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Psychology of friendship: is your friendship “starving” to death? Here’s how to tell (and how to save it)

Yes, a good friendship often can survive long periods of inactivity – but it still needs nourishment from time to time. Here’s how to keep yours flourishing and stronger than ever, according to psychologists

It’s been a weird couple of years, hasn’t it? Thanks to (whisper it) the pandemic, many of us have spent months at home, changed our working habits, and socialised via Zoom and WhatsApp more than we’d care to admit.

Thankfully, things are changing; the world has reopened, we’re socialising with loved ones again, and we’re even going out-out. Still, though, there’s no denying that things have shifted; some are understandably still a little nervous about big meet-ups, while others are trying to keep their diaries a little freer to ensure they don’t subject themselves to social burnout. And, even for those juggling multiple invites and plans with all the dexterity of a Cirque du Soleil performer, there’s admittedly a lot to get through. 

All of this, in turn, means that we’re likely not seeing or talking to our friends quite as regularly as we wish.

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Thankfully, this shouldn’t usually be a problem. As author, relationship therapist and counsellor Anna Williamson tells Stylist: “A good friendship often can survive long periods of inactivity because the foundation of core values are set in stone and there is an unwavering mutual love and respect for each other.

“Regardless of how long it’s been since you’ve spoken, the relationship is solid. You can pick up the phone after 12 months and it’s like no time has passed. You’re both on the same page and hold the friendship in high regard – it’s simple, it’s easy and it’s cherished by both of you.”

Diverse young people hands on isolated background. Teenager hand group high five celebration or friend community concept. Flat cartoon illustration of men and women arms.
“A good friendship often can survive long periods of inactivity because the foundation of core values are set in stone and there is an unwavering mutual love and respect for each other.”

That being said, however, we shouldn’t neglect our friends for months on end and expect everything to be just fine. Because, just as a houseplant will wilt without water and TLC, so too will a friendship starve to death without proper nourishment.

Of course, sometimes this isn’t necessarily a bad thing; sometimes a friendship can and should run its course. However, it may simply be that the pressures of everyday life are putting unnecessary pressure on what should be a happy and thriving relationship.

Here’s what you need to know.

What are the signs a friendship is starving to death?

According to Williamson, the most obvious signs that a friendship is on the way out are as follows:

  • if you simply can’t be bothered to get in touch
  • if you find yourself making excuses not to see them
  • if you start prioritising other friends over others
  • if you tend to ‘ghost’ their calls and texts because you get almost a negative feeling whenever you see they’re in touch

“These are all signs that this friendship isn’t something that you’re valuing or recognising as a positive influence in your life,” she adds.

What causes a friendship to starve to death?

“Essentially, friendships are like seasons – they come and they go,” says Williamson. “I think a lot of us hang on to friendships through things like loyalty, learned behaviour, and childhood experiences, but actually as life goes on, things change.

“We evolve, our friends evolve and sometimes we find ourselves in a place where we simply no longer have much in common. Life goes in different directions, interests change and we end up feeling a bit disconnected when you do get together.”

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Williamson continues: “Perhaps you’re just not clicking in the way you used to, you may have originally bonded over something that no longer interests you. You may have the same amount of time on your hands as you did when you first met, but things do change – that’s just life. Especially when people start to settle down, start families, and move away. Time with certain friends can become diluted.

“It could also be that your friend starts to treat you differently. Perhaps they are taking more from your life than they are replenishing it. We’ve all had people in our lives I refer to as ‘social vampires’ who suck you into their tale of woe. Of course, a friendship has to be balanced – we give and we take, but if you’re feeling like it’s becoming one sided, that’s another sign that the friendship is not supporting you anymore.

“Finally, it might be that your friend has betrayed your trust and it’s weighing on you. Like in any relationship, if trust is broken – a fundamental has been rocked and you start to question what the friendship really means to you.”

Should we feel bad if we can’t make time for our friends, especially when life is so busy?

