How to hold on to the adult friends you value — and let go of the ones you don't

After 15 years spent talking with young adults about their relationships, I’ve found that the people who maintain strong bonds do a few simple things.
Illustration of group of people looking at each other as their sweater connect.
The ties that bind.Tim Lahan / for NBC News
Get the Think newsletter.
SUBSCRIBE
By Janice McCabe, associate professor of sociology, Dartmouth

While college graduates are thrilled to let go of their student loans, they’re less willing to jettison the friendships they’ve made over the course of their collegiate journey. Sadly, despite their determination, they, like a lot of us, will probably fail (at least in part). But there are some things we can all do to not just keep our adult friends, but to strengthen them.

In this transition to after-college attachments, one thing to consider is that proximity drives a lot of relationships. One of the earliest network studies of college students found that people are more likely to be friends with their roommates and neighbors than they are to those who live farther away. Other studies have confirmed this finding, showing why it is that we’re more likely to be friends with our co-workers, for example. It’s such a strong tendency that network researchers have named it “propinquity.”

In this transition to after-college attachments, one thing to consider is that proximity drives a lot of relationships.

The physical closeness of college not surprisingly leads people to befriend those whose paths they cross due to social or academic pursuits. It also makes it easier to maintain these friendships. This means, however, that when friends part ways at graduation, propinquity now works against rather than for keeping that connection.

Want more articles like this? Sign up for the THINK newsletter to get weekly updates on pop culture news and analysis

But that doesn’t mean that adulthood — and the necessary geographic and professional upheaval that accompanies it — is a friendship killer. Based on the 15 years I’ve spent talking with young adults about their relationships, I’ve found that the people who maintain strong bonds do a few simple things.

Get the think newsletter.

The first is to affirm the people with whom you have meaningful connections. To do this yourself, start by thinking about your closest friends. Perhaps even list them. Think about the last time you had a significant connection with each of them. Think about what you value in each of them. One way friends can be meaningful is in providing social support, protecting us from stress and bolstering our mental and even physical health. As I discuss in my book “Connecting in College,” friends also can help us succeed academically. In short, our friends can (but do not necessarily) make us happier and healthier.

Start by thinking about your closest friends. Perhaps even list them. Think about the last time you had a significant connection with each of them.

It’s easy to forget that keeping friends takes work. It may seem simple, but simply spending time together — in person, on the phone, or even on social media — is incredibly important. If you have just one group of friends, this is less challenging than if you have multiple groups of friends — or if your friendships are mostly one-on-one.

But each meaningful connection should get some special attention. Mentally mark which friends and friendship groups are especially meaningful to you and prioritize connecting with them. Even a five-minute check in, a 15-minute walk, or a 30-minute coffee break can help to maintain that connection. Once in a while, spend an evening or weekend together.

Sometimes, though, and despite our best efforts, friendships do fail. In my interviews, I expected to hear stories of dramatic breakups. More often, I was told friendships ended because no one was actively working on developing them; they just faded away. At times my interviewees regretted losing this friend, particularly when it had been meaningful in the past. Overwhelmingly, however, they expressed relief as they were freed from the demands of an unrewarding relationship.

This is perhaps the most surprising thing I’ve learned while studying friendship: It’s OK to let people go. Some friendships are just not meaningful and there are times when it is useful to say goodbye. It’s a scary concept. We tend to think the more friends we have the better off we are. Professionally, we are told “to network” and to keep these ties just in case they are helpful in the future. Online it’s even worse, as social media allows us to essentially collect friends, likes, shares and followers without any real substance or thoughtfulness. It’s no wonder we feel like a personal failure when a friendship ends. But we need to fight against this kind of cultural messaging.

Because change is not always bad, as I explained above. It’s also not unusual. For example, in my previous research, I have found that 25 percent of friendships remained over a 5-year period, which means that 75 percent did not. Similarly, other research on young adults finds that 20 percent of friendships remained over a 10-year period. While these numbers may make you feel hesitant to invest heavily in platonic relationships, it shouldn’t.

Whether in college or many years removed from it, May is as good a month as any to take stock of your personal life. If you’re satisfied with what you have, make sure to affirm your existing friendships. If not, consider letting one or two of them fade away. Although it won’t increase your Facebook “likes,” it will probably help you keep the relationships that matter.