Relationship Tips

Outgrowing Friendships Is a ‘Normal’ Part of Life—So Why Does It Feel So Much (More) Like a Failure?

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I used to roll my eyes at the sentiment of “You should be able to count your true friends on one hand.” The more, the merrier, I'd always thought. At school, I took pride in having the biggest group, and then when I moved from Australia to the United States, it was even more meaningful having groups of friends, even if surface-level, from all over the world. But in 2020, my world certainly became much smaller.

Amidst the social isolation and social distancing, I lost my best friend. A simple conversation got lost in translation and led to resentment, jealousy, and defensiveness. It was more than a friendship; it was a sisterhood with bonds so strong I would’ve bet my life on it lasting forever. But it wasn’t just her I lost. As a new addition to the social group when I moved, it meant in the breakup, I lost about 13 others, too. From needing multiple hands and feet to count my friendships to needing one—just as the old proverb said. I felt like an unlovable failure.

Why do we outgrow friendships?

“As life goes on, we are inevitably shifting and changing—not only personally, but how we relate and engage with other people,” says Madeline Lucas, LCSW, a therapist and clinical content manager at Real. Life changes are a big catalyst in how our friendships grow or end. When I think back to the dismantlement of my former friendship, change played a huge role. “A common reason people may outgrow friendships is that the things they once bonded over are no longer strong enough or present to keep the friendship going,” adds self-care and mental health educator Minaa B, LMSW.

There’s another saying about relationships: “People come into your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime.” While we may want our friendships to live in the 'lifetime' box, this isn’t always the case. “The person you were and the space you were in when you started the friendship could look like polar opposites compared to who you are now and the responsibilities you carry,” says Minaa. Lucas adds that many people have a hard time adjusting to our new needs, values, responsibilities, and stages in life—but a changing relationship doesn’t mean you’re a failure, it just means you’re growing. “The best way we can manage these moments is to make adjustments in how we engage, set expectations and boundaries, and stay true to where we’re at before reaching resentment or inner turmoil,” Lucas says.

Is there anything wrong with outgrowing friendships?

While it may be painful, outgrowing friendships is a part of life. There doesn’t always need to be a breakdown or bad blood behind it. “Our relationships play a big role in our mental health. If a person begins to feel a friendship is no longer healthy for them, it’s okay to cut ties or adjust the degree of closeness to honor your emotional needs,” Minaa says. As Lucas points out, the alternative will have greater effects on you. “Sticking with unfulfilling or unsatisfying relationships out of habit or obligation, even if one or both parties aren’t happy —no one, you or your friend, deserves that.”

If it’s a normal part of life, why does outgrowing friendships feel like a failure?

A survey of 1,000 US adults found that nearly 40 percent of respondents had lost touch with nine or more of their friends, with the average loss of seven close friends during the pandemic. While 2020 played a bigger-than-usual role in the drift and loss of relationships, it can happen at any time.

“We live in a society that honors and upholds longevity in relationships,” says Minaa. This misconception of lifetime bonds neglects to include how values, ethics, life stages, and people change—and therefore, so do needs, boundaries, and expectations. “It’s important to recognize that any relationship, regardless of how long you were in it, has value and it’s unrealistic to expect every relationship to last a lifetime,” she adds. “Some are seasonal and that’s okay.”

Outgrowing a friendship can also feel worse than breaking up with a partner, and that’s because of the lack of clarity and closure. “There can be a lot of ambivalence in friendships,” says Lucas. “We aren’t taught how to have tough conversations and set boundaries and potentially even end a friendship, especially like we are when speaking of a romantic relationship.”

What can we do when we feel like we’re outgrowing a friendship?

As we continue to grow within ourselves, it’s important to reflect on the energy and people around us. Minaa suggests assessing whether the relationship needs to end or its closeness needs to be recalibrated.  "It may look like stepping back and forming new boundaries that maintain both the friendship and your well-being,” she says. Lucas adds to reflect on what brought you together, and why it’s different now. “Give yourself some grace. You’re allowed to evolve,” she says. “Allow yourself to lovingly detach from dynamics that are no longer serving you. That doesn’t invalidate the friendship that was.”

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