Retiring Old Friends to Make Room for Better-Fit New Ones

About a year ago I wrote a post How Friendships Evolve and the Quest for Platonic Intimacy. Among other things, it addressed the challenge of 18-30 year olds who seek to add an intellectual dimension to long-standing emotional relationships.

I continue to encounter people in their 20’s and 30’s who over time discover that they are thinking about life differently than their good buddies from high school and college. Thanks largely to blogs and other mediums they are meeting new people from different geographies and age brackets and backgrounds. Despite surface level differences they bond over a burning itch to know (curiosity), shared interests, and a general commitment to improving one’s mind and life situation and ping-pong prowess. They relish the history they have with long-standing friends and the corresponding emotional closeness, but they are not being intellectually stimulated in the way they now desire and can be by their newer connections. What to do?

I receive emails from readers on this. Here’s an excerpt from one:

…it kinda sucks to see this mentality in close friends — a substantial chunk of my mental and emotional energy is devoted to making a life I’m proud of, that fits with who I am, and all the while they’re still operating on auto-pilot….

The correct move is just to briefly grieve but then move on and distance myself from [my friend who’s devolving]. Which I’ve already started doing. I just want to note for the record that at this stage in my life I’m really on the hunt for allies in this growth process — not necessarily people who share my interests and goals, but who do care about evolving and making concerted moves to control their lives and become self-governing, autonomous human beings.

He is confronting this difficult reality: it’s impossible to form new friendships unless you retire old ones. We do not have infinite emotional bandwidth, let alone infinite time.

Inertia causes us to maintain relationships that should be let go. Or it allows relationships that really ought to be revved up to just sit in and flat line as a weak tie. Active, critical thinking about the current situation is step one anytime one wants to overcome the status quo bias.

If you undertake this process, remember timing is everything: you don’t want to turn off all your current friendships and start from a clean slate. Rather, you want to seek out new people who stimulate the current entrepreneurial you. As you increase intimacy with those people, through inaction slowly transition the old friendships into more casual, less demanding weak ties.

21 comments on “Retiring Old Friends to Make Room for Better-Fit New Ones
  • It helps that old friends (and family) often take it as a personal betrayal if one dares to change in any significant way, even if that change is undeniably positive. Makes it easier to leave them by the wayside, trying to figure out what their new dynamic with you is, while you move on to others with whom things are not so difficult and dramatic.

  • This really hit close to home for me. I was in a fraternity in college and that is how I met most of my close friends. They are all intelligent and have professional jobs, but whenever we get together they regress back to how they acted in college. I still enjoy spending time with them, but have found myself spending more and more time with others who share my interests in ideas and what is going on in the world. But it is tough telling guys you have been friends with for 10 years you don’t have time for them.

  • I’ve had to move a lot, and I’ve changed friend groups often in my life. It’s made me a strong, independent person. But sometimes I feel like there’s something missing. I am good at making deep connections quickly, but bad at sustaining long-term friendships. I grow and I change.

    Maybe this won’t be the case when I settle down, but so far in my life the only constant is me. I like it that way.

  • Intimacy and close connection are important, I think, in friendships as in all relationships. You want to have a few of these.

    They just don’t have to be the same people you grew up with or went to school with.

  • I understand where you’re coming from but I would hesitate to say that old friends and family taking it as a personal betrayal “helps” this process. That results in you and them parting ways and breaking ties- which I suspect would not be ideal for most people. Delicately transitioning to a weak tie is the goal here.

  • How does your course of action change if in addition to being a longtime friend, there is another strong link that compels you to be “friends” with this person? If, for example, you have no choice but to see them at work or school? Or even more delicate, family? …Or if your current ping-pong buddy is doing his best with a prosthesis?

  • I’ve definitely had experience with this over the past year or so. Since January of 2009, I’ve been living abroad on my own and I’ve traveled to something like 25 countries. I have changed and grown SO much, and definitely found that I have less in common now with many of my friends from college and high school. I often have to remind myself that they haven’t been on the same journey that I’ve been on, and that I shouldn’t expect so much from them.

