Trimming your social circle online requires only a mouse click. But cutting off a real-life friend can be a truly complex maneuver. What follows is a personal tale of a bromance gone awry, as well as tips from a
pro on dealing with a dysfunctional friendship you might one day have.

Pals since way back

For 15 rocky years growing up in Pennsylvania, we’d been friends. We were both jerks in high school, as teens clamoring for popularity can be. And during college, secure in ourselves, we had some legendary times. But then he got married—early and carelessly—and took a job he hated. And our downfall began.

At 25 he was insulting my other friends to their faces and forcibly talking over everyone around him, including me. But we were old school pals, so I was tolerant. By 30, I’d become a punching bag he used to take out all the anger he accrued at work and home. Though I calmly expressed my displeasure on multiple occasions, nothing seemed to get through to him.

I valued our friendship, but it had become emotionally abusive. One fateful September weekend, I decided to drop the hammer.

While football Sundays in Pennsylvania never find suburban man at his most refined, the rivalry of an Eagles-Steelers game can turn a normally chill wing spot into a beer-soaked, bone-littered cauldron of wrath.

I chose to take my stand on one such Sunday, in one such place. I figured the fervor of the bar would drown out any explosive reaction to my announcement. I rehearsed my monologue the night before, in the morning, and on the drive over. Our time had come.

But the moment I opened the door, it was clear my timing couldn’t have sucked worse.

I hadn’t considered that the same fervor I’d hoped would act as a buffer might also send my pal into barbarian mode. Before we’d even reached our seats, he was off on a tirade involving corporate America, golf course etiquette, and his vegetarian wife’s refusal to cook red meat. I nodded and sipped, studying his rage, waiting my turn. But from the kickoff to the end of halftime, I barely got a word in.

As the third quarter began, I tuned him out, ate my wings, and flagged the waitress for more blue cheese. When it arrived, he intercepted it, dunked a half-eaten wing in it, and announced he needed a beer. The waitress brought it, and he dipped a finger in it, declared it warm, and flicked the droplets in my direction. With 30 seconds to go, the Eagles capped a death-blow red-zone drive. As the bar erupted, he chugged my cold beer. I called for the check and left. Mission not accomplished.

Since my attempts to bring up the subject had failed, on Monday morning I wrote him an extremely clear e-mail. Tuesday and Wednesday arrived, but without a response. By Thursday, though, it no longer mattered: I’d accepted a job in New York and decided to move on.

Post-pal analysis

Still, I wondered: Had I handled it wisely? Was there some way I could have done it better? And why didn’t I do it sooner?

Looking for answers, I consulted Jeff Verrecchio, a Pennsylvania-based clinical psychologist with 35 years of experience in counseling and conflict resolution, and asked for his input.

He answered my last question first: Repeated rifts between male friends can trigger a prideful form of tolerance, he said, which can fast become an internalized toughness contest that goes on much too long.

A better way to handle it: Be truthful with yourself. Confront the negative feelings an unhealthy friendship causes, and don’t allow excess masculinity to cloud your judgment. Free of the macho mindset, you’ll be more aware of friendship patterns and better able to deal with them quickly.

When I mentioned the e-mail I’d written to finally end the friendship, Verrecchio approved. “This guy sounds unpredictable,” he said. “It’s likely he never listens, so I’d say writing him was good. It let you refine your message and be as well-spoken as possible”—crucial steps to take, as an unclear, impromptu-sounding announcement can come across as a whim rather than a decision.

Finally, be not just clear but aggressively truthful: “Nothing abusive, but let there be no doubt that your friend knows where you’re coming from.”

A poisonous relationship can do us as much harm as an unhealthy body, he told me. As hard as it was, I’m glad I found a way to put this relationship behind me.