Early on this year I began socialising with a relatively new colleague from work. Hayley* and I had always got on in a ‘brief encounters in and around the office kind of way’ with jokes and silly stories, regularly suggesting to one another about going out for that drink but like with most things in life, other things had gotten in the way.
After a holiday, I decided to bite the bullet and suggested dinner and drinks one night after work. The evening went so well that we decided to extend it and we ended up sharing more wine until fairly late. For the next few months, once or twice a week we would grab a drink or meet up for lunch sometimes with a group of others. Being someone who leans over on the side of being an introvert side of life and at times finds certain aspects of socializing a challenge, particularly first introductions, I was happy that I had found someone that I connected with.
So it was strange when I noticed that things had begun to change.
Whenever I made a suggestion about going out somewhere, her responses were vague, non-committal and always in the negative. She was busy, she was tired, she had work to catch up… all totally fair and legitimate reasons. But my suspicions were raised that things were definitely off between us when it turned out I had been replaced on the lunch dates by a newer colleague.
So what did I do? I turned inward and attempted to analyse the situation as best I could. What had I done wrong? Had I offended her somehow? Made an inappropriate remark? Insulted her mother?
Perhaps I was reading too much into it, another friend said. She’s had a lot going on, I was reminded. This I knew and understood, I had offered support, an ear and no judgement to best of my knowledge, but why still the blackout?
You can do a quick Google search, or pick up a copy of a glossy magazine and find various articles about what to do or how you are meant to feel after the breakdown of a relationship between romantic partners, but what about with friends? As unlike a breakup with a partner, where at least usually you have the opportunity to put your cards on the table as to the state of how things are going, with a friend the lines are often blurred and you may never get to the bottom of the question, ‘Why did you dump me?’
To help analyse my situation a little more, I turned to some of the theory that I teach students looking specifically at relationship breakdowns. British social psychologist, Steve Duck proposed a four stage process to a romantic relationship breakdown:
At first, an individual mulls over the state of a relationship, this is known as the intrapsychic phase. This is generally an internal process where a person considers if they are satisfied or not. They may voice their dissatisfaction to other people but it is not until the second phase, dyadic phase where the partner hears their concerns. Here, a discussion may be constructive and useful in terms of enlightening one or both partners about any difficulties, compromises may be made and new boundaries drawn.
However, it may also move the breakdown into the third stage or the social phase, this is where more people from the immediate social circle become involved regarding the relationship; family, friends and colleagues. At this point, advice is sought from these groups to help the person determine whether the relationship can be saved or not. If not, the breakdown leads to the final stage.
Finally, the grave-dressing phase is where, individuals having looked introspectively at the part they played in the relationship reassess their own values, and importantly consider how the outside world may perceive them. This can involve the retelling of the relationship in a favourable way. In effect at this stage you are mourning the loss of the relationship and attempting to present yourself in the best light to potential future partners. For example, if the relationship ended due to infidelity, the person who had the affair may argue that they were unhappy and the relationship had run its course to ‘justify’ their actions.
Although this model is applicable to romantic relationships, there are certainly overlaps with other types of relationship, particularly friendships. You initially connect due to shared interests, desires and dreams, much like a romantic relationship, but without the added potency of hormones and brain chemistry. Also unlike romantic relationships, with friendships our levels of investment are usually vastly different. We may not see them as regularly as our partners for instance and so we may tend to wave off or suppress certain discussions to prevent any potential fall out.
The idea that we become introspective and may try to establish a pattern of behaviour for ourselves and others is not only natural but also what makes us human. We may discuss the friendship with mutual friends trying to establish if they know anything about how the dumper is feeling in an attempt to explain their actions. Some people probably less sensitive than me may not even reach the ‘grave-dressing stage’, and see the ebbs and flows of a relationship as a fact of life. You win some, you lose some.
It could be an option at this point to ask the dumper themselves what exactly happened, what changed so dramatically to cause the breakup? This is mostly dependent on whether you truly want to know the answer or whether it is worth admitting your own insecurities.
In my case, part of my personality and desire to form strong attachments to others makes me sometimes susceptible and sensitive to the loss of an attachment, resulting in a degree of anxiety. Perhaps the reason why Hayley moved on and made close friends with some newer colleagues is because our friendship was one more of convenience rather than any deep connection or dislike towards me. As bleak and flippant as that sounds, it does remind me that I do have some incredibly strong friendships with lasting connections and I am reminded to spend some more time fostering these.
* The name has been changed to protect their identity.