Too many plans, too little time? Social circle not serving you well? It could be time for a friendship audit. Flic Everett meets women who’ve made the break from mates, and reaped the mental-health benefits
Struggling across central London with her hungry baby in tow, Annette Kellow was looking forward to catching up with an old friend over lunch. ‘I was excited. But then my friend meandered in an hour late without explanation, didn’t offer to contribute to the bill, and to top it off, she asked to borrow my new dress for her holiday,’ she recalls. ‘I didn’t say much for the entire meal and went away feeling exhausted.’
It was the moment she realised the friendship wasn’t working any more and she decided not to salvage it. But it didn’t end there. Annette, 34, had recently become a mother – her baby was born with a rare blood disorder and, soon after, her relationship ended. ‘I thought being a single mother would be terrifying – but it felt liberating. As a result, I thought about what else wasn’t serving me well. Living in London, I’d acquired lots of friends but often they wouldn’t contact me unless it fitted with their lives. I was always making the effort, but wasn’t getting much back. With everything else going on, I couldn’t do that any more.’
Rather than risk potentially hurtful explanations, Annette muted certain WhatsApp groups, including one with fellow mums. ‘Apart from parenthood, I wasn’t sure what was linking us. I didn’t want to talk about weaning or sleep schedules.’ She exited quietly, hoping no one would notice, but one of the mums texted her, asking for help with something. ‘I said I was away – for the next six months!’
Culling her other friendships was, she says, a more organic process. ‘I started saying I was busy if people asked me to meet up. I had so much more free time. I think they still probably haven’t noticed I’ve disappeared…’
She now has two very close friends – her oldest ones, Harriet and Amelia. ‘They’re real friends, love a good chat and always say what they think. I have a friend in New York too, who I speak to several times a week. Making a change was scary, but nurturing true friendships has had a hugely positive impact on my mental health.’
Annette isn’t the only one. With the explosion of social media and its thousands of ‘friends’ you’ve never met, the idea of slimming down friendship groups is becoming a trend. Earlier this year, singer Ed Sheeran admitted he only has four friends, due to feeling ‘anxiety and mistrust’ about those trying to get close to him. Selena Gomez, once part of Taylor Swift’s girl squad, recently said, ‘I have three good friends I can tell everything to… You have to have those few people that respect you, want the best for you and you want the best for them.’ Meanwhile, Victoria Beckham admitted, ‘I don’t have a lot of friends, but I’m surrounded by people I genuinely like to be with.’
The desire to have a big group when you’re younger is normal, says psychotherapist Diana Parkinson. ‘It’s about fitting in, validation, popularity – if we’re in a group, we’re safer.’ But as we age, she explains, we create a carefully curated tribe – and often the trigger for reducing that group is a major life event, whether fame in Sheeran’s case or a break-up in Annette’s. ‘You will have stuck with each other through bereavements, illness, divorce – things that test relationships.’
For me, the trigger was my divorce in my 40s. Afterwards I lost several friends – not soulmates but good pals. A combination of awkwardness (they were friends with my ex, too) and distance meant our closeness dissolved. Initially, I felt distraught – I had always been at the heart of a big group. But after I moved to the remote West Highlands to live with my current partner, I no longer craved that frantic whirl. My friendship group now comprises six ‘best’ friends, who I see every time I return to Manchester, and a handful of people I can’t meet regularly – but I like knowing they’re around.
Having more than five good friends is uncommon, according to research by psychologist Robin Dunbar, author of How Many Friends Does One Person Need?. He found that most of us interact repeatedly with the same five friends, because our brains are not evolved enough to cope with more close ties.
In fact, the average woman has just six best friends over a lifetime – and the average friendship lasts around 16 years, according to research from the website The Book of Everyone. However the number of friends at any one time changes with age and while younger people have the most friends, by 25 social circles begin to shrink.
For Kat Vitou, 44, from Sussex, the change in her friendship group was more sudden: five years ago she was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. After losing her hair and suffering PTSD, she says, ‘It made me realise I hadn’t been authentic, I’d been a people-pleaser. When I recovered, I finally wanted to please myself. I didn’t want to drink cocktails with people I had no connection with.’
In her 20s, Kat had loved going to parties and being part of a group. ‘I’d try to go to everything.’ By her 30s, she’d moved out of London and befriended fellow mums. ‘You think you have things in common because you’re at the same life stage, but looking back, I don’t think I was being my true self.’
Post-cancer, she recalls, ‘My closest friends would go for walks with me and I’d bawl my eyes out. They were the ones I wanted to be with.’
Moving away from her ‘mum friends’ was difficult. ‘I stopped going to things, and people got a bit cross, which was understandable, but I just wanted to be with people I loved.’ She also changed her career, training as a well-being coach and setting up a business, Well.Life.Tribe. ‘My colleagues are now good friends, too,’ she says. Her two best friends are still there – one lives locally, the other lives abroad – ‘but we FaceTime every day.’
Knowing how and when to take your leave of old friends is a skill – and it isn’t necessary to be brutal, says Parkinson. ‘Try not to hurt people. It’s often easier to tell a white lie – “I’d love to meet but…” – and most people will get the message.’
If you’re serious about streamlining your friendships, she adds, get off social media for a while. ‘Remove yourself and you’re instantly much harder to contact. People have a short attention span, so if they can’t see you, they’ll probably forget.’ And if you’re really struggling to sign off? ‘You need to ask yourself, “Why am I leaving myself open to people I don’t care about?”’ argues Parkinson.
Of course, being on the receiving end isn’t easy, as Cathy*, a TV producer, can attest to. ‘I was good friends with my colleague, Sarah*. A group of us often went for a drink together after a tough day. When she moved to another company, I assumed our friendship would continue. But Sarah just dropped out of our lives,’ recalls Cathy.
‘She left our WhatsApp group without a goodbye and we never saw her again.’ Cathy says she felt hurt. ‘But looking back, maybe it was just a work friendship. Now, I think Sarah just had the practical sense to see she was moving on.’
Parkinson advises that it may seem a wrench to let go of people who’ve been in your life for years, but points out that often we call them friendships and they’re not. ‘They are acquaintance-ships that were useful at the time… But the real friends [that remain] are more precious than jewels – they are the ones you need to keep.’
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