Half a year before the pandemic scrambled our social lives, I’d already done a fair bit of shaking up my own. Moving from Toronto to London, U.K. at 24, I risked the large, well-earned social circle I had at home for a new life that would force me to start again from square one. In my case, “new city, new me” meant awkwardly trying to befriend my British co-workers at lunchtimes (yes, like *that* Mean Girls cafeteria scene), while also making time for friends back home — cue me excusing myself from a Friday-night house party to FaceTime my best friend through a mini life crisis. Living abroad taught me a lot about the work that goes into maintaining strong friendships through time and distance apart.
Now, the pandemic is forcing many 20-somethings to do the same. Despite the fact that, at this age, many of us have more friend circles than there are happy hours in a week — from high school friends and university cliques to work groups past and present — this last year of endless lockdowns has made it harder and harder to cultivate a meaningful friendship with anyone.
What used to be after-work drinks, brunches, and weekend trips has now become texts, DMs, and the occasional video call. Because of this, we’re starting to realize which friends we turn to most, and the ones who share more differences than similarities with us. The result? The mid-to-late-thirties trend of losing friends because of spouses and babies and whatever else it is that Bigger Adults do, is happening much earlier. While it’s usually common for 20-somethings to be continuously racking up friends at this age (social circle size peaks around our mid-20s), we’re all kind of skipping that part.
If you’re feeling uneasy about your current ratio of Instagram followers to IRL pals (totally normal pandemic paranoia, btw), know that there are real, scientific benefits of having fewer of them. Here are four reasons why consciously uncoupling from your friends in your 20s might actually be the best thing for you.
Having fewer friends is self-care
Making time for the people in your life on a purely digital level can be stressful and isolating AF. When I first moved overseas, I used to stay up until the early-morning hours just to accommodate my friends’ evening messages. In early lockdown days, I forced myself to attend a group call, even when my anxiety had driven me to tears. How could I manage a full-time job, a freelance hustle, and a goddamn workout plan while also making friendships a priority? “We talk about the emotional load of things like work and family life, but friendships are also work,” says Katie Leaver, author of The Friendship Cure, a book about the art and science of modern friendships. Since there’s no real end to this pandemic in sight, the “work” feels heavier. “It’s freeing to have smaller circles of friends because we can give each person proper attention, but also so we have enough resources to look after ourselves.”
You’ll genuinely get to know people better
Quality over quantity is the tenet of building strong friendships. According to British psychologist Robin Dunbar, scientifically, the average person should aim for only five close pals and a maximum of 150 social connections at any given time. (To put that in perspective, Dunbar’s 150 refers to the people you’d invite to a big party —remember parties?! You know, your good friends, their friends, select coworkers, and maybe even those girls you met at boxing class that one time.) From Leaver’s point of view, “the more friends you have, the shallower those connections tend to be, she says. “Having fewer friends means you have a better chance of developing deep, meaningful, enduring friendships.”
Sound a bit like 2020 to you? Dr. Saunia Ahmad, psychologist and director of the Toronto Psychology Clinic, says that this reevaluation of friendships has been a common and unexpected benefit of isolation for many. “I think the pandemic’s going to slow us down and force us to really appreciate the friends that we need in our lives,” she says. “It starts to make you realize which friends are the type of friends who are going to be there for you.”
Having fewer friends can make you better at dating
We already go on dates with our best friends, we expect them to love us forever, and we often integrate them into our respective social circles. Basically, friendships are non-sexual versions of romantic relationships. So naturally when you’re able to maintain those connections, you’re already halfway prepared to be in a relationship, if that’s a priority for you.
Ahmad says that we should try to be more intentional with our friends, just like we would with romantic partners. Hey, if there’s anyone who deserves that amount of TLC right now, it’s definitely our mates! “When you notice you're spending more time with somebody, share that. Like, ‘out of all of my friends, you're the one person that I really enjoy talking with.’ Or, ‘I think you're the one person I could travel well with,’” says Ahmad.
When I jokingly ask if we should start having the “what are we” conversation with our friends, she doesn’t discount it. “Absolutely!” she says. “Communication is key. We hesitate often to talk about our feelings. We feel it's awkward and weird. But it doesn't even need to be a sit down ‘we need to talk.’ It could be one of those things that happens gradually.”
You’ll be more sure of you
While we’re doing all this relationship admin, it usually becomes clear when it’s time to cut ties with someone. “You start to notice who your friends are based on how they deal in times of stress,” Ahmad says. “And COVID has been a very interesting testing ground for a lot of people,” she says. “Do they just disappear? Do they reach out to me? Who are my real friends? Who am I reaching out to?”
Essentially, knowing who’s gonna be there for you will allow *you* to be there for you. Personally, my closest relationships — on either continent — have been the sole thing keeping me going this year. That much was clear when, recently, I cry-mumbled my way through anxious episode to one of my oldest friends and she did exactly what anyone would need their BFF to do. She let me cry, said I was a boss ass bitch, and reminded me I just needed rest. And you know, what? She was right.