Welcome to the jolly world of adult friendships! A world in which the natural rate of attrition is likely frightfully faster than the attrition rate of whichever industry you’re destined to work in. It’s no surprise why this is so, especially when we all currently occupy the lowest rungs of society. There’s (school) work, there’s family, there’s your significant other – honestly, friends come last in the list of priorities and matter little when you’re trying to get to the end of the week without breaking down for the 10,000th time. As we get sucked into the turmoil of building up our lives, friends become dispensable, and our social circles shrink. Not only are we losing old friends, but it’s getting harder to make new ones.
Why should we make such a big deal out of friendships fizzling out? They were never meant to be as much in your inner circle as your significant other and family are – but that’s where we may be wrong. Studies have found that in old age, strong friendships are a stronger indicator of healthy mental wellbeing than having strong family connections. In a world where we’re fighting a constant battle to define ourselves, the company we choose to keep, the friendships we choose to invest in as opposed to the ties that we were born with and are bound to, speaks volumes.
Just as we have to declutter our living spaces sometimes, we need to review our friendships from time to time. After all, to misquote Animal Farm, “not all friendships are equal”. Although we are mostly past childishly labelling friendships, such as distinguishing between who is your “best friend” and who isn’t, all of us have different tiers of friends; recognising this helps us to understand their places in our lives and to “declutter” our friendships accordingly so that we can prioritise those who matter.
First, we have the “genuine friends”. These are friends whom we know we can always turn to for a listening ear, although the closeness of each friendship varies according to the phase of life we are in. These are the ones we know we can ring up in times of (real) emergencies and they would always have your back. These are the ones who make us laugh the hardest and remind us of who we really are beneath the calcified armour we build up with time. While you may not be as close to them as you once were, there is always the potential to grow closer again if time and tide permits.
There are also the “mandatory friends” whom we absolutely wouldn’t be friends with if we were completely honest with ourselves. Some of these are “historical friendships” which have long run dry of any affection and are just hanging on by a thread of sentimentality. With every successive catch-up, you can’t help but feel a growing amount of dread not dissimilar to when you meet your relatives at an obligatory family gathering. Others which fall into this category include that one (or two) person in the same friendship group you really - really - just can’t be left alone with (admit it, there’s always someone you wouldn’t miss if they didn’t turn up for your meetups). PSA to no one’s surprise or disappointment: these friendships probably wouldn’t last past your twenties.
Then there are the “social media friends”. These ones are extremely low maintenance, with promises of “meet-up soon?” slowly fading into obscurity as you resign yourself to being online friends, content to view and occasionally comment on their lives behind a screen.
Let’s talk about friendship break-ups. What are the hypothesised causes, independent variables, and critical tipping points that we need to watch out for? Just kidding, simply put, most of these friendships will gradually and softly fade. There are no warning sirens: just as you are busy with your life, your friends are too busy with theirs. Just like that, the relationship quietly becomes a memory.
Maintaining friendships takes effort, something which we often can’t find in ourselves to muster as our lives spin crazily on a different axis from our friends’. Apparently, it takes spending 200 hours with someone to consider them a close friend, and we only have the capacity for around 150 close relationships. It is no wonder that we feel a true pang of loss when we look back and question what happened to a particular friendship.
It is also often the different expectations of a friendship that causes the break-up. While we should set aside time for our friends, the reality is that we have changing priorities. When one side becomes a miserly time lord while the other demands too much attention, the friendship is no longer a balanced, healthy one. For a friendship to be maintained, both sides need to have realistic expectations of the other while also putting in enough effort so as not to take their friendship for granted – something we tend to do with old friends. If you were on the receiving end of constantly rescheduled catch-ups and cut-off conversations, you wouldn’t think that such a friendship is very worth keeping.
Another factor: people change, thankfully. Can you imagine having conversations with a 15-year-old version of yourself? We all change, and the best of friends change together with you. They let you revert, temporarily, to a more care-free version of yourself. But they also listen to the troubles of your current self and provide the comfort and support you need. You grow together, and it is a beautiful thing to look back and see how far you've come together. The problem arises when some friends “gatekeep” your growth. Just like Peter Pan who refused to grow up, they constantly question changes in your life, making you feel like the scorned alien who forsook Neverland for the real world. Maybe these friends were never worth keeping in the first place, and you’ve long outgrown them.
And then of course, there are people who just, simply put, deserve to be ditched. These could be old friends you never realised were so toxic in your youth and naivety. These could also be friends who, unfortunately, took a turn down the wrong path and became people who you no longer liked or enjoyed hanging out with. And that’s perfectly acceptable – there shouldn’t be guilt in putting yourself first. And frankly, as our free time gets shorter, it’s only right that we get choosier in deciding which friends we want to spend time with. Stubbornly clinging onto something that isn’t meant for you to keep isn’t healthy for either side.
For many of us, the current friendships that we have are precious. While it may be difficult, it is perhaps worth trying to keep these friends, our chosen family, in our lives. It is normal for communication to dwindle when things get hectic, but don’t let the fear of rejection or awkwardness stop you from reconnecting – research shows that friends appreciate being reached out to more than we think. True friends appreciate and value sincere and heart-felt effort, no matter how awkward!