A group of people dancing together on the beach at sunset

Shedding Adult Friendships? You’re not alone.

Last Saturday evening, I went to the cinema instead of an old friend’s birthday. I was, in my defence, terribly exhausted from three nights down the coast where I slept (or failed to) in a house among six young children. When I collapsed into a cool armchair with my boysenberry choc top, I did so with a little guilt and fear of missing out (FOMO). I soon learned the film I purchased tickets to, the Banshees of Inisherin, would speak to this avoidance and guilt I was experiencing. The film follows lifelong friends Colm (Brenden Gleeson) and Padraic (Colin Farrell), who fall to a standstill when Colm decides to withdraw from the friendship. A stunned Padraic spends the duration of the film trying to understand and make up with Colm- for what though, he isn’t sure. Pedraic’s advances only affirm Colm’s desire to end the friendship and the two escalate the situation until there are some funny, albeit shocking, consequences. As I sat there watching this unfold, I felt the guilt leave me completely (my FOMO was already gone). I started to wonder how many people are also presently experiencing this. That is, the dissolving of a friendship.


Adult Friendship Breakdowns can be Subtle and Destabilising

Friendship breakups don’t usually unfold like the movies’, which is a good thing given the ending of The Banshees of Inrishman, which results in the loss of possessions, and limbs! The ordinary person doesn’t seem to have the confidence, arrogance, or bravery to be as direct as Colm in saying to Padraic: “I just don’t like you anymore” and “I don’t have time for this friendship”. Often, in real life, it is more subtle and drawn out. We can be quite indifferent as it unfolds and, sometimes, we do not even register our desire for it to end at all. There are some tell-tale signs that indicate a friendship is going -has gone- stale. The lines of communication have dried up a little, maybe they’re dehydrated completely. Plans have been indefinitely postponed. It could be that one party has outgrown the other or maybe, if you’re lucky, it’s mutual.

Here are the big signs to look out for:

  • You dread the engagement in your calendar:
    • It has become more of an effort, maybe even a chore, than a positive activity. This might be because you feel you can’t be yourself around them anymore. This dread is the first sign you might be forcing something in a direction it doesn’t want to go.
  • They say they’re busy all the time:
    • Just like intimate relationships, friendships require reciprocity. If you feel undervalued, you will probably experience resentment towards the other person. Frequent exposure to these negative feelings isn’t good for our mental health in the short term or the long term. It might be worth turning your attention elsewhere, which could mean they eventually reach out or you cease contact altogether, either outcome is better than waiting and feeling undervalued and frustrated.
  • You notice yourself craving new friendships:
    • The purpose of a friendship is to complement, challenge and enrich your life. If your old friends don’t offer you this, it is natural to crave new ones.
  • A shared past is all you have in common anymore:
    • If this is the case for you, it also means that when you’re with these friends, your identity is stagnant and stuck in a stage you have outgrown. Yes, it can be good to have those old friends you’ve known forever, but if the friendship cannot change and evolve with you, then it cannot give you what you need.
  • You can’t help but complain about them all the time:
    • We’re exposed to our partners and friends so closely and so frequently that it’s only natural to complain about them. But if you only dwell on the negatives, you might want to take a moment to reassess how much you like this person. Remember, you don’t have to be friends with someone you don’t like, value or respect. Think about those who bring the best out in you and then those who bring out the worst and make sure the toxic ones are the first to go.


A Shared Past isn’t Enough on its Own

Perhaps you’re like me and you feel a sense of obligation due to the history of the relationship. Though, experts on interpersonal relationships do not deem this as a valid reason to remain in a friendship, at least not if it is the only thing binding you. Reluctance to let go is likely because there is an identity wrapped up in the friendship group or person, perhaps it is an identity you are not quite ready to part with. Holding on to weak friendships, even if it’s at a distance, isn’t great for our mental health. Either your enthusiasm is not being matched and it’s getting you down or making you doubt your self-worth and character. Or you’re the too-busy one who seldom replies and if you do it’s purely out of guilt. In both cases, it’s unfair to everyone involved.

“I’m not going to go”, my partner said to me recently before a catch-up with a group of very old friends. “The $50 I’ll spend on drinks isn’t worth the small talk”, he explained. If you think this about your friends, it’s ripe time you start to be honest with yourself and rethink if this person is a friend. We amass relationships at different stages of our lives, and we pass through them at different periods, so it’s no wonder friendships become misaligned. It’s nobody’s fault, and it doesn’t mean the past friendship has been futile.


Obligatory Friendships can lead to Cognitive Dissonance

It is a very odd limbo to find yourself in because there has been no wrongdoing, confrontation, or fallout. Nobody has died. Everyone is alive, well, and getting on with it. But with no explicit end date, it is hard to access the closure we need to move on. It is therefore valid to experience mild or substantial grief towards the individual or friendship group whether you’re the one who is eager to keep the friendship alive or if you’re the one who is calling the quits. You are not just shedding a friend but shedding a whole chapter of your life in a way. This change needn’t be a bad thing. It is completely natural, in fact, parting with the old creates room for the new. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, it is important to our mental health that we a) listen to our intuition, and b) stay true to ourselves. Psychologists stress this second part in particular, whereby people pleasing and maintaining unhealthy, unreciprocated, or obligatory friendships will leave us stewing in some pretty uncomfortable cognitive dissonance. If you’re unfamiliar with this term, cognitive dissonance refers to the personal conflict we feel in response to our beliefs not lining up with our actions.


Outgrowing Friends doesn’t mean there is Something Wrong with You.

All being said, adult friendships can be rewarding, yet, increasingly tricky to navigate. As I sat in the cinema passionately licking my boysenberry choc top like a cat grooming its offspring, my partner sat in a state next to me. I had forgotten that he was recently the recipient of an abrupt friendship breakup very similar to the one unfolding on the screen. And while this person came crawling back with their tale between their legs, their actions left some irreparable damage. So, despite it being an admirable piece of cinema, my advice is not to follow Colm’s ruthless confrontation. Instead, be kind in letting the other person know your priorities are elsewhere now. Conversely, if you’re the recipient of some of the signs, save yourself some time and read between the lines. Try to resist the urge to be overwhelmed by all the friends you’ve lost ambiguously over the years and resist telling yourself it is because there is someone fundamentally wrong with you. That is not only unkind but untrue. Instead of panicking, try and think carefully about which friends bring you the most joy and put your energy into them. And get nourished elsewhere, there are plenty of us walking these streets wondering how we might go about making a new friend.


If you’d like to read more about how to cope with friendships ending, visit PsychCentral for more information, or check out the NPR Life Kit podcast: https://www.npr.org/transcripts/899104440