Forget 'friendship audits'. Old friends should be cultivated, not culled

Emily Hourican takes a long, hard look at attitudes to friendship, from the sentimental to the ruthless

Don’t we just love the idea of “friends forever”? There is a magic to it that even four-year-olds get immediately. “We’re BFFs,” they say proudly, clutching one another for safety against the schoolyard and the big bad world. “My oldest friend,” they might say proudly, many years later.

And the world, in response, smiles benignly at them, in the belief that someone who has the same friends since childhood must be steady, loyal, decent – the kind of person others wish to stick by and be seen with.

It’s a seductive idea. And indeed, can be a seductive reality – people we have known forever, who need no explanations, who have the same cultural references, the same experiences, the same shorthand as we do. Who remember what we looked like with a perm, and that time we stole sweets from Superquinn. Those people are part of the fabric of our lives and therefore of ourselves. They go way back, and deep in.

We won't always be united in hatred of our French teacher, bonded by love of Leonardo di Caprio, or thrown together by the daily school pick-up

That said, and much as we love the idea of till-death-do-us-part loyalty and devotion, maybe it’s impractical, even silly, in reality?


After all, we will all change profoundly during the course of our lives. We will move house, job, neighbourhood, and those are only the external changes. We will also, we hope, grow and develop, altered by the things that happen to us, the people we come across and what we make of these.

We won’t always be united in hatred of our French teacher, bonded by love of Leonardo di Caprio, or thrown together by the daily school pick-up. So why should the people with whom we once had these things in common continue on as our nearest and dearest?

Can we really be open to new people, new ways of thinking, if we are still caught up in a cycle of “do you remember?” with friends from childhood or from a first job, when hatred for a particular manager was the glue that bonded us together?

Why do we sanctify the idea of old friendships, and invest them with so much power?

Perhaps, in the end, a more ruthless modus operandi is more realistic? One where we smoothly move forward with our lives, and with new friendships, leaving old, out-grown ones behind?

Call this process what you will – a “friendship audit”, an “address book cull”, “friendship feng-shui” or simply “moving on” – but it is a Thing, beloved of some people (mainly Americans and those who have been through a certain kind of therapy, if you ask me), one that involves actively paring back friendships, wiping the slate clean, and consigning anything outgrown or simply stale to the relationship bin. These people do it briskly, efficiently, and without regret. In fact many will busily tell the rest of us that we are allowing ourselves to be dragged down by the weight of past-their-sell-by-date friendships.

The idea is that a good, strict cull will give you extra time and energy for the friendships that really matter, and that those you cut were, like dead wood, holding you back, sapping your strength.

It’s sort of understandable and almost commendable, and sort of horrible. I mean, the idea is fine: what’s the point of wasting time trying to keep alive friendships that have run their course and belong to a specific moment of your past – school, university, a particular job or neighbourhood – and no longer bring anything to the party that is the Current You? But the reality? Horrible. Having to decide that a certain person is no longer of benefit to you? Doesn’t “get” you anymore? Isn’t useful anymore? Or simply doesn’t fit with the person you now like to think of yourself as? That is very hard to square with the romance of the “friends forever” narrative. It’s pretty hard to square with simply being a decent person.

Now, there is the idea of the toxic friendship – where someone who is, ostensibly, a friend, but nevertheless manages to always send you away from his or her company feeling bad about yourself. These toxic friends subtly undermine and belittle us, drawing attention to our failings and inadequacies – the small house or dreary job, an inability to correctly wear the colour of the season or maintain a relationship. Given that the sacred duty of friendship – certainly female friendship – is to cheer each other on and up, and that friendship is where most of us let down our guard and stop pretending to be fabulous, confident or up to speed with the North Korea situation, then the betrayal of the toxic friend is particularly awful.

Clearly, that person has to go, and fast. Ditto someone with whom a relationship was always superficial and circumstantial. But what about the perfectly well-meaning friend we have simply grown apart from? Is there really no room for the fondness of old acquaintance? Or, even more difficult, the friend we truly love but who is no longer an easy part of our lives, because, perhaps, we have moved jobs, or she has? Or moved house/ city/ school. When daily interaction with this person is no longer part of our routine, should we just drop them?

Apparently – according to the friendship-auditors – there is an acid test for this kind of thing: if you find you have cancelled three meet-ups in a row, that friendship is over. If you have both looked through your diaries and cannot find a date to meet within three months, then too the friendship is over. So, apart from a lot of “threes” being involved, let’s consider that as an idea - that if you can’t find/ make room, then it’s a sign that there is nothing worth salvaging?

I’m not so sure. My life is full of people I adore who drift in and out, because of geography and the relentless demands of busy lives. Some I might not see more than a couple of times a year, or once every couple of years. I know almost nothing about their daily lives, or they mine, and yet – when we meet, it is wonderful.

Others I have lost sight of for long periods, only to find that our lives converge again – perhaps because children have grown up, or because work lets up – and that those things that brought us together in the first place are unchanged.

Others again I have virtually nothing in common with anymore, and yet I love them, because I have known them for so very long. After all, how many people are there who remember me crying at the age of 14 because I wasn’t allowed to go to the school disco?

The power of a very old friend is they knew you as a work-in-progress. They liked the messy, scrappy, insecure version of you, and they like what that version has matured into

So yes, I can totally see the point of auditing my friendships and subjecting them to analysis; asking how appropriate/ useful/ apposite is this person in my life, while my finger hovers over the delete button, but I am not persuaded.

The power of a very old friend is that they knew you as a work-in-progress. They liked the messy, scrappy, insecure version of you, and they like what that version has matured into. Who cares if they don’t share a love of Modernist art, understand the point of biodynamic food or send their kids to a fee-paying school where yours go public?

Theirs is a fully rounded view of you, a 3D version complete with all the agonising, embarrassing, impressive details. That counts. It always will.
Emily Hourican's novel White Villa is out now, published by Hachette Books Ireland