we’ll smile, nod again, and carry on with our lives. It doesn’t have to be complicated or nasty.

Assuming that we’ve all gained some perspective on how life sometimes doesn’t work out the way we’ve come to expect, it shouldn’t be hard to be sensible and practical. Things change, but that’s okay. We can still agree not to continue wasting each other’s time.

Call me selfish or unsentimental, but isn’t this still less cruel and insincere than promising to meet up, only to never do? Or how about agreeing to dinners you know you’ll hate being at, and having to eventually fake smiles and confidences?

We don’t unfriend people because we say things like “Chicks before dicks!” or “Bros before hoes!” and put friendship on a pedestal. Unlike lovers, friends are supposed to be sacred and unwavering. They’re supposed to be the people we can count on when there’s no one else around.

But, like romance, platonic connections can be built on things that either change or turn out not to be what we thought they were. They too, can turn into unhappy marriages.

So why not leave?

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© RICE 2016