I used to think the trick to friendship was making as many friends as possible. As the new kid at 9 schools, I learned to make friends, fast. If you show interest in someone, observe their humour, likes/dislikes and reflect them back, make them laugh and pull off daring feats of bravery for their entertainment, it’s not hard converting strangers to friends. Not to brag, but I made lot of friends. By my thirties, I had a large posse of school, uni, work and writing friends plus all the housemates I’d converted. Then it all fell apart.
Someone called it
My then boyfriend, watched me overextending myself with two or three social engagements per day on weekends. He said: ‘You see a little bit of lots of people. What about seeing a lot of a smaller number of people?’ It pulled me up. I was noticing some friends were unhappy with me and I felt guilty when I thought of them. It was like I’d signed a service agreement that I would contact them weekly, never cancel, and flawlessly recall every relationship and mental health problem they ever had. I had a dozen or so active friendships, so clearly this was going to end in tears. I became a massive piker: I couldn’t service that many friends. What to do? End them? Try harder? Some friendships were feeling a bit like work, so I did some hiring and firing. After thinking about which friends I always felt good around, I let some friends go. One keeper friend joked my life was a reality TV show: ‘Sorry. You are the weakest friend. Goodbye.’ It wasn’t really like Friendship Survivor. I was just realising that when I was around some friends, I didn’t feel all that great. Some made it clear I was not their most valued friend. I’d watch them roll out the red carpet as their other friends arrived (after I’d come earlier and my friend didn’t get off the couch to offer me a cuppa). I would hear how they spoke about the high status friends, while I was mocked for being politically incorrect, uncool, straight, absent or just not enough ‘something’ I couldn’t put my finger on. With some friends, I felt like social Spakfilla; there to fill a gap at parties. I’d had enough of the friends who seemed not to really like me much and the friends who always acted as if I’d let them down, like the eternally disappointed judgey relative.
Over time, I started reducing. Some friends got an email along the lines of ‘Let’s let this go with love shall we?’ With others we stopped contacting each other as much. I wondered if I should have given reasons such as:
- constant drama
- all give and no take
- you drink /smoke/take drugs too much
- you blame everyone else for how your life is or;
- you judge people harshly.
When I gave reasons, I got explosively bad responses so I don’t anymore. If a friend didn’t listen or was defensive in the past, there was not much point trying to have a constructive feedback session with them now. I’m not saying I am the best friend ever. I am sure I have been a shit friend: self-focussed, tactless, erratic and unreliable. I’ve been dumped by a few friends and mostly I thought ‘fair enough’. After letting some friends go, I thought hard about the friends who always left me feeling good about myself and decided to make this small group my bosom buddies. These women and men know they are a priority for me and I am a priority for them and it feels amazing. I would go to war with these people. If they want to catch up, I drop everything. I’ve still got many other wonderful friends I love and value highly, but for geographical or whatever reasons, we don’t have lots of contact. I’m open to new friends and know what I want from friendship now: emotional closeness, easy laughter, mutual positive regard, fairness and lots of light-hearted fun. A feeling of lightness when we are together. Friends who basically have their shit together.
I know the kind of friendship I offer. I often don’t reciprocate amazing gifts, (don’t have the money). I’m erratic with birthdays and don’t do Christmas. I’m a bit of a hermit and will disappear for months. But come to my house, stay for hours or days and I’ll make an effort, wait on you and give you my full attention. Introduce me to your family and I’ll remember their names and stories. When you speak, I’ll really listen and no topics are off limits. I won’t keep all arrangements and you can bail on me as much as you like. Forget my birthday or don’t come to my party if you don’t feel like it: that’s cool. These days I feel like I’m nailing friendship. My friends and I are pretty damn ecstatic with each other. There is no guilt: Hallelujah! So why isn’t everyone doing this? Psychologist Breanna Sada says sadly, some of her clients are putting up with low quality friendships because they fear they won’t make other friends. “Friendships are a common topic when working with clients,” Sada says. “It amazes me how many negative emotions and experiences people are willing to put up with from friends, before even contemplating a friendship break or break-up.” “Just like romantic relationships, we can experience jealousy and feel disrespected by friends. We can get frustrated by friends’ stubbornness and narcissistic traits. Clients have even described gas-lighting from friends.”
Often, says Sada, our friendship circles will change naturally as we mature. “The landscape of our friendships will change over time: not always because of arguments, but because people grow and change. “Many people intentionally alter their friendship circles after high school or university and reconsider those friends you saw every day, but there was no real substance to the friendship. “Getting married or having children are catalysts for significant friendship changes.”
How many friends?
Sada says it depends on your personality. “Having a lot of friends does have benefits. You can almost always find someone who is available to talk or hang out with. You might have one friend you tell your deepest darkest secrets to, one who can help distract you from life’s stressors with their humour, a gym buddy and a friend who enjoys a night out dancing. Again this implies you’ve got the time to dedicate to all these different relationships.” “The optimal number of friends is different for everyone, depending on how social and extroverted you are. I would warn people against spreading themselves too thinly across multiple friendships. This often brings strain to the relationship, when inevitably you can’t give your friend the adequate attention the friendship deserves. “Quality over quantity applies here. If you are prioritising the quality of your relationships over the number of relationships you have, then the friendships will be mutually beneficial.” So do you have friends who usually say an enthusiastic ‘Yes’ to your suggested catch-ups and often on your terms, at your place and doing what you like to do? Friends who laugh and comment with delight on your personality, your charming foibles, your life? Friends it’s just easy with? Friends who get you?
They may not be the friends you see a lot right now, but they may be the lifelong fellow travellers most deserving of the gift of your attentive friendship. As for me, I still don’t know the optimal number of friends and am still making them (can’t help myself). I’ve noticed that as I have fewer friends these days, I have more time to devote to them. This year I had time to help organise a close friend’s significant birthday party and an amazing group funded gift for her. There’s wasn’t time to do things like this for friends when I had too many. From now on, it’s quality over quantity for me.