There’s a myriad of reasons why we prune and work on our relationships with each passing year.

You ever sit and wonder why your parents, aunts and uncles only have a handful of people they see on a regular basis. Why do they visit the same friends, go to the same grocery store and source the same mechanic? 

As they get older, and as we follow in their footsteps, we develop a stronger sense of self, and with that follows the refining of friendships, some of which we would like to keep and others we would like to die out. 

But why? Why do we let go of Jack and keep Jill? 

There’s a plethora of research on various theories that try to explain why we prune our circles the way we do, but we decided to settle on the following three to try make sense of it all.

The Social Exchange 

Essentially, the older we get the more we judge our friendships and relationships on output and utility. We do the maths to see if we are getting out the equivalent of what we are putting in, the unique benefits of association, and how much we can afford the physical, financial and emotional capital to maintain the relationship both in the present and future.

“Social Exchange Theory can be defined as the exchange of activity, tangible or intangible, and more or less rewarding or costly, between at least two persons. Cost was viewed primarily in terms of alternative activities or opportunities foregone by the actors involved.” George. C Homans.

Research makes the notion that we tend to maintain those relationships whose benefits outweigh the costs. 

We keep in touch with friends who are miles away because we rely heavily on their wisdom and insight. We invite our neighbours down the street over for a drink or a meal every once in a while because we never know when we’ll need to borrow a cup of sugar. There are definitely a lot of variables and non-quantifiables to all relationships, but at the end of the day the data suggests it all comes down to a profitable give and take.

The Social Convoy

Toni C Antonucci’s Social Convoy Theory posits that as a people, we maintain a convoy of relatives, friendships and acquaintances that are likely to serve us well as we progress throughout the course of our adult life.

In a paper published by Antonucci and her associates, she concluded that as individuals we maintain relationships by offering and receiving support through multiple avenues. These avenues both define each individual's role and regulate the behaviours expected of each person within the convoy.

We may offer aid to our partners financially by paying for their car when they cannot afford to, support our friends emotionally, and physically protect our weaker relatives when they need us to. We bank on these acts of service and fulfil these expectations because we are key players in each other's convoys, and as we are just as much invested in our friends' and families' futures as they are in our own.

The Socio-Emotional Selective

As we grow older, we know exactly who our friends are, and because of that we try our best to make as much time for them as possible, whilst we still have them. The Socio-emotional Selective theory posits that because of our awareness of the finitude of our lifespan, we look to maximise the remaining time with those who bring us the most joy. 

“As individuals, we are more inclined to optimise their emotional experience--and do not strive as vigorously to extend their information and resources. To fulfil this objective, they often focus on maintaining close and warm interpersonal relationships” - Dr Simon Moss.

As we reach and pass our prime, the want for novelty gives way to the need for comfort. For habit and predictability. We know exactly who we would like by our side, and we work our hardest to keep those spaces occupied by the individuals who mean the most to us. 

Your tribe is your vibe. Whether your circle is 10+ or made of a trio, what is true for all of us is the need for meaningful relationships that bring us peace and joy. Be it romantic or plutonic, there’s a myriad of reasons for why we prune or work on our relationships with each passing year. The theme that is proving consistent with all of these is that they have ‘us’ at the centre, and that’s not a bad thing. There are benefits to being socially selfish. So enjoy them whilst you have them.

August 10, 2022

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