Tuesday 25 October 2016

How many friends do you really need?

Published 01/07/2015 | 02:30

That's what friends are for: Taylor Swift and friends at her Hyde Park gig
That's what friends are for: Taylor Swift and friends at her Hyde Park gig

Friendship has never been so fashionable - just ask Taylor Swift and her band of 'besties'. But will your 'twentysomething' mates be strangers in twenty years time?

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This week, Taylor Swift has been in the news a lot. She played in Dublin's 3 Arena the past two nights, and social media was dominated by Swift and her gal pals all last weekend. While performing in London's Hyde Park on Saturday, Taylor brought some of the most famous and photographed women in the world on stage with her to the delight of the screaming crowd. Models Kendall Jenner, Karlie Kloss, Cara Delevingne, Martha Hunt and Gigi Hadid are known to many as the freshest crop of supermodels thanks to social media and their compulsion for sharing their fabulous lives - so obviously, the coolest lady in pop is besties with them.

Taylor's shtick since the release of her latest album 1989 has revolved entirely around friendship. Formerly known as an angst-ridden, heartbroken damsel in distress, her calling card used to be writing songs about the men who did her wrong.

Like gossip-blind items, fans collected the clues to work out which of her exes she was dissing. After turning in to something of a tragic character, at least according to the media, she's repackaged herself as everyone's BFF - and she has the posse to prove it.

Taylor Swift invites friends to the stage at her Hyde Park gig
Taylor Swift invites friends to the stage at her Hyde Park gig

She's given countless interviews about how her life is all about her friends these days, and made sure to include them in photos with her current beau Calvin Harris, so we know she hasn't dropped her mates for a man.

Indeed, her last music video starred many of her famous friends - Lena Dunham, Selena Gomez, Ellie Goulding and even Law & Order SVU's Mariska Hargitay appeared in the promo for Bad Blood, a song not dissing a bad lad in her life, but a bad - you guessed it - friend.

And just as this so-called friendship porn was exploding all over pop culture, the findings of a new study were released in the States. The three-year study on Psychology and Ageing, undertaken by three professors of the American Psychological Association, found that in our 20s, we tend to value quantity over quality.

In our 30s, we're more likely to want a smaller, closer group of friends, and in our 50s we're more content if we've had more social interactions in our younger lives. To put is as they have: "Engaging in developmentally appropriate social activity contributes to psychosocial adjustment in the decades that follow."


I seem to have followed the typical pattern in that at 20, I had gangs of friends. Work mates, college mates, school mates, friends from home, friends from hobbies, my boyfriend's friends... it was hard to keep up, to be honest. My 21st birthday was jam-packed, and I delighted in bringing together mates from all walks of life, to varying degrees of success.

However by my mid-20s, my social circle had definitely shrunk. It was by my own doing, but perhaps premature. Over the past couple of years, I've wondered a lot about friendship - how many friends a grown woman needs, if I'll make any more in the future, and if ditching mates from the past was really a good idea.

I don't know if it's the fact that I grew up watching Friends, or that Beaches is my favourite film of all time, but I've always idolised friendship. An only child, my pals as a kid were so much more than just mates - they were like the brothers and sisters I didn't have, the other young people I buzzed off and learned from.

As luck would have it, there were a couple of other sibling-less kids on my road in the estate where I grew up, so we stuck together like a little army of three.

Taylor Swift and friends on boat ride through London
Taylor Swift and friends on boat ride through London

It didn't matter that we had absolutely nothing in common. We were friends, plain and simple. We'd knock for each other, fight with one another and play together without question, until we grew up and went off in different directions. There was never really any chance of us staying close, because we weren't close in any way other than sheer proximity.

It's been years now since I've seen the two lads, and it's normally a chance encounter in a nightclub smoking area, but I'll always remember them fondly, even though one of them used to sit on my head and fart. Without them, my childhood would have been far more solitary.

That pattern continued throughout my adolescence, with my girl friends. From slumber parties to swooning over lads, at that age your BFFs form the entire structure of your world.

Again, we didn't really have much in common besides our shared youth and postcode, but it didn't matter back then. Like in the aforementioned Friends, I had visions of us all flat-sharing and enduring one another's escapades for ever more. Or like Carrie Bradshaw and co in Sex and the City, I figured we would be brunching and bitching well in to our 40s.

Not so much. Upon meeting likeminded people for the first time in my mid-20s, I realised just how dissimilar I was from most of my friends, and evolving ever further apart. Different priorities, different tastes, different goals - it made me feel like the odd one out, which I probably always was.

Now on the brink of 30, I have loads of acquaintances to have fun with but few very close friends, and that's just the way I like it. And according to Tony Moore from Relationships Ireland, that's perfectly normal.

"Growing apart and downsizing friendship groups is a natural development due to a number of factors. When we are single, the most important person to us is ourselves and our friends. We may have had a lot of friends, but as time goes on and our lives change it is inevitable that we lose touch with people that were once our whole lives."

Cast of Friends
Cast of Friends

Is it that our definition of friendship changes as we age? Tony thinks so.

"There is a difference between friends and acquaintances. The word 'friend' has been somewhat devalued over the years primarily because of social media. A friend isn't just someone you know, it's someone you trust, a confidant if you like.

"Women tend to have a larger group of friends that they keep in touch with, whereas men have fewer friends and even fewer friends they will confide in."

Sex and the City girls
Sex and the City girls

Tony also points out that factors like marriage, kids, moving home and even country contribute to this culling - and here is where I fear I've jumped the shark.

One of my best friends is married, but the other is single with a strong dose of wanderlust. I'm in a long-term relationship and could end up living anywhere in the world - what if I'm left all alone? Will the fact that I had a healthy social life as a young woman really mean anything to me when I'm at retirement age?

"It's difficult for older people to make new friends, especially those for whom work may have finished," concedes Tony. "We need friends even more in later life because we need companionship, and other people keep us happy and involved. It's our mental attitude to such things that is the key."

Many of the women I know who have become mothers have developed friendships with the other mums at school, people in similar situations who understand what one another are going through.

As somebody who doesn't want children of my own, I'm sure that it's through work that I'll continue to forge bonds with other like-minded people. But Tony says we shouldn't limit our scope when it comes to meeting new people.

"Even meeting others in a fitness class or dance class is a great help, and if you can do some voluntary work all the better."

Mayim Bialik and Marcie Leeds in 'Beaches'
Mayim Bialik and Marcie Leeds in 'Beaches'

For me, it's about focusing on the friendships I have now, and doing everything I can to make sure they don't fall by the wayside when babies appear and life gets in the way. I'm in a sweet spot, in that I can devote myself to the friends I can count on one hand instead of trying to spread myself thin. I guess the moral of the story is, while we'd all like a girl gang like Taylor's no matter what age we are, it's a rare thing to maintain so many individual bonds once we're more mature - and that's okay.

But lessening a friendship doesn't necessarily mean it has to have a clean cut end, which is perhaps where I went wrong.

"We need our friends to understand that we also have personal and professional ambitions," says Tony. "Most of us understand the very transient nature of some friendships and alliances, and our definition of a friendship. Because we don't see someone on a regular basis does that mean our friendship is at an end? No. It's just changed and evolved."

Irish Independent

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