There’s a text message on my phone that I’m terrified to answer.
It seems innocuous, but it’s been sitting in my phone for two years. “Hey, man, you want to get a drink this week?” writes a guy I’ll call Sam. “It’s been a while!”
Thing is, Sam used to be a semi-well-known writer in the U.K. I admired him, and so did the rest of the circles I run in. He was the kind of writer who knew how to turn a phrase and vividly capture a moment. He understood the zeitgeist of the late 2010s. In short, he was exactly the kind of writer I still want to be.
Which is why it sucks I had to defriend him.
In late 2017, allegations emerged that he’d been sexually inappropriate with a number of women. For several months, I learned, he’d repeatedly stalked and harassed one. When news spread on a mostly male WhatsApp group I was in, we were stunned. Was he lying to us? Should we have paid more attention to his behavior?
Ultimately, though, only one question loomed over us: How do we kill off this friendship?
The answer should’ve been easy: a direct confrontation. We should’ve held him accountable for his actions. Instead, we ghosted him, ignoring his messages, calls and Instagram likes. For about three years now, we’ve disassociated from him online. But none of us, I realized, actually ended the friendship.
Why do men seem to find it so hard to break off friendships with other guys, even when they’re actually, demonstrably abusive? Frankly, there aren’t a lot of how-to guides for men when it comes to friendship in the first place. While researching this piece, the majority of articles I read about breaking up toxic friendships were written by women, published in outlets geared toward largely female readerships. It’s clear we’re not doing the research, and when we do, we might not believe it applies to us in the first place.
For lots of guys, it’s tough to recognize a friend’s crappy behavior until it’s too late. “I just didn’t know how to get out of it,” says Paul, 30, a developer in London whose last name we agreed to omit. Paul’s friend was “awful in basically every way,” he says: “sexist, would say racist things, rude to everyone … and stole money from me, while lying about it.” But when Paul considered addressing his behavior, he wondered if he was overreacting. “There was a part of me that thought, ‘I’m acting uppity and controlling. I shouldn’t expect him to change his personality for me.’” So he kept his thoughts to himself. He moved out and gave his toxic friend a hug. Months passed, and they haven’t yet spoken. “I don’t think that he believes his behavior had pushed me away from him,” Paul admits.
“Men don’t generally think about the formation of their friendships with other guys,” says Avi Klein, a psychotherapist based in New York and a host of the Hey, Man advice podcast. “Even though guys are, generally, more open about their feelings and emotions, expressing vulnerability is hard. And when it comes to friends who [act crappy] to other people, that’s a weird place for guys to be in, because the friend didn’t hurt them, but they still feel betrayed. They still feel vulnerable.”
There isn’t a lot of research into the dynamics of platonic male friendships, but sociologist Lisa Wade has found one key stat: that American men (in particular, white, heterosexual men) have the lowest number of male friends, more than any other group of people. While heterosexual men desired closer and more emotionally intimate bonds with male friends, Wade argues that the socialization of men during their teen years — where qualities like self-sufficiency, stoicism and competitiveness are prioritized — means that by the time they reach adulthood, it becomes harder to develop the emotional intuition needed to navigate, and form, healthy friendships.
At the same time, Klein says, the difficulty in navigating difficult friendships for some men can be highly personal, rooted more in the way that men understand themselves on an individual level. It’s all about setting boundaries for yourself, he advises, and noting “the boundaries you’re willing (and unwilling) to let people cross.”
Patrick, 28 and living in Leeds, Northern England, confesses that he’s still in a “toxic friendship” with a guy from his youth. When he tried to “lay the cards out” a few years ago in what was supposed to be a “cutoff moment,” it became “a three-hour reminiscing session, and nothing really changed.”
Klein says there isn’t a set way to get out of a difficult friendship — no matter how much guys would like there to be. “Men should see the same value in their friendships as they do in their romantic relationships,” Klein says. “So if you wouldn’t tolerate a particular form of behavior or treatment from a partner, or you have expectations of how a partner should treat you romantically … you should translate those expectations in a friendship, too.”
Basically: Call them out. It’s painful, but it’s worth it. “You know it’s going to hurt and it’s going to suck, especially if you’re the one doing it,” Klein says. The same principle should be applied to friendships, too — which, in itself, requires a shift in men’s understanding of friendship.
Which leads me back to my situation as I stare at the two-year-old text bubble on my phone screen. I could easily ignore this and assume he got the message. But I realize, in breaking up with Sam, I’m not doing it to prove a point to him. I’m doing it for myself. I’m telling myself I deserve truthful — and, thus, better — friends.
So it takes all the courage I’ve got to text back exactly what I’ve been thinking: “I don’t think we should talk anymore. Can you delete my number?”