    I’m okay with retiring some of my past friendships, though. It’s natural, and probably an important precursor to personal growth, if that’s what is really important to you. It’s…mature?

    If all you have holding a friendship together is memories, then it might be better to recognize that and stop trying to make it something it will never be.

  • You shouldn’t abandon family unless under the most severe circumstances and folks you work with you probably also have to delicately maintain even if you wouldn’t otherwise befriend them in a non-work context.

  • I’m 37, married with four daughters. So, I’m guessing I’m about 10 years farther in the life cycle than the average reader here.

    Agreed — investing in and maintaining deep personal friendships is one of the key joys of life. Also agreed, you have finite resources and have to make choices.

    But, let me stick up for old friends too. They are also a finite resource. You have a small number of people who knew you well at 22, an even smaller group who knew you at 14. The world is not manufacturing more of these people.

    Have you ever thought of the image of yourself that is captured in the minds of these people? First impressions tend to overwhelm subsequent experience. So, besides the rare letter and video, these people hold only the fossil evidence of a lost you. A you who is no more.

    And that you is relevant. Knowing that you can inform you about your:
    a) gut level tendencies
    b) history
    c) culture
    d) family dynamics

    You might be able to make more sense out of the information from this source than your 14 year old self was able to from his own direct experience.

    Yes, at many times and places you need to go forward. Change. Evolve.

    But, you’ll make mistakes too. And one of them is going against your nature. These people captured something of you that might be lost one day.

    Is it too geeky to think of them as living “restore” points? Not that you’d want to/be capable of restoring a previous self. But it’s equally damaging to not know what’s in that restore point, to undervalue the self-knowledge that resides outside of yourself.

    You might need it one day. In fact, your inner life might depend on it.


  • Thanks, I needed that. Very timely for me. I wonder if the economic downturn has increased this. You work a little harder to be more and that’s highlighted areas of improvement. Had to re-think some of my relationships. It’s like that saying “show me your friends and I’ll show you your future”.

  • Brett, I guess I can only speak from my own experience, which was that I wanted and needed to break or weaken those ties, sad as it may have been on some level. It sounds callous, but I feel that I’m either part of the problem or part of the solution in my loved ones’ lives, and I do whatever is appropriate to be the latter. If they’d rather wallow in the problem(s), my hands are tied ANC my resources put to better use elsewhere. I feel similarly about the people in my life: If you’re dragging me down, you gotta go. Time is limited, so the more I can expedite that, the better.

  • The good thing about friendships as compared to romantic relationships is that there’s rarely a reason to have a full-on breakup. Friendships are non-exclusive and can peter out slowly, and hopefully naturally, over time if people go in different directions. Also, some of my best friendships are re-kindled friendships that came about when our lives and thoughts were more aligned.

    All that said, the question I struggle with is how deliberate and calculating to be about “transitioning” friendships, which, in a way, goes against its entire purpose.

  • You have described to a T. Thanks for your advice.

    I’m slowly loosing touch with my primary school high school friends, who i have felt became friends out of default. i went to uni and they went and did trades, we’ve slowly drifted apar, i feel i have nothing in common with them, I get very little intellectual stimulation from and now is the time to move forward.

    Great article, this sort of stuff keeps me coming back to your blog.


  • I think every self-improvement blogger has made a similar post to this at one point or another, the idea of leaving behind old friends that you’ve outgrown.

    I think the idea is fine, but it can be taken too far.

    I think some people who get into self-development can get carried away with the idea that just because they’re into improving themselves they’re on a different, better level than other people, and they have to cut ties with everyone who doesn’t ‘get it’ and think like they do.’

    If your friends are still good, dependable, fun people, I don’t know if you need to dump them just because they’re not as into learning about speed reading as you are….

