Written by Emmie Harrison-West
In her teenage years, journalist Emmie Harrison-West was a social butterfly, but friendships have dwindled as she’s got older. What if that’s no bad thing?
There was a time when I was popular. Well, among the outcasts at least. Looking back, I would describe myself as the skinny jean-clad glue that held my group of pre-teen emos and goths together.
When I was in high school, I had lots of friends – so much so that their parents would describe our home as a youth hostel whenever they visited. Back then, this was a part of my identity; I thought having plenty of friends was essential to my life, my wellbeing and my self-esteem. I thought what adults said about people ‘drifting apart’ as they got older was rubbish. That it was their fault for letting friendships flicker out – but I was wrong.
Now, as I approach 30, I can count on one hand how many close friends I have – and one of those is my husband. I have fewer friends than ever, and honestly, I couldn’t be happier, which isn’t entirely unusual according to Rebecca Lockwood, a positive psychology coach. “Friendships can dwindle and change throughout our lives because we’re going through different things at different stages,” says Lockwood. “The people we were once close to may not understand or be able to resonate with the things we’re currently experiencing.”
It’s true that I’ve had different types of friends for different stages of my life. Ones to fulfil my wants and needs at the time. At school, it was the people who felt rejected by the flock for what they wore or where they came from. We had our firsts together, and it was special. A few remain some of my best friends, even now.
According to Lockwood, this is because we’re in our ‘socialisation period’ in our teens. “In this time our friendships can be based on pleasing others to fit into the crowd,” she says. “When we begin to get older and into our twenties, we have more of an idea of who we are so we look for friendship groups that fit with our values and ideals we already have.”
Indeed, when I started university – 300 miles from home – it was the temporary friends from my halls who fitted in with my needs and values back then. I clumsily made friends with people I was thrown into a corridor with in order to survive the pressures of university and living independently for the first time. But out of the hundreds of people I met at university, I can safely say that two of them are real, true friends. The rest served a purpose, of sorts. They were transitional, and in the right place at the right time – whether to act as a drinking buddy, a wingman, a study partner or someone to sit next to in lectures to help me feel less alone. It was a comfort; I knew they were temporary, and I suspect the feeling was mutual.
It’s an experience that’s more common than you may think. “I have no mates from uni left,” Phoebe, 33, from Manchester told me. “I was the one who signed up to every society you could think of: netball, trampolining, even frisbee. I went to all of the socials and thought I had loads of friends.” Now, however, Phoebe’s only contact with them is viewing their Instagram stories. “I don’t feel sad about it,” she says. “I was figuring myself out at the time, and I’ve done a full circle as I’m now closer to the girls I went to school with.”
According to Max Dickens, author of Billy No Mates, research by social network scientists suggests that our social world peaks in our late-teens to early twenties, and then declines from that point. “We need different travellers for different journeys,” Dickins says. “For example, in our twenties, often in a flat-share, it’s about exploring who we are: our friends’ primary role is supporting us in our adventures – and picking up the pieces when they don’t work out.
“Yet, once we feel established in our adult life, it can suddenly seem like we need different things,” Dickens adds. “We want friends who can relate to our experiences at the time: parents need other parents, for example. We need friends who can offer vulnerability and emotional support to help us through these times – being fun often isn’t enough anymore.”
Dickens is right. In my late twenties, I was introduced to the idea of ‘day and night friends’. For me, then living in London, I had ‘party friends’ that I couldn’t imagine meeting for a coffee during the day, and they probably felt the same way about me. It was a sort of unspoken agreement.
This was the time that I started to discover my true, loyal friends. The friends who see you at your worst at Glastonbury and still invite you out for dinner. The ones that stick by you when you have a meltdown or understand when you don’t reply for weeks.
Some of them were people I hadn’t known for long, but they were the real friends I’d been waiting for. The ones that made me go, ‘OK, so this is real friendship.’ Consequently, the friends who once served a purpose – mostly partying or getting through uni together – fell by the wayside, became acquaintances who promised coffee dates, and then became online voyeurs before I clicked ‘unfriend’ with no real emotional distress.
To me, this feels healthy. “Friendships are voluntary,” Dickens emphasises. “That’s one reason they are so special: we’ve chosen them. But as we’ve opted into our friends, we can also opt out.” Today, I wouldn’t swap anything for a bigger friendship group. And I know, in time, that my current friendships will change again too. But the truest will hold firm while others fade. While it may seem hard to look upon friendships you once cherished and see that they’re no longer on your wavelength – or among your list of followers – it’s OK. In fact, it’s normal.
Choose this time to invest in your truest friends. The ones who have been there from the start, often in the background; the ones who always send flowers for your birthday; the ones who say they’re thinking about you, though you haven’t seen them in months. These are the ones that matter and stand the test of time. But it takes patience, as much as energy – and it’s worth it, I reckon.
“We need people in our lives, beyond our romantic partner and family ties, with whom we feel safe to confide in about anything,” adds Dickens. “Friends who know us down to our deepest nooks and crannies, and whom we feel we know profoundly in return.”
I second that.
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