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Declutter your friends: 'Trying to keep old friendships alive ties you to the past'

If you’re not spending a lot of time together and don’t have much in common any more, it really is OK to let that friendship go, writes Gill Hasson.

Gill Hasson Writer

HOW MANY FRIENDS and acquaintances do you have? What type of friends are they?

More than two thousand years ago, the Greek philosopher Aristotle identified three different kinds of friendship: friendships of utility, friendships of pleasure and friendships of virtue.

Friendships of utility are friendships of mutual benefit: one way or another, the relationship is useful to both you and the other person. That person could be a colleague, customer or client or, for example, a neighbour with whom you exchange each other’s gardening or household tools, feed the cat and check each other’s houses when you go on holiday.

Friendships of pleasure exist between you and those with whom you enjoy a shared interest: people in the same sports team as you, a book club, choir, dance class etc. It could be the people you met on holiday; you had a great time together (and insisted you’d keep in touch.)

When circumstances change

But both types of friendships usually end when circumstances change; when a friendship of utility is no longer beneficial to one or both of you, one of you leaves the job or the neighbour moves away.

Friendships of pleasure also often end when what you have in common comes to an end: when one or both of you leave the team, the club, the class or the holiday comes to an end.

Friendships of virtue are based on mutual respect and admiration. These friendships may take more time to establish than the other two kinds, but they’re also stronger and more enduring. They often arise when two people recognise that they have similar values and goals; that they have similar visions for how their lives and the world should be. Often, they begin when a person is young – at school, college or holiday jobs – though plenty form after that, too.

Aristotle pointed out that there can’t be a large number of friends in a virtuous friendship group because the amount of time and care that this type of friendship needs limits the amount of time you can spend with other friends.

Not much has changed

Fast forward to the 21st century and not much has changed. Anthropologist and evolutionary biologist Professor Robin Dunbar agrees that there’s a limit to the number of friendships that any one person can have.

He suggests we maintain a series of social networks. One hundred and fifty is the number of people we know as casual friends – those met through work or a leisure interest or the people you’d invite to a big party but with whom your relationship never turns into anything deeper.

Most relationships in this group have a natural life cycle. Often, we’re drawn together by circumstance – work, the single life, children – and, as Aristotle noted, as our situations change, we tend to go our separate ways.

The next group of people – 50 – is the number of people you would know as friends. You see them often, but not so much that you consider them to be true intimates. Then there’s the circle of 15: the good friends that you can turn to for a degree of support when you need it. The most intimate in ‘Dunbar’s number’ – five – is your close support group. These are your best friends and may include family members.

People move in and out of these different friendship groups and sometimes fall out of them altogether. Too often, though, we accumulate and hold onto friendships that no longer serve a purpose or have any pleasure in them. Despite what the Spice Girls sang, it’s not true that friendship never ends. So why do we hold on?

Why we hold on

Maybe you have a friendship where you’re becoming more and more unhappy. Despite the problems, you refuse to recognise that it’s time to let the friendship die and, instead, push on in the hope that things will get better between you.

Do you, for example, tough it out with a friend who is struggling with addiction? Can you stay friends with someone when you realise that you have major differences of opinion about a world situation – it dawns on you that their political values, for example, are fundamentally different from yours?

Or do you tell yourself that you don’t want to be a fairweather friend; that friendship isn’t just about having fun?

Of course, over time the balance will shift back and forth; you will inevitably have a problem or difficulty at the same time your friend has some wonderful things going on in their life. But while friendships often have ups and downs, if the downs are too extreme or too frequent, what do you do? Friends are supposed to add to your life, not take away from it.

Friendships are often driven by what we think of as duty; there’s a sense of loyalty and we feel obliged to be friends with some people. We feel guilty – that we’re doing something wrong – if we let go. But if you’re not spending a lot of time together and don’t have much in common any more, it really is OK to let that friendship go. The fact they are no longer a colleague or your neighbour doesn’t mean you have to meet for dinner every six months. Sending a Christmas card is enough.

On the other hand, perhaps it’s not that you’re worried you’ll regret letting go, it’s more that you’re hoping you will spend more time with a particular friend. You tell yourself, ‘When I have more time, energy or money or when my kids grow up, I will get round to seeing them more often.’

Be honest with yourself

Really? Will you? Are you sure about that? Be honest with yourself. Thinking like this about friends you no longer get round to seeing just serves to remind you… well, it just serves to remind you of what you still haven’t got round to: meeting up with those friends.

It could be that you can’t let go because you feel you’ve put so much into the friendship in the past that it’d be a waste of all those years to let go now. But whether you were friends for a month, a year or even half a lifetime, just as you can acknowledge that things in your home – certain books, clothes etc – were part of your life at some point in the past, they’re not now.

That time has gone. Trying to keep old friendships alive – holding onto a friendship that can’t be brought back – just ties you to the past. Live in the present.

This is an edited extract from Declutter Your Life: How Outer Order Leads to Inner Calm, by Gill Hasson. Published by Capstone, December 2017, it is available wherever books and ebooks are sold.

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About the author:

Gill Hasson  / Writer

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