Nina and Alicia* had been best friends for eight years. They’d weathered part of their teenage years together — from family dramas to breakups — and considered themselves sisters. But things began to change a couple of years ago, when Nina, now 28, would come away from hanging out with Alicia feeling uneasy. “Every single time we hung out, I left thinking: That was not the most fun,” says Nina. “I didn’t feel the most authentic, or the most seen. I didn’t feel the most understood. It felt very forced.”
As Nina, who didn’t want us to use her last name, saw it their lives had started veering off in different directions. Alicia was still dating around, and going out to clubs. Nina, who is in a long-term relationship, says that as she entered her mid twenties, she became more focused on work and settling down. “My priorities aren’t around partying, and having the kind of lifestyle I did in my late teens and early twenties,” Nina says. “I’m in a very different place, and I think a lot of people in my life [like Alicia] continue to still be where they were before.”
It became harder for Nina and Alicia to find common ground, and as a result, they struggled to find things to talk about. “It’s a really weird place to be in, where you think you’ve outgrown someone,” she says. “We no longer have that connection because of either things they go through that I can’t relate to, or things I go through that they can’t relate to.” Eventually, Nina confronted Alicia, telling her that she felt they were in totally different places. From there, the friendship — which had already weakened over the previous year — dissolved.
Nina’s experience of outgrowing a friend is common. According to a 2015 study, people’s social circles peak in size around the age of 25 and then begin to get smaller as responsibilities pile up. Women lose more friends around that time than men, with researchers suggesting that it might be because they’re more likely to focus on their romantic relationships and finding a partner.
Anna Goldfarb, the author of Modern Friendship: How to Nurture Our Most Valued Connections, says that the idea that we shed friends in our late 20s might seem “scary,” but it also makes sense. “We live in a hyper-fluid society,” says Goldfarb. “We move around more, we don’t stay at our jobs as long, we have a wide social network, and it’s easier to move between these networks.” As a result, Goldfarb says, “We have unlimited freedom to find people who are into what we’re into. It comes at the cost of having friendships that last longer.”
It’s also likely that as we get older, our values will change or solidify to the extent that they no longer align with those of our friends. It took the Black Lives Matter protests of 2020 for Simi, age 25 and who didn’t want us to use their last name, to realise that she’d outgrown her friends from school. “I grew up in a predominantly white town in the UK,” says Simi. “So I was one of the only two or three Black people in the entire school.” Despite posting on social media about her horror at seeing the killing of George Floyd, none of Simi’s school friends reached out to her at the time to see if she was okay.
“I ended up at a place of realising that we don’t see the world in the same way,” says Simi. “I would want to have friends who saw those injustices in the same way. But I don’t think that was something I cared about, until I got older.” Ultimately, this led her to drift from her school friends.
Suzanne Degges-White, a licenced counsellor and author of Toxic Friendships: Knowing the Rules and Dealing with the Friends who Break Them, says that it can be difficult to sustain friendships when our beliefs and who we are constantly in flux. “People are not static,” she says. “In terms of who I am today, the core needs are the same, but five years ago, I may have had different interests or different tolerance levels for friends and behaviours. And so as if my relationship with a friend isn’t dynamic, and they can’t allow for me to grow, then that relationship is going to be too brittle to last, and it’ll snap.”
Angeli Ragasa, age 25, also realised that her friends from childhood no longer shared the same values as her — although for different reasons. For her, it took a friend entering into her first serious relationship to highlight how much they’d grown apart. “This person didn’t bring out the best in her. I felt like she wasn’t being her authentic self with him,” she said. Her friend would prioritize her boyfriend over her friends, which didn’t sit right with Angeli. She didn’t feel like she could rely on her for anything, because she was so consumed by the relationship. As Angeli put it, “She was pouring from an empty cup.”
While Angeli’s friend is no longer with her boyfriend, the relationship showed that they were different people, and in different places. “After graduation, you have a stronger sense of who you are,” says Angeli. “I feel like that’s part of outgrowing a friendship. It’s just realising that okay, you’re no longer the person that you were back then.”
According to Goldfarb, shedding friends as we get older shouldn’t be seen as a bad thing. “Studies show that for the best life happiness for women, they only need three to five friends,” she says. “So if you’re holding on to all these looser, older connections, that don’t really know you today, or don’t know your life today and your challenges today, none of these friendships are going to be as nourishing as they once were.”
Nina has come to see outgrowing friends as something positive. “It’s very freeing to feel like I’ve kind of found my own true self, to gravitate towards the people that make me feel good,” she says. But this didn’t make the decision to part ways with her friend any less painful. “It genuinely feels like a tremendous breakup,” says Nina. Simi also compares outgrowing friends to breaking up with a romantic partner. “Every friendship breakdown has been painful,” she says. “A lot of my memories were tied in with those people. Those memories become ‘tainted’ — just like with an ex. So you have to do a lot of work to keep them intact and in a good light. I struggled with that.”
With recent studies showing that Gen Z sees friendships as more important than romantic ones, it’s unsurprising that parting ways from a friend can hurt just as much — if not more — than breaking up with a partner. On top of this, what can make outgrowing friends so fraught is that we don’t always know how to talk about feeling distant from them. “You can have deep conversations with your friends, but not in the capacity of questioning the friendship,” says Nina. “You speak about those things with your partner, because it’s someone you’re going to spend the rest of your life with, individually.”
Goldfarb makes a similar point: “We’re not socialized to have these conversations with our friends… And to fight for our friendships,” she says. “We don’t have the language for it.” This is perhaps to be expected in a society which traditionally places more value on romantic relationships over platonic ones.
As Goldfarb points out, it’s important to not see outgrowing friendship as akin to failure. Rather than being ashamed that we couldn’t make it work, we should see it as a part of life. “It is human nature that we only have so much energy and attention to give to our loved ones,” she says. And, as Goldfarb points out, “You can still have affection for a long-time friend. It’s about being more realistic about what that friendship looks like today.”
For Angeli, getting over what she describes as the “heartbreak” of outgrowing a friend has left her in a better place. “I’m so much happier,” she says. “I’m in a peaceful place and I genuinely wish the people that I’m no longer friends with the best. I will always have that love and care for them. But I’ll love them from afar.”
*Names have been changed to protect identities.
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