The year-end social audit: Who’s (really) in your friend zone?

’Tis the season... Amid parties, plum cakes and New Year resolutions, here’s how to determine who should stay in your inner circle in 2022.
 (HT Illustration: Jayachandran) PREMIUM
(HT Illustration: Jayachandran)
Updated on Dec 04, 2021 02:49 PM IST
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ByNatasha Rego

Evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar estimated, in a 1993 study published in the journal Behavioral and Brain Sciences, that a human being can maintain about 150 meaningful relationships at any given time, which typically fall into four categories: special, very close, good friends and just friends.

In 2009, sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst found, in a study published on ScienceDirect, that when it comes to close friends, the average person loses about half of them every seven years, replacing them with new ones drawn from their changing social contexts and personalities.

The last two years have been an interesting time for friendships. Amid the restrictions of life in the pandemic, distance has come to define these relationships to a greater degree than before. Acquaintances within easier reach have become friends almost by default.

With social obligations eliminated, people also undertook what came to be called a phase of social auditing: who, among their friends, was worthy of that tag; what relationships had atrophied unnoticed; what bonds were frayed or even damaging?

As the festive season begins, and life nears the two-year mark since the start of the pandemic, it’s a good time for another round. Or a first one. A good time to ask oneself: What are the friendships that call for celebration; which ones might it be time to cut the cord on?

Step 1: The Marie Kondo question

Ask: Does this person spark joy? That’s the fundamental purpose of any friendship. Yet, the friends one spends the most time with tend to be the friends one has developed a habit of spending time with. Former college mates; a work/ex-work group, other parents; other divorcees. The best friendships endure as people change and situations change; but true friendships inspire feelings of love through it all. If there’s a “friend” whose outlook on life, treatment of others or of you jars, it might be time to move them from the Yes to the Maybe list.

Step 2: The follow-up

Ask: Why does this perhaps-friend no longer spark joy? Are they more selfish than before, or just struggling? Lashing out or looking for support? Anjana B, 30, from Mumbai says she recently got into a terrible fight with her flatmate of a year over her own habit of leaving the lights on when she leaves a room.

“It escalated to such a point that she said she was going to move out and I was ready to let that happen,” Anjana says. Then Anjana took a moment to think about what her flatmate had been going through. “She recently quit her job, and found out her ex was seeing someone new. Her cat is also unwell.”

She thought of how, two days earlier, they had been talking about how lucky they were to find each other. She realised, she says, that the fight wasn’t about her. “The clincher for me, when it comes to such situations is, do I like the person? And I like my flatmate, I like who she is and I like hanging out with her. I’ve had other flatmates I have not felt the same way about. In those cases, we eventually split ways.” That’s the question in a social audit too: Is this a case of being better off apart?

Step 3: Reading the room

Ask: Is there room for me? That’s a good way to tell if it’s a case of being better off apart. If a friend is not struggling, not looking for support, and not sparking joy, it’s time to assess how much room you actually have in the relationship.

Some friendships lose their emotional base over time, often with the result that the friend will only reach out when they need something (and won’t reciprocate when you do). If this is true, it is time to change things up, says Simran Mangharam, a relationship coach and founder of the dating community Floh.

“Especially with old friends, it takes time to realise that this is happening,” Mangharam says. Keep in mind that you don’t have to say goodbye, but you might want to create some distance. It is important to send out the message that one is not available for this kind of friendship. It can take time, Mangharam says, but distance could also help restore balance, as it forces the other person to acknowledge the flaws in the relationship, and reminds them that they need to make room for you in it.

Step 4a: Want vs need

Ask: Are we two peas in a pod and is that a good thing? “Codependency is unhealthy even in a marriage. Codependency in a friendship, whether it’s between people who share common interests or a living space, could be emotionally harmful to both people,” Mangharam says.

Are there too many demands for time, emotion, space. As in a relationship, it’s important too to not forget oneself in a friendship. Create space, at least in some areas.

“Be gentle and kind. You don’t want this person out of your life, and just want some good, healthy boundaries,” Mangharam says.

Step 4b: Unrequited love

Ask: Could this be an unrequited friendship? “It’s important to face the hard truth and ask if this person might be using you,” Mangharam says. It’s not an easy question to ask, but it’s important to be honest, and kind to oneself. If it is an unrequited friendship, Mangharam suggests a weaning process. “For every three calls the person makes, stop responding to one or two.” Perhaps it’ll turn out that the bond does matter to them, and work on it can begin.

Keep in mind this exercise will take time. Avoid snap decisions. Fix what you can. “If you want a friend to stay,” Mangharam says, “don’t be afraid to have that difficult conversation with them.”

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Friday, January 28, 2022