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.


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

16 comments on “Why Older People Fire Friends More Aggressively
  • I’d be interested to see if this trend continues as the “social networking” generation ages.

    I question the idea of older people being “brittle” in their worldview. I feel that older people can often be more understanding and aware of alternative viewpoints. I’d say our teen years and early 20’s are when we tend to get really worked up about people whose worldviews conflict with ours, and aging tends to let us overlook those personal differences. Then again, I say this as someone in my mid-20’s, so perhaps that’s not the case.

    It could be that older people tend to be more “no nonsense” about stuff, valuing results over the relationship (or perhaps valuing more immediate results over the immediate relationship, since cultivating relationships can lead to longer-term results). Anyway, another interesting point you’ve raised, Ben.

  • My thought on this is a combination of your “getting choosy” and Dave’s “no nonsense.” Older people fire friends because they have a full life and are acutely aware of their limited time. Why would I choose to spend another 2 hours with D. when the last time we hung out I got zero return on my investment? Or even worse, a negative return?

    I find that as I get older (I am 30, so does that count for being old?), I meet more people and find some that I connect with more deeply. I will then let these people replace other friends.

    Of course, I am someone who has fired a lot of friends in my childhood. So maybe my perspective is a little different on this topic.

    • This makes sense — for some people, this could certainly explain the dynamic. To be clear, I’m not just talking about a friend who you see less and less and then very rarely at all. That’s a slow fade, not firing. I’m instead referring to instances where you go immediately cold turkey, usually with an underlying sentiment of hostility.

  • As someone who is 51, I would say I qualify as an “older” person. I tend to agree with Peewee. I think as you get older, you realize you do not have to keep friendships that are not worthwhile. If they become toxic or more depleting than enriching, then there’s no need to allow them to take up your precious time and thoughts.

  • I agree, in part dear friend Ben. I have seen some people grow more mellow and flexible as they get older and others more rigid and negative, confounding re why which happens.
    I also find that some people become clear how precious time is and increasingly value certain traits and the people who have them, letting go of others they may have felt compelled to keep as friends. And “friendship” has different meanings and beginnings in a digital world where it is easy to connect yet still takes time to deepen connections.It is a universal longing, of course, to have friends and to have a sense of belonging to a tribe or circle(s) of friends.

    I like Porter Gale’s advice in her book, that we seek clarity on our top three passions, see where they intersect and nourish friendships that fall in one of those three and especially overlap in all three

  • Ben, I’m not sure you can qualify seeing “several older people” do this as a trend. I’ve actually seen the exact opposite. I’m 57 and my friends are more interconnected than ever. We’ve been through the “kid” years where you don’t have time for the large group outings, and are doing group activities again, although not necessarily the same activities or the same groups.

    I have a 20 year old daughter in college. She reports seeing people cut each other off in not only “actual outright, silent hostility” but also very vocal hostility. My husband’s take was that there is a trend of less consideration in younger people. I’m not sure that we can assign a trend to this either.

    Perhaps it’s just human nature and that fact that we still haven’t learned to follow Kurt Vonnegut’s one rule: “God damn it, you’ve got to be kind.”

  • I’m not sure I’ve ever “fired” a friend. It’s hard for me to imagine any circumstances under which I’d do so, barring serious crimes or radical personality shifts.

  • Interesting. I’ve only ever been in groups out of necessity (hanging out with more than one or two people, basically). I generally prefer making friends with *individuals* not with groups. Which can make it hard to hang out with them if they have their own group. It also means if you want to hang out with more than one person at a time you have to cobble disparate friend groups together which can be awkward.

    The older I get, though, the more I prefer “deeper” hangouts. It was fun to be with the gang of 6-10 people, but now I see the beauty in just hanging out and paying more attention to just 2 or 3 (or even 1!) people. It’s just richer and more laid back.

  • Excellent observation on interconnectedness. I generally do a good job of compartmentalizing my life, but early on in graduate school, I became romantically involved with another person in our friends group (core: about 6 people, with mutual friends it balloons to about 14-16). It ended abruptly and awkwardly (long story, as it tends to be). It was like a divorce, dividing our friends. I basically never hung out with the group as a whole again. There was no ill-will towards me, it was just too awkward for us to hang out at the same time, and the other person was more aggressive about marking territory and I didn’t feel like fighting. So I lost a lot of friends, except the few who valued me enough to hang out independently.

    It sucked for a few months but it’s a double-edged sword. Firing friends at that age (23 in my case) reverberates powerfully. On the flip side, you’re always meeting new people at that age (if you’re not, you’re not trying). So it ended being fine.

  • Sorry to pollute the thread-do you really think we become uniformly more stubborn? I find that I’ve mellowed out a *lot* over the years. Things that would make me fly off the handle ten years ago barely affect my mood anymore.

  • Who says you can’t hire a fired friend back?

    I fired my very charming, good-looking, and talented young assistant once, just to show him who was boss.

    I think we both knew I would rehire him, eventually, but the shock he registered initially was gratifying.

    On the other hand, when an old friend just cut me off and quit returning calls after thirty years, having decided that we’d grown apart and the relationship wasn’t meaningful or cost-effective anymore, I was a bit miffed.

    I don’t believe in karma (no empirical evidence for it, in this life), so when that person’s migraines increased to unbearable levels, I thought the unconscious mind will always find a way to punish itself.

    It knows when punishment is due.;-)

  • I’ve observed the inverse in my personal life. A friend I counted among my closest fired me, to use your expression, after I disagreed with a personal choice (the fault was mine, both in raising the issue and the tone I took). I attempted some kind of reconciliation over a period of 4-5 years, unsuccessfully.

    At the time, as painful as it was, it didn’t seem out of the question. Now, it’s difficult to imagine that being the case. Perhaps I’m more practiced in the slow fade as you realize that underlying differences are too divisive to ignore, but I can’t imagine as direct and sudden an end to a friendship.

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