The Midlife Friend Audit: You Need Good Friends. But Who Is Good? By Dish Stanley

The Midlife Friend Audit: You Need Good Friends. But Who Is Good? By Dish Stanley

. 7 min read

Dish argues that having close friends is a necessity, but determining who stays and who goes requires some conscious consideration.  She dishes out her secrets.

You need friends. I wrote about how critical they are to our lives and happiness in Six Ways to Find the Friends Who Count and Why You Need Them in Letter No  7. In that article I cited Eric Barker and the shocking stats he published from an epidemiologic study of 300,000 people to determine fatality correlations. They considered the usual lifestyle and environmental factors: drug and alcohol intake, smoking, sleep, etc, etc.

Based on the study, only two things will make a huge difference in your longevity: the frequency of  your social support and how integrated you are within a community. In other words, friends. Not smoking, not eating, not exercise, not sickness.  Friends.  In the recent book by psychologist Robin Dunbar Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationships (Little Brown and Company, 2021), Dunbar writes:

“It will no doubt get me into trouble with the medical profession, but it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that you can eat as much as you like, drink as much alcohol as you want, slob about as much as you fancy, fail to do your exercises and live in as polluted an atmosphere as you can find, and you will barely notice the difference. But having no friends or not being involved in community activities will dramatically affect how long you live.”

So, you need friends. But you don’t need to be everybody’s close friend. As I argued in the Six Ways piece, you need a friendship budget.

Halfway through the pandemic, I joked to a then-boyfriend that if the pandemic was good for anything, it was for considering who belongs where in your circle. If they belong at all. “Because if you can’t use a pandemic to shake yourself free, you’ll never lose them.” (PS: he and I took optimal use of the pandemic to lose each other.)  As Kate Murphy says in her New York Times article “The Pandemic Shrank Our Social Circles. Let’s Keep It That Way,” a brush with mortality forces you to re-prioritize. That’s a good thing.

Pandemic aside, though, typical midlife transitions - a move, becoming an empty nester, retiring, trauma - can and should cause shifts in your friendship circle.

Mark Manson, author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving A Fuck wrote about what he calls the five levels of friendship. “Because few stop to think about the quality of their friendships and whether or not they’re surrounded by assholes.” His levels go from “Hey, It’s That Guy” to “We’re Practically Family”.  I recommend it here.

I tend to think in concentric circles myself, with the innermost circle representing those whose heart I carry with me in my heart (to steal from the great poet e.e. cummings).  This is the model my Mother taught me in my teens after someone I had climbed up mountains for when she needed me had not (metaphorically speaking) sauntered down the block when I needed her to reciprocate. My characteristically matter-of-fact mother said, “Maybe she shouldn’t be in your innermost circle? I think you want to keep her as a friend, but knock her back a ring or three. She’s always been self-involved. I bet she doesn’t even notice.”

Here are some things we should all consider as we determine which friends belong in the center of our lives.

1. How do you feel when you are with them?

This has become one of my most important barometers, and it’s a new thing for me.  It’s something I picked up from Logan Ury, author of How Not To Die Alone. It’s a dating book, but her approach is equally imperative for friendships. Ury says to stop going on dates with checklists and educational, financial and physical criteria. That’s “evaluative” dating and it’s the wrong mindset.  Even common interests aren’t relevant, she said.

What is? Having an experiential mindset, according to Ury. In other words, how do you feel when you are with them?  Ury offers up a “post date eight” assessment - a series of questions to ask yourself that explore how you felt during the date - things like did you feel “stiff or relaxed?” “high energy or drained?” “curious or bored?” “listened to or talked over?”

These are just as relevant when considering who to keep close as a friend. Here is how I feel when I’m with my closest friends: Expansive. Fun. Curious. Stylish. At ease. Listened to. Understood. Weird (the good kind). (Not all of these things all of the time, and every once in a while none of them. But usually some of them.) When I walk into my friend kt’s kitchen, I can literally feel the tension in my neck imperceptibly release. I know that I can bring every part of me there.

You know the friends you’re reluctant to share your wins with because they can’t be genuinely happy for you? Friends you do a lot of self-censoring with? Friends you need to recover from? You can’t afford to have them in the circle closest to your heart.

