The guy you knew you could always call on at 2 a.m. if you were stranded somewhere and he’d take care of you? And then one day you found yourself stranded at the Tampa airport at 2 a.m. with your baby. You did call him and not only did he pick you up but he offered you a joint and wanted to stay up till dawn catching up on old time. You were like “Dude, those days are over. I have to get my toddler settled and then pass out so I can be human when she wakes up at 6.”
OK, maybe that exact thing only happened to me. But we’ve all had awkward moments with friends as we grow and change and some of our friends just … don’t. Or they grow in different directions. Your friend who was taking the bar exam while you were doing childbirth classes might not have as much in common with you now as she did when you were both English majors at Swarthmore.
It’s not just the stoners and high-powered lawyers you’re growing apart from. Turns out, there are a few key points in life when many of us ditch our friends. Becoming a parent is one of them. The New York Times published this great essay on the art of dumping a friend: “It’s Not Me, It’s You,” in which they explain that people grow apart from some friends over time. There’s even a fancy word for this normal process.
Psychologists consider it an inevitable life stage, a point where people achieve enough maturity and self-awareness to know who they are and what they want out of their remaining years, and have a degree of clarity about which friends deserve full attention and which are a drain. It is time, in other words, to shed people they collected in their youth, when they were still trying on friends for size. The winnowing process even has a clinical name: socioemotional selectivity theory, a term coined by Laura L. Carstensen, a psychology professor who is the director of the Stanford Center on Longevity in California.
People tend to close ranks and drop less intimate friends around age 30, when they’re dealing with big life changes like marriage and becoming a parent. Then they open up, spending more time with acquaintances and new friends in their 30s before winnowing their friends again in their 40s.
In other words: you won’t be keeping all those mom friends you made on the playground or at the PTA. No real surprise there. Your mom friends, like your college buddies, are close to you now because you’re sharing a particular life experience together. Once the years of bonding over toddler tantrums are behind you, some of these people will turn out to be real friends you want to keep close to, and some will drift away like the faintly remembered college crush you play Scrabble with on Facebook but haven’t spoken to in 10 years.
Not all imperfect friends simply drift away, though. Some have to be cut loose. While it might seem simpler to just stop making plans with a friend and hope she takes the hint, many won’t. Leaving things unresolved can cause lasting pain for both parties. Instead, the NYT recommends a clear, firm good-bye:
TO avoid backbiting and lingering bad feelings, many relationship experts recommend the same sort of direct approach that one would employ in a romantic breakup. To get around nagging questions, an honest letter, or even an e-mail, is the minimum (forget texting; that’s just cruel). A heartfelt face-to-face talk is better, said Erika Holiday, a clinical psychologist in Encino, Calif., who has discussed relationship issues on television shows like Dr. Phil.
I’ve broken up with a few friends over the years, and I’m not sure I agree with this advice. Having someone tell you to your face that you can’t be friends anymore is painful, and memorably so. I’m still stung by the memory of a high school friend parting ways with me because I “don’t deal with my problems.”
Likewise, the times I’ve explicitly told someone I no longer want to be close to them have left a lasting bad taste in my mouth. On the other hand, while I wonder what happened to some of the people I’ve drifted apart from over the years, I don’t feel any long-term damage about not being close to them any more. Maybe we drifted apart because secretly they hate me, or maybe our lives just went in different directions. I’m OK with never knowing.
What causes you to end a friendship? How do you think it’s best to do it: with a clear, firm farewell or a slow, silent drift?