For the past few years ― without apology ― I’ve taken stock of the people in my orbit and have treated myself to a cleanse; I’ve coined it De-friend December. I take a thoughtful assessment of my friends and decide if, well, we are. There’s no complicated algorithm or formula. It’s actually pretty basic and focuses on one extremely humble question: Are we really friends?
I drop the dead weight and the posers and the pretenders and all the other friends who literally have not bothered with me for the better part of the year. Then I flip the calendar and start fresh. The act is both refreshing and reaffirming: Friendships do not have to be transactional, but they should absolutely be reciprocal.
This notion has become my middle-age mantra. My friends are hugely important to me and it’s not a stretch to understand why my reliance on and affection for my circle is fierce: My parents are gone. My kids are getting older and leaving to explore new places. My extended family is a day’s drive away.
I may be getting old and cranky (cue my kids nodding) but I’m finding the older I get, the more important my circle is becoming. Also, perhaps ironically, how much smaller it’s becoming.
This is weirdly satisfying and a bit surprising because I’ve always had large groups of friends. In high school, I smoked enough to spend time with the bad kids, cartwheeled enough to hang with the cheerleaders, and drank enough beer to fit in with every other unsupervised stereotype of the ’80s (Most Popular 1984: Never forget).
I then went on to find a great group of gals in college; 37 years later, we just spent a weekend together. (Pro tip: Hold on to your female friends. They tend to outlast some of the spouses.) My point is, I have always loved having large groups of interesting, fun folks around me.
What I’m finding now is I no longer crave the crowd, especially the crowd that missed the memo about friendships being a give-and-take. My circle of friends is shrinking because I’m surrounding myself with only the best ones.
Middle-age friendships are a curious mix, especially for those of us who are parents. Unlike our chosen high school or college connections, adult friends aren’t always rooted in common experiences or memorable hijinks, but rather kid connections. Most of the friends we scoop up while in parenthood come from our ties to the community. And they’re great ― a significant and appreciated support system bound by shared involvements.
But eventually kids move on or kids move away and more often than not it becomes clear the Friday night lights were holding everything together. The camaraderie may be unmatched but when it comes to latter-day friendships, the foundation is unsteady ― built on happy events and traveling teams instead of years of true grit.
Plus, shit gets real in later life. Everyone’s happily posting on social media about their kids getting into shiny colleges, but no one’s announcing when they flunk out. Or overdose. Or get arrested. Who’s sharing that with 400 friends on social media? I guess I’ve whittled my number down to a size I’m comfortable sharing my shit with, warts and all.
Aiding and abetting in the Great Yearly Whittle was the pandemic.
When a contagion dictates how communal your community can be, relationships can get a bit murky. From the onset, friends were forced to retreat to their own little nuclear spaces.
By the time socialization began to return to normal it was harder to get the band back together. Some friendships strengthened, yet, alas, some severed.
I lost (what I’d believed to have been) a close friend over the past year and nothing particularly explosive happened to end things. The flame just flickered out between us and I suppose neither of us cared enough to question why. Not to say I didn’t go through the typical stages of grief that come with a loss; I wondered about it for quite a while, but eventually I accepted that people change and it’s simply OK. I also accepted that I’m not everyone’s cup of tea and that’s OK, too.
Around that same time I sat on a plane and read the following …
As we grow older we weed out our friendship circles the way we do our closets. Most women have a story about the friend that truly wasn’t.
— Anna Quindlen, “Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake”
… and thought, welp, there you go. No other validation needed. With a toast to good times had, I let that friendship go.
So now, as De-friend December is upon me, I edit my friends to a more intimate number and do so without regret or reservation. I am way too old to give a rat’s ass about who’s angry or who feels slighted.
While not exactly over the hill, maybe from my vantage point atop the hill I’ve seen the proverbial light. I’ve certainly seen a lot of friends. Maybe I’ve developed a Spidey sense about spotting the keepers. Maybe a pandemic forced me to see the value of my time and the importance of the quality of people I share it with. Maybe I’m brilliantly pre-planning ― with four adult kids, it might be best to start whittling before any weddings hit the horizon, no?
Whatever the reason, I know I’m in a good place.
The secret sauce of friendship is that there doesn’t have to be a lot of them ― just strong ones. If 1984 wants her crown back, she can have it; I’m good.