2. Are They Someone Who Shows Up for Their Friends?

Some people get the importance of friends. They organize their lives in a way that allows them to honor their important friendships. Others just don’t fit friends in. They have (or leave) no space for friendship.

The people who show up are the most important. Of course sometimes even the most devoted friends have a conflict, but if it is truly critical, you want to feel like your innermost circle will try to move mountains. Who reorganized their day to find you a lawyer when you got pulled over for DUI in a city hundreds of miles away (like Austin, TX, and nobody got hurt …)?  Keep that person.

The 30’s and 40’s find a lot of us at the crux of the killer combination of careers, heavy-duty child rearing, aging parents and marriage, for instance. Those are tough years for friendships, even for those who value it. One of the gifts of hitting 50 was that some of that eased up and left more space.

But let’s be honest, some don’t truly value friendship. In the world of my day job I am surrounded by people who, as Arthur Brooks wrote in his article “‘Success Addicts’ Choose Being Special Over Being Happy, value their own exceptionalism above most everything, including their relationships. There are some people you can love and admire without putting them in your innermost circle. Success addicts are them.

You’ve got to play the long game in friendship, and you’ve got to cut others the slack (and understanding) that you’d want them to for you. So on some level you might be asking yourself about a friend, are they in a crunch or do they just not value friendship? It’s not always immediately evident, but this gets answered in time. The bottom line is that we all need friends in our innermost circle who have intentionality around friendship.

3. Convenience, Shared Interests and Transactional Relationships

Don’t confuse proximity, shared interests, the parents of your child’s best friend, the funnest person you've ever met or a big rolodex with the qualities above. We need helpful neighbors, friends to play golf with, car pools, to have fun, to network  — but we also need friends who make us feel good and show up for us. Reflecting on who is what is the mark of this wisdom thing they say we get as we mature. You can't prioritize and "inner circle" (yes I just turned that into a verb) anyone who is not doing the latter regardless of whether they do any or all of the foregoing. I spent my 20's and 30's believing that anyone who I had fun with was a best friend. And then I noticed who showed up for me at (and after) my late husband's death at 41 years old. Fun is not the same as true. (Though sometimes you get lucky.)

Shared interests are a terrific basis from which a deeper friendship can grow. But it is not enough on its own for you to get the kind of soul-fulfilling experience you get (and need) from friends who make you feel seen+beautiful, and who show up for you over time.  On the other hand, some of the friends you’ve had the longest and shared the most important moments with now have lives and interests that don’t resemble yours. Maybe your life has gone from afternoons at 4H Club meet-ups in the country to late nights at jazz clubs in New York City, while she became a country vet. But if she still shows up and makes you feel seen, find the thing you can do together now. Two-stepping at the local dive. Scrabble. A walk. There is something. Find it.


The important thing to remember about doing a friend audit is that by being conscious of who to keep closest, you are doing the grown-up and important act of being a friend to yourself.  Who you hold close reflects who you are now and who you want to be, and it determines what kind of love and support will be reflected back at you.  By recognizing that your life and your friends’ lives have evolved into a place where some might be moved “out a ring or three” (as my Mother put it), you are also opening up space to move the friends you need and deserve now into the center.  See you later, Soccer Dad. Step right up, Thelma & Louise.

CRUSH Readers have sent in a lot of appreciation for our articles on friendship, (and we'll keep them coming):

The Dynamics of Friendship: Can Singlehood Withstand the Trials of Friends with Kids? By Lauren D. Weinstein. {The Crush Letter No 10/ May 01 2021}

6 Ways to Get the Friends Who Count. Why You Want Them. {The Crush Letter No 7 / April 15 2021}

“Don’t Touch My Hat.*” Midlife Men & Friendship, Depression, Loneliness. {The Crush Letter No 6 / April 3 2021}

Doing Nothing With Friends. It’s Not Really Doing Nothing. Review: The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and the Horse by Charlie Mackesy. {The Crush Letter No 2/ March 4 2021}

Podcast Review: Dying For Sex. Molly Kochan’s Journey of Sexual Healing is Really A Story About Friendship. {The Crush Letter No 13/ May 17 2021}

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The Crush Letter is a weekly newsletter from Dish Stanley curating articles & intelligence on everything love & connection - friendship, romance, self-love, sex. If you’d like to take a look at some of our best stories go to Read Us. Want the Dish?


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