Several years ago, a former schoolmate invited me to her wedding. I was surprised because we had barely exchanged text messages for eons. I politely declined via SMS without revealing why but a mutual friend let the cat out of the bag unintentionally.
When the bride-to-be found out, she was furious. She sent me a nasty SMS telling me how upset she was and vowed never to speak to me again. Since then, she has ignored me whenever we run into each other. Honestly, I can’t say I care – that’s how distant we’ve become.
That incident showed me how people use different benchmarks to measure the quality of friendship. My ex-schoolmate considered me to be a good friend because we’d known each other since we were 13. But how long I’ve known someone isn’t a good gauge of closeness for me. What matters most to me is being able to let my guard down and be myself with someone I call a friend. Yes, a fair number of my closest friends are from school but I have also forged friendships with people I’ve met in more recent years.
I firmly believe in being discerning when it comes to who I spend my time with. Why should I bother if I have to rack my brains to carry on a conversation with you? That’s my litmus test to determine whether you’re a “stay” or a “nay”. And if you’ve been tagged the latter, you’re an acquaintance – that means meeting up once in a blue moon.
Mean? Perhaps. But if our once lively chats have degenerated into small talk, then I’m doing us both a favour.
Breaking up is hard to do
I admit I wasn’t always this resolute about saying goodbye to friends, even when I realised we had grown apart. It is undoubtedly comforting to relive “the good ol’ days” with familiar faces. Public relations consultant Melissa Thomas, 30, shares similar sentiments. She treasures her friends from school because they were there for her throughout her growing-up years.
“We’ve shared many happy moments and also seen each other through tough times. They will naturally have a special place in my heart,” she says.
Katherine Ho, 24, a private tutor, agrees, adding that she fondly remembers sharing significant moments, like her first kiss, with friends from her teenage years.
These emotional bonds can be difficult to sever because people like familiarity and security, says Dr Adrian Wang, a consultant psychiatrist at Gleneagles Medical Centre. “Furthermore, by the time you reach your 20s and 30s, these friends would have supported you through experiences like examination failures, break-ups with boyfriends and job problems. They will always be linked to these memorable life events.”
Clinging on to friendships is all well and good if you still are genuinely in sync with someone, but it should never feel like an obligation to keep in touch. More often than not, friendships change, says Dr Wang. “Friendships that met your needs then may not meet your needs now. If you’re a single woman, you may find that a friend who is now a stay-at-home mother can’t understand what you’re going through at work, and vice versa.”
I have accepted that this is a fact of life. I can’t (and don’t want to) talk about where to shop for the best diapers or baby formula. I value engaging conversations and gravitate towards people who are opinionated or share my love for yoga or outdoor sports.
Feeling bad no more
So why have I become choosier about who I spend my time with? Because of a hefty dose of reality mixed with sheer social exhaustion. I often feel overstretched because of my packed-to-the-brim calendar.
Here’s the rundown of one of my recent weekends: Rock concert with friends, dialogue session with women entrepreneurs, cousin’s baby’s baptism, tea with my grandparents, volunteer work, yoga class and dinner with friends – all in the span of 48 hours! I think I managed to squeeze some sleep somewhere in there, too.
As you can see, I run the risk of spreading myself too thin. I wouldn’t have it any other way because weekends are the best time to catch up on personal pursuits and family time (and to go on dates). So I have no choice but to compromise on the friends I meet because there are a finite number of hours in a day.
Even research has shown that we can’t handle too many close friends at one go. UK-based evolutionary anthropologist Robin Dunbar says that we can only have five friends in our inner circle, while Mark Vernon, author of The Philosophy of Friendship, says the magic number is probably between six and 12. Makes sense, doesn’t it? So, if I want to get close to someone new, I have to get rid of someone first.
The tricky part is breaking up with someone within a group. Case in point: Recently, some friends and I agreed that we’d had enough of a particular friend’s antics, like how she’s perpetually very late when she meets us.
But when I suggested ousting her from the group, everyone else protested. “She has a good heart,” they insisted. I rolled my eyes. Many people out there have “good hearts” (unless you’re a sociopath). Eventually, we decided we’d include her in our monthly meet-ups but nothing more.
Being decisive and realistic
Ironically, my best friend is someone I’ve known since I was in Primary 1. Our friendship has stood the test of time because we unconditionally accept each other for who we are. We also can be (and have been) brutally honest with each other whenever we need to be.
Premila knows I’m a hypochondriac and I am tolerant of her flaws (which I shan’t reveal here because I still want to be friends with her). We text and call each other several times a week and usually meet up once fortnightly. I appreciate her for being there for me through the toughest times in my life like break-ups, my paternal grandma’s passing and car accidents.
Still, I know I appear unsentimental (and ruthless) about friendships but I see my approach as being decisive – and realistic. It simply means I have more time for the people and activities that matter most.
Question how meaningful your existing friendships are, decide if they’re worth keeping and stick to your guns. I say Facebook is a good place to start culling your list of friends.
Your 4-step guide to breaking up gently
1. PULL AWAY S-L-O-W-L-Y
If you’re meeting up every week, reduce it to once a fortnight and so on. See each other only for lunch on a work day so you don’t have to spend more than an hour together.
2. DON’T TAKE HIS/HER PHONE CALLS
Respond with a brief SMS that doesn’t encourage further conversation, like “Can’t talk now. Anything important?” Use the same approach for other means of communication, like e-mails – either don’t reply or take a long time to respond.
3. MAKE YOUR STANCE CLEAR
to your mutual friends so they know exactly what is going on and don’t inadvertently make things awkward for you – like invite the said friend to your surprise birthday party. It doesn’t need to be a dramatic declaration.
A phrase like, “We’re not that close anymore. I just don’t feel like we can connect any longer” will suffice.
4. DELETE HIM OR HER FROM YOUR FACEBOOK FRIENDS LIST
once you think you’ve successfully distanced yourself from the friend you wish to break up with. But make sure you keep the phone number. Otherwise, how will you be able to continue avoiding the calls?
This story was originally published in the July 2011 issue of Her World.