Can you grow out of friendships? Sadly, I think the answer is yes. Does this story sound familiar to you:
I met Sophie on a writer’s retreat. We bonded immediately—standing in line to get our room keys. I loved her shoes, she loved my scarf. We both tried to eat vegetarian, but loved bacon. We asked to switch roommates so we could be bunk buddies. She was working on a fiction novel, I was working on the early notes for Captivate. We traded notes, read drafts and were inseparable for two weeks. When we got home we decided to have weekly calls to discuss our manuscripts. We promised to visit, but schedules were crazy! Calls were too hard with our busy schedules, so we texted. Texting got hard so we emailed. She got pregnant and had two beautiful twins. She stopped writing. We had less and less to talk about, even on emails. We sometimes sent each other pictures—her babies, my garden. Texts were slow. After a while even emailing become tedious. I visited her on my last work trip to her city and we had almost nothing to talk about. She asked to come visit Portland this summer—I’m dreading it.
What happens when you realize an old friend has become an obligatory friend?
Obligatory Friend: n
Someone you don’t enjoy spending time with, but end up spending time with because you feel guilty, it’s a habit or you do not know how to stop.
This doesn’t usually happen over night.
Obligatory Friend Warning Signs:
There are warning signs…
- Overtime you grow apart
- Your interests have gotten more and more different
- You are less alike than you originally thought
- You no longer work together / are on the same sports team / go to the same organization
- You have become different people than you were when you were younger
- You have nothing in common anymore
- You no longer live nearby
This most commonly happens with:
- Childhood friends
- Old colleagues from previous jobs
- College buddies
- Trip or travel acquaintances
- *Someone who made a really good first impression, but turned out to be less than stellar
- Old neighbors
Here’s my big idea:
We absolutely can grow out of friends, just like we grow out of clothes. Sometimes our taste changes, sometimes our size changes.
…and this is not a bad thing.
Let me explain how obligatory friendships happen. It all starts with what I call Spheres of Interest.
Spheres of Interest:
When you first meet someone you are not sure how many of your interests and their interests overlap. You both have spheres of interests and you wonder how much overlaps:
Then as you get to know each other you find more and more commonalities. The areas you have in common are called relevance. The closer your spheres of interest, the more you like someone.
Sometimes ‘interests’ can be points of relevance like:
- Works at the same company
- Lives in the same building
- Goes to the same school
- Plays on the same team
- Is a part of the same organization
- Are on the same trip
The more commonalities you have the more relevant someone is to you. In a great relationship the circles move closer together:
Before a relationship becomes obligatory there is usually no movement at all—or your common interests begin to diverge. You never find more common interests, you never get closer, you never bond fully. In fact, with most obligatory friends your spheres of interest slowly move away from each other…
I call this movement the slow creep.
The Slow Creep:
Slowly the spheres of influence creep farther and farther apart.
The problem with obligatory friends, is we often do not realize a friendship is becoming obligatory until it’s already highly unfun to hang out with them—and then it’s hard to break up. You can know someone for years and not realize how much you have changed or that you are no longer enjoying each other’s company.
When your spheres of interests move farther and farther apart, you get closer and closer to becoming ambivalent about the person and your relationship.
And ambivalent relationships are dangerous. I think guilt is the culprit.
Riding the Wave of Guilt
You know how this goes. Habit. Routine. Guilt.
- You get together because you always get together when you visit home.
- You call each other because you always talk once a month.
- You invite someone because they always come to your holiday party.
But you forget to ask yourself:
Do you actually like spending time with them?
Here’s what happens if you stay on the guilt wave:
- Your interactions become less and less fun.
- Getting together feels more and more like an obligation.
- You dread spending time with them.
- You feel resentful when you do spend time together
- You agonize over invites, calls and get togethers.
Stop. The. Guilt.
I realized that these obligatory friendships were bad for everyone involved.
When you begrudge a friendship. They feel it.
When guilt is the driving momentum in a relationship, its doomed for failure.
When you force yourself to spend time with someone or pretend to have a good time you are either lying to yourself or lying to them.
This is not truthful living.
You are not serving anyone by maintaining this ruse. The hard part is obligatory friendships do NOT get better. Once spheres of interest start moving apart, they usually don’t stop.
And by the way…this is how we get the most toxic kind of interaction:
Either you have to pull the plug, or the relationships will keep on draining.
I know, I know, you feel guilty. You feel bad. There is history! But listen up:
Having history with someone is not enough fuel for a friendship.
- Ok, so you were best friends in elementary school, how is maintaining a shallow relationship honoring that memory? Do you really think things will change?
- Ok, so you helped each other get through the corporate merger at your last job. How are obligatory monthly phone calls helping either of you now?
- Ok, so you are different now. How is someone from your old life helping you move on in your new one?
It might be time to:
I challenge you to think about the obligatory relationships in your life. Are there people who you are close with for the wrong reasons? Are there people who you are lying to yourself about? Are there people you dread hanging out with.
Letting them go helps you both.
I know how hard it is to let go of old relationships, and I am writing this article as a pep talk for myself as much as for anyone who resonates with this idea.
Guilt is not fuel.
History is not enough.
Feigned closeness is deception.
Have more time for real relationships.
Live in truth.
Want more on the science of friendship? Then you need to check out my book Captivate
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- The art and science of understanding people
Learn the new–science based way for winning friends and influencing people.