“I find that guilt is often a very wasted emotion, but if you are feeling bad about not putting enough effort into a friendship, it’s time to ask yourself why,” notes Williamson.

“Why are you not giving this relationship your attention? Are you genuinely that busy you can’t fit them into your life? Or are you making excuses? Only you will know the answers to these questions.

“It may be time to weigh up what is important to you. If your friendship is high on that list, then something else in your life may have to give way to it. It’s really a question of how much you value the friendship and how much you’re willing to prioritise it.”

Women can do it. Four female characters walk up together and hold arms. Girls support each other. Friendship poster, the union of feminists and sisterhood. - stock vector
“Tell your friends how much you care about them and love them being in your life.”

Williamson adds: “If the friend is making you feel bad – through lack of understanding or passive-aggressive behaviour, it might be time to think about how much that person is actually being a friend to you. Friends should be honest, but also supportive, so it may be worth addressing this in a calm manner and explaining things from your side.”

What can we do to keep a friendship alive if we can’t hang out IRL?

If you decide that this is a friendship well worth saving, don’t despair; Williamson says there are plenty of things we can do to nourish our relationships, even when we’re far apart.

These include:

Letting your friend know how important they are to you

“Tell them how much you care about them and love them being in your life,” she says.

Ask your friend what they need from you, and tell them what you need from them

“Whether that’s a weekly FaceTime, or daily WhatsApp chats – set out those parameters together.”

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Make future plans.

Williamson suggests: “Think outside the box and get some exciting things booked in to look forward to.”

Let them in!

“Share your life with them, let them know what’s going on with you; the ups, the downs, the seemingly trivial decisions you need to make – include them in the process and ask for their advice. And make sure you reciprocate this by asking about their life,” advises Williamson.

Send them little gifts, especially if you don’t live close by

“I have a friend who lives far away, so we often send each other our favourite chocolate bars in the post – just a little thoughtful gesture to let them know we’re thinking about them,” she says.

What types of friendship can best survive periods of inactivity?

“There are many different types of friendships,” says Williamson. “You’ve got the ‘best friend’ – probably someone you’ve known a long time, but really it’s just someone who is there for you, without judgement, no matter what, through thick and thin, and you are there for them in turn. It’s a very important relationship, on par with a romantic partner.

“There’s also ‘the listener’ – the confidant we go to when we need an ear. The friend who will listen to us, non-judgmentally and will give us the time to hear what we’ve got to say, and offer up solutions with a big dollop of empathy/sympathy where required.

“Finally, we’ve all got the ‘going out friend’ – the fun mate you go to when you want to let your hair down and cut loose. This is the friend you associate with just having a great time – you vibe on a particular level that may not be the deepest of friendships, but they’re bloody brilliant for a drink and a dance!”

Williamson notes that the first two friendship types are far more likely to survive periods of inactivity, as they can be nourished via other means; the latter, though, will require IRL hangouts to keep it thriving.

Can a friendship be resurrected?

“Yes,” reassures Williamson, “but it has to be done mutually.”

She continues: “If there has been conflict or negativity, you may need to clear the air before the friendship can get back on track. In their very nature, friendships can be up and down because they are emotionally charged, and can be like a constantly moving chess board. Anything can happen to rock a friendship at any time and whatever led to the bad feeling will need to be addressed and discussed respectfully.

“If you can speak openly and honestly, agree to leave things in the past, and set mutual parameters for the future of the friendship – that’s a really great foundation to move forward with.”

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“Ask your friend what they need from you, and tell them what you need from them.”

Williamson notes: “You’ll just know if a friendship is worth the effort. This relationship is supposed to make you feel good and positive, you should look forward to seeing them. 

“Of course it’s not always going to be a bed of roses, but as long as you have love for them – it’s worth it. If you continue to hold any contempt or negativity towards them – it’s probably not a friendship you want to keep in your life.”

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