Long Reads

Friendship groups: why is it so hard to maintain friendships as we get older?

Research suggests our social circles start to shrink from the age of 25. But why does this happen, and what can we do about it? Stylist investigates.

Kathy and I have been friends for 17 years. As teenagers we would spend all of our time together, watching horror movies and dying each other’s hair. I tried my first cigarette while she pushed me around in an abandoned supermarket trolley. When I’d sleep over at her house, she always remembered to leave a film playing because I couldn’t drift off in silence. Not that we’d ever really sleep — we were too busy dissecting various social dramas.

At 16 we sat on the windowsill in her parent’s’ dining room and pondered who we might one day become. The plan was to get a flat together in Brighton. We’d adopt dogs and drink cocktails in bars and have careers. Maybe we’d even host dinner parties and date men called Edgar. But there was never any future in which we wouldn’t stay just as close as we were in that moment.

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Now we’re 29, and I haven’t seen Kathy for almost a year. It’s not for lack of trying. We speak over WhatsApp almost every day and live just a few miles apart, but life always seems to get in the way. 

Our plans to move in together got disrupted after I met a man at university — one that I’m still with today. Suddenly Kathy wasn’t the closest person in my life, which was the first sign that things between us were going to change. 

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Friendship group: our social circles start to shrink from the age of 25.

Nowadays, reading War And Peace while juggling ornamental cats would be easier than trying to meet up with Kathy in person. Weeks pass by and plans wither at the last minute. Sometimes it’s my fault: I’m tired after work and want to crawl into bed and eat spaghetti hoops. Other times, it’s hers: “I’m so sorry, I forgot! Can we reschedule?”

In 2016, a study found that our social circles shrink at the age of 25. As we start to settle down and reassess what’s most important in our lives, our friendships can seem to lose some of their value. Another study explored the length of time it takes to make friends, with more than 200 hours of time spent together needed before you can consider someone your close friend. The author Jeffrey Hall, associate professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, concluded that maintaining close relationships is the most important work we do in our lives. So why does it feel so difficult?

“Time”, Hall tells Stylist. “One of the true blessings of young adulthood, and university education specifically, is the abundance of time. Adults of that age are less likely to have obligations of full-time employment, long-term romantic partners, and children to displace that free time.” 

A lack of time is always my reasoning, too. While I don’t have children, I do have a long-term partner, a full-time job and a very demanding cat. I also live in London, so I spend a lot of hours commuting (and making excuses not to travel from south to east of the city). It’s not that I don’t want to see my friends – it just feels like less of a priority.

Marie, 27, has faced a similar dilemma. She regularly goes long periods of time without speaking to her friends in person. “I don’t think I saw one of my closest friends from university at all last year because he’s always extremely busy with work and planning his wedding, but we sometimes check in fondly with a text or a phone call,” she says.

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Friendship groups: we have a maximum capacity of 150 friends.

Tilly, 33, found that she lost touch with most of her friends after having a baby and becoming a full-time mum. “It’s really hard being the only one of my friends with a kid,” she says. “I have a lot more free time than they do and I feel like my friends are too busy to contact me. You can’t message or see each other everyday anymore like you did at school or university, so it’s hard to know what’s going on in each other’s lives.”

Tilly also mentions the sense of resentment that can brew between adult friendships, particularly if one of you finds greater career or relationship success. “Seeing my old friends going on expensive holidays and getting their dream jobs while I was struggling in my personal life also put a strain on our friendships.

“It makes you feel inadequate, like you’re not good enough to be their friend anymore.”

Yet our friendships are still incredibly important in adulthood. They offer us an outside perspective on family situations and help us maintain our own sense of identity. “You know who you are through your friends, which is why they’re so valuable – sometimes more so than romantic relationships,” psychotherapist Dr Angela Carter explains.

I also wonder about the impact of social media on maintaining our friendships in real life. We’re living in a world that’s more connected than ever, yet most of the conversations we’re having are meaningless. It also makes me lazier socially, because why make the effort to meet friends in person if I can send them memes while catching up on the latest episode of Cheer

table tennis
Friendship groups: being connected on social media can make it difficult for us to make plans in real life.

Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist and psychologist at the University of Oxford, argues that we only have capacity for 150 friendships (including family), which suggests social media connections could be overwhelming us to the point that we’re too drained to see our actual, offline friends. Another study found that social media is indeed getting in the way of our real-life friendships, with six in 10 adults admitting they spent less time catching up with friends since the world became more digital.

Hall agrees that social media could be causing a sense of social fatigue that is stopping us from making real life plans.

“Consider this balloon metaphor. The air that inflates it is the underlying need to belong – to be close and connected to others. Once it gets to a sufficient size, we will reach out, put in effort, and spend time with other people. But, if social media is like a little hole in the balloon, it might not sufficiently inflate to push us to take those crucial steps to spending time with others.” 

It’s almost easier to neglect our closest friendships because they’re so comfortable. This is why it’s important to make nurturing our friendships a conscious part of our daily routine, instead of relying on sporadic Facebook likes and cat GIFs (although the latter are always appreciated).

The days of sloppy sleepovers and never-ending conversations might be over, but that doesn’t mean our adult friendships matter any less. Kathy and I know ourselves better now, and that’s in part thanks to each other. Whether chatting on the phone while washing up or sharing a pitcher of Purple Rain in Wetherspoons, hanging out shouldn’t ever be a chore. She’s my best friend. 

Friendship groups: how to keep friendships strong as we grow older

● Recognise the value that your friendships bring to your life. Reflecting on this will remind you why it’s so important to keep making an effort.

● Communicate in a meaningful way. We’re all guilty of lazily replying to messages with a tears of joy emoji, but taking the time to say something personal makes all the difference. This could take the form of a thought-out email, phone call, posted gift or hand-written letter.

● Make meeting up in real life a regular routine – there is time, honestly. It’s just a case of re-prioritising and planning ahead.

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Friendship groups: "Instead of focusing on frequency as a measure of how strong your friendships are, focus on what works specifically for your circumstances."

● If you’re trapped in that seemingly never-ending cycle of making then breaking then making plans, Dr Angela Carter recommends asking your friend, “Wen do you want to do something? When works for you?” This should make it easier to set, then stick, to a date.

● Take the other person’s perspective. For example, instead of simply saying, “Let’s meet up”, suggest instead, “Hey, I’ve just seen there’s a new Almodovar movie and I remember you loved his other films! Fancy going to see it next week?”

● Everyone is different when it comes to socialising. If you live alone and work part time, you might want to see your friends more often. If you have a family and busy career, it might be more difficult. Instead of focusing on frequency as a measure of how strong your friendships are, focus on what works specifically for your circumstances.

● Remember: It is never too late to reconnect with people. 

Images: Getty, Unsplash