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Not all friends are forever

ALEX WILLIAMS

NYT SYNDICATE

IS there a right way to tell a friend it is time to go? Thanks to Facebook, the concept of “defriending” has become part of the online culture. With a click of a mouse, you can remove someone from your friends roster and never again see an annoying status update or another vacation photo from a person you want out of your life.

Not so in the real world. Even though research shows that it is natural, and perhaps inevitable, for people to prune the weeds from their social groups as they move through adulthood, those who actually attempt to defriend in real life find that it often plays out like a divorce in miniature.

Even the most omnivorous friend collectors acknowledge that sometimes it is necessary to cross out some names from their little black book.

Roger Horchow is the Broadway producer made famous in Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point as a pre-eminent “connector,” a social web-spinner whose hidden expertise is maintaining a vast network of friends. But even for him, some must fall by the wayside.

People start “dropping ‘starter friends’ from the early bachelor days, or early work associates, or early couples with little children like yours,” said Horchow, who wrote The Art of Friendship: 70 Simple Rules for Making Meaningful Connection (St Martin’s Press, 2006), with his daughter, Sally.

Psychologists consider it an inevitable life stage, a point where people achieve enough maturity and self-awareness to know who they are and what they want out of their remaining years, and have a degree of clarity about which friends deserve full attention and which are a drain. It is time, in other words, to shed people they collected in their youth, when they were still trying on friends for size.

The winnowing process even has a clinical name: socioemotional selectivity theory, a term coined by Laura L Carstensen, a psychology professor who is the director of the Stanford Centre on Longevity in California.

Carstensen’s data show that the number of interactions with acquaintances starts to decline after age 17 (presumably after the socially aggressive world of high school) and then picks up again between 30 and 40 before starting to decline sharply from 40 to 50.

“When time horizons are long, as they typically are in youth, we’re collectors, we’re explorers, we’re interested in all sorts of things that are novel,” Carstensen said. “You might go to a party that you don’t want to go to, but know you should – and it’s there you meet your future spouse.” One thinks of Joan Didion’s essay Goodbye to All That. In it, Didion recalls a cab ride when she was 23 during which she tried to talk an older male friend into accompanying her to a party where there would be “new faces.” “He laughed literally until he choked,” she wrote. She continued, “It seemed that the last time he had gone to a party where he had been promised ‘new faces,’ there had been 15 people in the room, and he had already slept with five of the women and owed money to all but two of the men.” This is not, however, an issue that arises only as the temples start to gray. People approaching 30 – many of them dealing with life changes like marriage and a first child – often tend to feel overwhelmed with responsibility, so they lose patience with less meaningful friends, said Dr Carol Landau, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Brown University’s medical school.

“The first step before you end a friendship is to consider, very carefully and seriously, if you want to end a particular friendship or if you just want to wind it down,” said Jan Yager, a friendship coach and author of When Friendship Hurts: How to Deal With Friends Who Betray, Abandon, or Wound You (Simon & Schuster, 2002). “It will usually be a lot more pleasant to just pull away, and stop sharing as much privileged information.” The passive approach can work, sort of. Marni Zarr, 46, a substitute teacher in Mesa, Arizona, employed it when she decided that a friend she had picked up in parents’ circles was starting to drag her down with her neediness and constant competitiveness. Zarr gave less of herself in conversations, stopped talking about her feelings, became vaguer about future aspirations.

“I took the route of distancing myself: not immediately answering texts,” she recalled. “I answered the important things, but not the ‘Hey, how are you doing, what’s up tonight?’ ones.” While the passive approach worked, ultimately, Zarr felt guilty about sentencing her ex-friend to a painful round of self-doubt.

Horchow, who at 83 has been carefully adding and dropping friends since Franklin Roosevelt was president, prefers the gentlemanly approach.

“At any age, dropping a friend is a delicate matter and should be handled kindly,” he said. “You don’t want to have to make a pronouncement that your friendship is declining or over; you don’t want to have to say anything. If asked why you haven’t seen each other for a while, be vague. ‘I’m just so busy’ or ‘I’m travelling a lot.”’ Indeed, honesty may not be the best policy, Landau of Brown said: “Remember that white lies are OK in the service of not hurting feelings.” The passive approach works with friendships in which the bonds are tenuous, said Jeff Newelt, a social media consultant in Manhattan. In his line of work, he considers it his job to make friends, but a couple of years ago, decided he needed to prune the overgrowth.

His solution was to divide his social base into two categories: “linear” friends (lasting relationships based on a deep connection) and “nonlinear” (situational friends based only on shared past experience, like an old job).

“I had some work friends where we used to go out after work, to blow off steam, for the sake of bonding as a team or because someone was my superior,” Newelt, 40, recalled. “After I left, these people still pursued my friendship. I did not hate them. I liked them. So I dropped them.

Not harshly, because I like them; I did not want to hurt feelings. I just said I had other plans when they asked me to hang out, each time, time and time again, repeatedly, and they got the point.” But not all friends will go easily.

By the time she was in her mid- 30s, Carolyn Miller, an office manager in Norwalk, Connecticut, found herself unwilling to put up with an old friend’s domineering ways, so eventually she sent her an email listing her grievances and asking for space. The friend called her and begged her to reconsider.

Miller stood her ground.

A few weeks later, when Miller’s grandfather died, the friend sent her a letter saying, oddly, that he had been a wonderful veteran (he had never been in the service), and not long after that, an invitation to her wedding. When Miller sent back the enclosed card declining the invitation, the friend called her and asked why.

During that call, Miller knew it was time to administer the friendship equivalent of the lethal injection.

“I wish you love, joy, peace and happiness, but this friendship is over,” Miller recalled saying. “I said goodbye and hung the phone up. I met another friend for drinks that night and honestly, I was sad.

I divorced a friend.” Such a direct approach ultimately may be effective, but it still engenders the same pain and awkwardness as an actual breakup, said Erika Johnson, a blogger who lives outside Boston. A couple of years ago, she found herself running a cost-benefit analysis of a friendship from her early 20s that was starting to grind her down.

Johnson decided to end the relationship with a telephone call.

“My main point was that life is very short and fleeting, and I value my happiness enough to eradicate the negative energy,” Johnson recalled. For months, the ex-friend continued to try to contact her.

Johnson felt terrible, especially as mutual friends would tell her about the pain she had caused the woman.

Eventually, however, the reports from the mutual friends started to change in tenor. The old friend had been doing a lot of soul-searching after the breakup, they said. The mutual pain might have been worth it, Johnson concluded – to the point where she might consider another attempt at friendship with her.

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