Why Older People Fire Friends More Aggressively

Younger people tend to maintain cliques of friends. Their social networks are interconnected — their friends know each other.

Older people tend to maintain bilateral friendships. Cliques are harder as people spread out and get busy and enter different stages of life. Time for friends shrinks as kids are born and work gets busy. You get choosy and confront logistical realities. The result? More 1:1 meals and double date outings; fewer group trips to Spring Training or Vegas.

In the past few years, I’ve seen several older people in my life fire friends — explicitly end a non-romantic relationship with another person, sometimes a person they’ve known for quite some time, over an argument that spiraled out of control. Cold turkey. Not a slow fade, not a shift from ally to light acquaintance — actual outright, silent hostility.

I’ve been puzzled by this trend. You lose friends as you get older, and friends are key to happiness and well-being, and it’s harder to make friends when older…so why wouldn’t a 50 year old be flexible during disagreements so as to hold on to every friendship he or she has?

Here’s one theory: When your social network is interconnected, as when you’re young, the consequences of firing a friend are broader than just that one friendship. You might rupture the clique. You might lose the person you have an argument with and some of that person’s friends who picked him instead of you. So you have an incentive to be on at least speaking terms with everyone. You bury the hatchet and don’t let a bilateral interpersonal issue spiral out of the control, lest you lose more than just that one friend.

By contrast, when your social network is less dense, when your friendships are more bilateral in nature, you are emboldened to end things with a friend who pisses you off as you rightfully believe that it won’t have a ripple effect in your other relationships. It’s still generally unwise, probably, but there’s a rationale that your action is contained.

A completely alternative theory is that with age we become more stubborn, more set in our ways, and more “brittle” in terms of our worldview — and so any violation, even a slight one that may have simply peeved our younger selves, sets us off so much that it results in cold turkey hostility.

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Here’s my older post on How Friendships Evolve Over Time and the Quest for Platonic Intimacy. Here are my other posts on friendship.

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