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How To Break Up With A Neighbor

The most important step in the process.

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Sonia Pulido
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Lisa and Kelly were best friends. They had kids the same age, their husbands were close friends, and they lived right next door to each other. After years of BBQs, tailgates and holidays spent together, they got in a fight. It started because one of their daughters turned in the other’s daughter for breaking a rule at school. Lisa and Kelly each thought her daughter was right in the scenario, and after days of snippy discussions it was clear neither was going to bend and the friendship was wrapping up. Kelly was devastated to lose one of her best friends, but she was also at a loss how to move forward. Usually when a relationship ends, physical space is a big part of the separation.

But what happens when a friendship ends and the former friend lives a mere 10 yards away? Jennifer had a similar situation. Her family was best friends with another family a couple houses away. But when she realized she wanted to separate from her husband, her friend Rebecca took the husband’s side and stopped talking to Jennifer. Jennifer stopped getting phone calls and texts from her friend, and after many months of mourning the loss of that important relationship she finally moved on. 

“I see her walking her dog almost every day,” Jennifer says. “It’s hard. But I’ve tried to take the high road. I treat her like I would any other stranger or acquaintance I see around the neighborhood. I’m friendly ... say hello, smile and move on.”

Jennifer has worked hard to get over the loss. But it’s an important step in a breakup. “In any situation where we were once close to another person, disengaging is an internal emotional process,” says emotional awareness expert Mary C. Lamia. “The question to ask oneself is, ‘How can I be neutral about this situation and not care?’ A position of neutrality does away with the vigilance we maintain about them when we emotionally care.” 

Perhaps the most important step in the breakup is creating and setting new boundaries for the relationship. Things that seemed normal and acceptable may not be any longer. “Ask yourself whether any boundaries were set during the friendship and then think about what you would like to be different,” recommends relationship conflict expert Dianne Grande. “Put these changes in clear behavioral terms, such as ‘I’d like to agree not to show up at each other’s home without notice’ or ‘I hope we can be more aware of respecting each other’s property lines.’ ”

The conversations may not be easy or even welcome, in which case you’ll have less control. “If it appears unlikely to have a constructive agreement with the neighbor, you may simply decide to change your own behavior and hope that they follow the example,” says Grande. Sometimes it’s best to return to the rules we all learned in kindergarten — and if you can’t say something nice, don’t say anything at all.

Experts agree that not engaging in petty behavior is best. Particularly if the former friends have kids that are still buddies. Jennifer’s and Rebecca’s kids were BFFs and the sudden change in friendship of the moms was difficult to navigate. Lamia suggests being honest. “Be a role model,” she says. “If the children are old enough to understand, or if they ask, then it is fine to explain why your differences with the parent of their friend have created distance between you.” 

Grande recommends leaving the children out of it completely. “Allow the kids to maintain their friendships as usual,” she says. “Your disagreements with the other parents do not have to become something for the children to manage. If the kids ask directly about the changes in routines, try to explain the changes in simple behavioral terms.”

“It’s annoying when she hugs my kids when she sees them,” Jennifer admits. “But, I’m not going to be the asshole who pretends I don’t see her or says something nasty  — as much as I want to. Doing petty stuff back and forth can consume you. And I’ve got more important things to think about than her and her lackluster friendship.”

Friendships come and go. Ending a friendship can be easy, or it can be an emotionally draining event. Grande explains friendship beautifully: “Friends can have different purposes in our lives. It has been said that there are three kinds of friendships: useful friendships, in which there is mutual benefit; enjoyable friendships, which we appreciate just for the fun of it; and friendships based upon mutual respect and admiration — these are the most enduring of our friendships.”

Many times, a friendship with a neighbor is one based on necessity or even by default. And it’s good to focus on what it was and the role it played in your life. “Sometimes the friendship with a neighbor hasn’t passed the test of time,” says Grande. “You can still appreciate it for what it meant in the past and how that relationship may have helped to mold you into the person you are now.”