  • Signaling is important here. The best way to to attract growth-oriented people in your life is to become one yourself, however you define it.

    You’re not trying to change and find people who help you do so. Rather, the change in your line of thinking sparks new questions, requiring new people to answer them. There is even a change in your non-verbal body language and others recognize this in you. An easy example: you read 4HWW and start using the phrase, “lifestyle design”, thereby filtering out those who haven’t heard the term. You’ve opened yourself up to a whole new set of people who speak the same “language”. (This is why information exposure through books, blogs and such is so important to personal growth).

    Instead of distancing yourself from old ties though, I’d treat them as a test of how you’re maintaining your new reality. If you fall back to your old mannerisms around them, there’s still a part of you that’s holding onto that past mentality. No judgment here, it’s just building your self-awareness. If you’re able to be the “new” you around them, you may have a lasting impact and trigger their own curiousity. The response could be negative and your reaction tells you more about where your r’ship with them stands. Interacting with old friends and particularly family becomes part of your growth process as opposed to something you leave behind.

    Our r’ships with others define culture and as we change we become exemplars for those that want to change as well. We have to be willing to continue our interactions not discard them for this to happen.

  • I remember talk about Dunbar’s number demarcations here before.

    The ‘average size of villages in the Domesday Book’ (150 souls) actually has a lot to do with this, that is, friendship does have a size limit.

    But if you have a sentimental attachment to old friendships, it can be difficult to move away from the emotional investment you have in them– the accumulation of years’ worth of shared experiences and the associated memories.

    You know, the old friend who stood beside you when the chips were down, but now it seems that your interests and life paths have diverged?

    It’s undeniable that sometimes people grow apart, but what about that old-fashioned virtue called loyalty?

    Who would think that etiquette, much less the excruciatingly correct Miss Manners (and I don’t mean the polyamorous one, nor Miss Manners for Mormons) might have anything pertinent to say on the subject of “retiring old friends to make room for better-fit new ones”?

    Nonetheless, etiquette has a good deal to say on the subject, expressed in the lingua franca of common sense.

    Judith Martin is absolutely correct when she says, “It is nonsense to think that only your best friend will tell you that you are obviously– desperately– in need of psychotherapy, a redesign job on your body, a new wardrobe to disguise your body, and a stronger bath soap.

    Any strangers on the street will gladly tell you all these things and more. You can hardly stop them.”

    So true– dear Bob, you did the job.

    And yes, it’s true that some people don’t like change, but everyone should respect his old friend’s “decision to branch out”, and he, being the heroic bold one, should accept the inevitable unwelcome commentary with good grace.;-)

  • We also need to remember that our friends from childhood will understand that we are evolving. They’ll always be there for us, even if the time spent together is no longer as frequent as it used to be.

    Growing up, the adults around me would always say that my priorities would change.

    As you get older, your spouse, your kids, your job, your extended family.. all of these things take priority over your friends.

    I used to think this a tragedy of adult life.

    I’ve recently come to understand that it’s merely proof that the friendships you’ve developed over the years are long-lasting and true.

    True friends are there for each other unwaveringly for the important moments in our lives. Yet we understand that day-to-day, we have our own ambitions and our own goals to reach. So we decrease the time spent together.

    And that’s okay.

    Yes, we make new friends. But we don’t necessarily have to completely let go of our old ones. The greatest connections are the ones where you don’t see each other for months, and even years, and when you do meet up, it’s the same as it always was because you’ve shared a history that you’ll never forget.

  • An issue I’ve struggled with for years, but never seen addressed so well in words. Thanks for writing this.

  • You know, thanks to facebook, I can superficially keep up with old friends. I have also been able to reconnect with old acquaintances who have ended up evolving to similar ‘places’ as me. In fact, it’s allowed me to be amazed at the often unpredictable evolution in life some people have taken.

    I like that I can maintain both strong and weak ties through it.

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