Why Do Relationships Change Over Time?

Know when it's time to cut off a relationship or time to cut someone some slack.

Posted Feb 21, 2020

Friendships change over time for the simple reason that people change over time. As we move through the different roles we take in life, from child, to adolescent, to young adult, half of a couple, parent, and so on, our sense of self also changes and so do our needs. How we spend our time and what we need from friends when we are teenagers or young single adults is often quite different from what we enjoy and need from social connections when we are older. And that’s perfectly normal.

What are some of the reasons friendships end?

There are some friendships that will endure from the playground to the boardroom to one’s final days. These, though, are not the norm. Typically, friendships develop as a result of one of three factors: proximity, shared activities, or life events. We might develop friendships with our neighbors, for instance, because of their proximity to our own home; however, when one of you moves away, the friendship might “move away,” too, if the connection didn’t deepen over time. The same is true for “kick-boxing friends,” “cooking class friends,” or “friends of friends,” in some cases. As our interests and time for specific shared activities decreases or changes as our life changes, we might let go of some relationships that were really centered on the activity, not the actual person-to-person relationship. Lastly, life events often bring new friends into our lives – new workmates, new friends through a new romantic interest, and so on – but once we move into the next phase, those “soccer moms” might not be the friends that we need – or even “want” anymore.

We change and our friends change over time, over circumstances, and when new social goals emerge. If a friendship isn’t built on deep mutual affection and respect, it’s not as likely to last when differences of opinion or changes in identity occur. Betrayal, not following through on commitments, consistently being “too busy” to get together, disrespect, and an uneven balance of “friendship investments” are a few of the reasons relationships end. “Outgrowing” a friend is also a possibility if your lives move in diverse directions. We typically put up with a lot from our “true blue” friends that we might not put up with in others because the commitment, connection, and appreciation for the friend far outweigh the unpleasant behavior.

Signs you're growing apart from a friend

If you’re beginning to wonder if something’s up with a friend, chances are the relationship is already beginning to shift. If your friend is consistently putting you off or cancelling plans,  take that as a sign that something might need addressing. Also, if you find yourself ignoring texts, putting off returning calls, or dreading having to spend time with a particular friend, that’s your own “red flag” that the relationship isn’t bringing you what it once did or what it ought to. Friendships are relationships of choice, not obligation as family relationships tend to be, so if you no longer choose to spend time with someone, listen to your inner voice. You don’t have to end a relationship cold turkey, but you might want to do some self-reflection or even check-in with the friend and see if you can figure out if you’re too far out-of-step to want to work on the relationship or if you just need to step back for a bit.

In the early stages of a friendship, we expect friends to “invest” resources – time and energy – in the growing friendship at about the same rate that we are. Once a strong friendship is built, however, we stop keeping “tabs” on the relationship. So, if you’re starting to wonder if the balance is off with an old friend, then something’s changed and you might want to investigate further.

Downsides to not ending a friendship when you should

There’s a question that counselors encourage unhappy romantic partners to consider: “Are you better off with or without ’em?” It’s the same for friendships: If someone is constantly dragging you down or the thought of spending time with someone on the weekend is making you dread Friday when it’s only Tuesday, then you’re too invested in keeping a bad relationship going. Not only that, you’re wasting a lot of emotional energy that could be devoted to more productive purposes.

There may be friends who absolutely drive you crazy, but you know that the relationship has value that outweighs the costs. The neighbor who talks non-stop when you run into her when while getting the mail or walking the dog may actually help you out with a carpool or meeting repairmen while you’re at work, or has kids who babysit or pet sit when you need it. When there are no redeeming qualities to keeping up a relationship, and it’s starting to drag you down, you are letting yourself be controlled by others or your perceptions with what others will think of you. Remember, friendships should be choice-driven and not leave you feeling obligated to invest in a relationship that sucks you dry. Life is short and resources finite: Don’t continue to plow resources into a lost cause.

When do we cut friends some slack?

All of us hit rough patches in our lives when we get caught up in our own “stuff” and have little time left over for friendships or other leisure pursuits. When friends seem to be overwhelmed by work, new life circumstances, or a personal crisis, good friends will recognize that there might be some withdrawal or unavailability for a bit. Sometimes friends get caught up in new romantic relationships and seem to forget about their friendships. Sometimes friends might be dealing with family issues they don’t feel comfortable sharing with others. There are a lot of reasons we might be unable to be “present” for friends in ways that we have in the past. If you’re feeling frustrated that a friend is “disappearing,” let her know that you miss her and check to see that she’s okay and let her know you’re there for her if she needs you.

With authentic, heart-to-heart friendships, we can usually cut one another some slack: Most of us probably have a friend or two we haven’t seen in months, but would have no trouble picking right up with as if time hadn’t passed when we get together again.

However, if a friend keeps forgetting to show up as planned or offers to do favors but cancels out or “forgets,” you can forgive her the first time or two, but if the pattern continues, you need to decide whether this is her way of cutting you off or if you need to touch bases with her and see what’s going on.

The best rule about friendships is that if you feel worse, not better, after spending time with someone, then there’s something not right about the relationship and it might be time to step away.