I’m in my mid-30s and find myself with a problem that I’m wondering if it is common. I have had a wide friend group since I left school and about 15 of us have been close since then. Up to 2020, my whole social life was dominated by this group, and I spent all my disposable income (sometimes having to borrow) attending everything from 21sts in other parts of Ireland to hen parties and weddings abroad. There was also the cost of travel, presents and, to be honest, some not great times.
When Covid came and we couldn’t socialise, I found that I was very relieved, and I was able to spend money on extra courses and on improving my language skills. But now that Covid is over, the merry-go-round of social events is starting up again and I feel under huge pressure to participate and my excuses not to go are wearing thin. I’m getting some suspicious questions and comments.
I suffered from poor mental health in my late teens and early 20s and this group really wrapped around me and got me through these tough times, so I owe them a lot and I feel so guilty feeling the way I do now. I know that they would have my back again if I needed it, but my resistance is almost physical now and I find it hard to text back or not come up with an excuse not to attend things. I have made a few new friends from the classes I attended and I find that these friendships are not onerous and when we meet up, I try to find places that my old group would not see me. It’s all very stressful.
The reason this is so stressful is because friendship is so important to us and the thought of giving up a support system that got you through difficult times is of course full of conflicting emotions. Yet, you cannot ignore your reaction to things returning to way they were before. Like everything else, changes happen in friendships and perhaps more so in group friendships, and maybe there are some people in the group who are hanging on to old times and certainties that no longer exist. It might well be that others in the group feel as you do but they fear the rejection or isolation that might result.
The first thing to do is acknowledge that long friendships are very important and especially those that stuck by you in tough times but then also admit that this particular way of associating (via big social events) has outlived its time and change is inevitable. The question is whether it is possible to maintain connections that are not all group related and whether some members of the group will take this personally and react badly to you. You obviously feel that you will get a negative reaction by speaking openly about how you feel, and this fear is what is coursing through your body when you get an invite from the group. When you have this reaction, your response is to withdraw and hide and of course the rest of the group might read this as disapproval or distain and then you think you were right in the first place.
Real friendships require us to put effort into them, to take risks with letting our friends into our inner worlds and to prioritise the friendship over other things. Clearly these things have not happened during Covid and without this attention things slip, and the friendship bond can weaken. You say you know that this friendship group would stand by you in the future if you needed it and this speaks to something solid in its base. It may be possible for you to keep the friendships while not continuing in the round of social group engagements. But how can the group know of your wish if you never tell them? So, the next time you get invited to an event, perhaps reply more honestly, saying no but opening up an alternative option such as a coffee. Alternatively, be proactive and ask to meet one or two of the group that you feel more connected to and see what a real conversation might deliver.
We often try to hang on too long to something that was good but is past its purpose and this causes stress. The trick is to be aware of the longing (for the past) while accepting what is happening now and being brave enough to face it. This is demanding but true friendship requires effort and getting beyond the blocks – if your new friendships are to grow and become lifelong, they too will face difficulties that will require you to step up so this current experience will be valuable to you.