How’s your detachment game? It might not be a question you’ve considered much, but if you’re someone who hoards your belongings, or clings onto flimsy items beyond repair, chances are it’s something you should urgently address. But this specific kind of detachment isn’t related to, say, holding onto one too many old birthday cards. Rather, it’s about friends.
Recently used by Meghan Markle’s former BFF Jessica Mulroney, the phrase featured in a meme she posted on Instagram, which read: “As loving as I am, my detachment game is strong too.” The post set tails wagging among Markle’s fans and her haters, with both factions speculating it was in reference to the duo’s close friendship, which was said to have fallen apart after Mulroney found herself embroiled in a Black Lives Matter row.
In 2020, Mulroney – a stylist – engaged in a social media argument with a Black influencer, Sasha Exeter. After the two disagreed over one of Exeter’s Instagram posts supporting the Black Lives Matter movement, Exeter shared an 11-minute video on Instagram in which she claimed Mulroney “took offence” to “a very generic call to action”, resulting in a series of messages that left her “paralysed with fear”. Mulroney later issued a public apology in which she appeared to reference her friendship with Markle. “As I told you privately, I have lived a very public and personal experience with my closest friend where race was front and centre,” she wrote. “It was deeply educational. I learned a lot from that. I promise to continue to learn and listen on how I can use my privilege to elevate and support Black voices.”
Despite being firm friends with Markle going back to her time as an actor in Canada, and long before she met the Duke of Sussex, Mulroney and Markle have not been seen together since the former’s BLM controversy. Nonetheless, having good “detachment game” with friends – meaning being able to distance yourself from relationships that are no longer serving you – is a noble skill, and it’s one that has been increasingly spoken about among those writing and thinking about friendship.
“I think that we all need to practise getting better at friendship endings in order to destigmatise the idea of it,” says Elizabeth Day, host of the How to Fail podcast and author of the Sunday Times bestselling book, Friendaholic: Confessions of a Friendship Addict. “A friendship is never a failure simply because it ends. There’s this absurd notion that friendships have to last forever – even if the only reason the friendship exists in the first place is a haphazard circumstance – and that if they don’t, then we have somehow failed or we are somehow ‘bad’ friends.”
In fact, as Day advocates in her book, by getting better at detaching from friendships that no longer suit us, we start to exhibit a greater deal of self-respect that not only boosts our own lives but improves our other friendships. But all this is easier said than done, particularly if you’ve never “detached” from a long-term friendship before. For starters, how do you even recognise when it’s time to do it?
“Often it boils down to space: not having been given room to grow and change within the friendship,” explains Claire Cohen, author of BFF?: The Truth about Female Friendship. “Old friends can sometimes keep us in boxes and want us to remain the same as we always have been; that’s just not realistic and can lead to misunderstandings and a feeling of claustrophobia.”
If you don’t recognise this soon enough, that’s when a friendship can start to turn toxic. As for how to know if this is the case, Cohen suggests asking yourself how you feel whenever you see that friend. “Are you always emotionally drained by their company? Does everything have to be on their terms? Do they put you down or make you feel unable to share positive news? It can be hard to admit that these things are part of a long-term friendship – our shared histories can cover many cracks – but if you’re nodding your head to several of these things, it might be worth having a conversation with your friend.”
There may be other signs too, like clear violations and betrayals of your trust. But the more tacit signs are harder to spot, particularly if you’ve become accustomed to them over time. “If you don’t feel like you can be yourself around them, or find yourself cancelling on them repeatedly and feeling too busy to text them back, that might be a sign it’s time to move away, too,” adds psychologist Dr Madeleine Mason Roantree.
That said, referring to this as “detachment game” might not be the healthiest approach either. “It is not a clinical term, but I am guessing it refers to the position a person adopts where they attempt to be emotionally detached from a situation or person,” adds Dr Roantree. “Game implies some sort of control or power dynamic. This sounds laborious and tiring.”
Instead, it’s best simply to think of it in terms described by Day: moving away from friendships as an act of practicing self-respect; making better choices that reflect who you authentically are. A more appropriate phrase that is sometimes used is “a friendship break-up”.
“Part of the problem with friendship break-ups is that, as a society, we haven’t spent a lot of time thinking about them,” explains Day. “We’re all aware of how a romantic break-up goes and the vocabulary we can reach for and, in fact, romantic break-ups are very much accepted as part of normal character evolution and working out what we want in the long term. There isn’t the same language of ending for friendships, which leads to fear.”
As a result, we often end up saying things we don’t mean, or acting out as a result of guilt or resentment. In some cases, we might even ghost a friend, which is never going to benefit either of you. So, how do you go about doing it? “Ask yourself how you would want to be treated on the receiving end of a friendship break-up,” suggests Day. This could take the form of a real-life conversation, a phone call, or even a text. In some cases, things might have gone beyond the point of even needing to speak at all.
“I’ve now learnt that it’s far better to lead with loving clarity (a boundary doesn’t have to be cruel) and to send a text saying something like, ‘I’m sorry I haven’t been in touch as much as usual. I’m dealing with some things in my own life which means I can’t be the friend you need right now but I think of you with love and wish you nothing but the best’,” suggests Day.
What if you find yourself on the receiving end of someone else’s detachment and the feeling isn’t entirely mutual? Well, as it transpires, the same advice could apply. “If a friend has essentially dumped you, without giving you the opportunity to discuss the problem or respond, the only thing you can do is practice detachment yourself,” says Cohen.
“One of the things I recommend doing is to take back control of what might feel like an uncontrollable situation – that might mean writing a letter to them that you never send, or saying what you wish you could tell them out loud so you’re able to release your feelings and draw a line under the friendship, accepting that it’s over.”
Most importantly, though, show yourself kindness and compassion, particularly if you find yourself ruminating over all of the reasons why someone might have detached from you. “It can be hard to break out of a cycle of blame,” adds Cohen. “But to detach, you need to accept that the friendship clearly wasn’t what you thought and that if they weren’t able to communicate honestly with you about ending it, you’re best off moving on to new friends.”