Asking for a Friend//

Should You Let Go of an Old Friendship if You’ve Grown Apart?

This therapist says you should think twice before cutting ties completely.

Halfdark/ Getty Images
Halfdark/ Getty Images

Editor’s Note: Strong relationships are at the core of a happy life, but sometimes, dealing with the people in our lives is tricky. That’s why Thrive Global partnered with The Gottman Institute on this advice column, Asking for a Friend. Every week, Gottman’s relationship experts will answer your most pressing questions about navigating relationships—with romantic partners, family members, coworkers, friends, and more. Have a question? Send it to [email protected]!

Q: I find I have less and less in common with my longtime friends. I grew up with them, and they’ll always hold a place in my heart, but as we’ve gotten older, we’ve drifted. There’s no doubt we’re in different places in our lives, and just don’t have that much to talk about anymore and the friendships feel forced. Should I cut the cord or keep them going anyway?

A: It does sound like you’re expending a lot of your limited time, energy, and attention on your old friends, and the cost doesn’t feel worth it to you. However, I’d encourage you to change your perspective on your friendships, rather than cutting the cord altogether.

It’s healthier to think of our human connections not as all-or-nothing decisions (people being either in or out), but rather on a continuum of closeness.  

Picture all your relationships laid out on a bullseye of concentric circles, and place your most important current friendships at the very center. If you’re lucky, you have a couple of people right at the heart of your bullseye. These are the ones you’ll want to invest with the most. They’ll track with you through the ups and downs of life. They can know about your feelings and the nitty-gritty details. Not everyone can fit, or even belongs in your inner circle.

Through our lifespan it’s perfectly natural for different friends to move in and out of our inner circle. So my guess is that you need to change your inner circle rather than dumping the old friends.

Everyone else in your life can fit on one of the outer circles. And since the relationships can shift around, someone who was once very intimate might now belong in your outer circles. Even though you’ll have less time, energy, and attention going in their direction, you still value them and want them in your life.  

This happened with my clients, Andy and Sarah*, who realized they were investing a lot in some old friends they were no longer enjoying. Andy and Sarah wanted to make their couple relationship a priority and focus on a healthier lifestyle, including clean eating, exercise, and outdoor recreation. This conflicted with the lifestyle they’d once shared with their friend group, centered more around gathering indoors to watch sports and eating and drinking more heavily.  

Andy and Sarah also noticed that they wanted to talk about different subjects than many of their old friends. While they still loved them, they felt the need to shift the group to the outer circles. They stayed in touch on social media, and were intentional about occasionally inviting some of the old group to activities they’d enjoy together — a concert or a restaurant.

They tried not to miss special events like weddings, but they graciously excused themselves from the regular gatherings in favor of their new priorities and the new friends they’d made at this stage in life.       

As people progress through each decade, new responsibilities and relationships will predominate. We’ll naturally see a lot less of friends who once were very central to our lives. At the same time, we’ll gravitate more to people who share our current interests. Those friends are in step with what’s important to us now, more so than those from the past.

So while it’s perfectly natural for you to feel that the friends from your past are irrelevant to your present, unless these relationships are actually toxic, I would caution you from completely disconnecting from them.

It’s good to have all kinds of friends. We can be enriched by people in our larger circles, even when we may not have all that much in common. We don’t need to spend a lot of prime time with them or want to share the deeper intimate details of our lives, but we might like a buddy for a weekly yoga class, or to enjoy a few laughs with every now and then over coffee.

While each decade that we live will find us with fewer friends in our inner circle, people who stay socially active are most likely to stay healthy and more vital in older age.

We know from brain science that connecting with old friends from the past keeps us sharp by firing up some old neural networks of memory, reconnecting us to younger versions of ourselves and reminding us of how we’ve grown and changed over the years.  

When I was a kid in Girl Scouts, we sang this wisdom in a little song: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.”

*Names have been changed to protect clients’ privacy.

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