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Friendships Throughout the Lifespan: Adolescence and Adulthood, Pt. 2

Written by Kara Thompson, Licensed Social Worker

In Part I of this series, we talked about the reality of childhood friendships being founded on similarities, companionship, and chance. These relationships are often heavily impacted by the adults in our lives, with more minimal emphasis on choice. In Part II of this series, we are going to dive into the ways in which friendships transition throughout the lifespan. But first, let’s go back to the basics. As defined by Britannica article (2017), friendships are characterized by these five key concepts:

  1. Interactions between two people known to each other 
  2. Bond or tie recognized by both friends
  3. Non-obligatory choice
  4. A similar sense of authority or power by both friends (egalitarian)
  5. Companionship and shared interests

As we transition through childhood, adolescence, and adulthood, we may find ourselves leaning into different concepts of friendships as listed above. For example, as young children, we may view companionship as the defining factor of friendship. We have the same favorite Marvel character? Boom. Friends “forever.” The egalitarian nature of friendships, however, is less common in childhood, often leading to unilateral friendships. Through the middle childhood/early adolescent periods, friendships are often characterized by similarities. As we navigate through adolescence, the concept of choice within friendships is often challenged and stretched, influenced by factors such as peer group, culture, community, etc. 

It is often in the adolescent stage of friendships, where things begin to get more complicated. The emergence of romantic relationships begins to blur the childhood understanding of friendships. We may start to ask questions such as, “Do I want this person to be my partner? Or my best friend?” Often even we begin to intertwine our romantic relationships with our intimate relationships, wanting a partner to play both roles. It is also within this stage of life that teens are grasping for increased autonomy from guardians, often leaning towards friendships or dating partners in an even more significant way. Maybe we even question childhood friendships, noticing the ways in which the friendship is shifting. Not to mention, the increased peer pressure and societal expectations that fall on the shoulders of adolescents. It’s no surprise that in those teenage years, friendships get complicated.

And then we arrive at adulthood. This is where many find themselves cognitively aware that they have choice and autonomy in the maintenance of friendships, yet may find it equally as conflicting to walk out. There is often an internal conflict that sounds like “this person is nice, I’ve known them for a while, I just don’t know if I want to poor energy into continuing this friendship.” The choice to wean out of a friendship can feel cold-hearted, rude, and “un-friend-like.” Maybe we even noticing some guilt or people-pleasing creeping up, recognizing our negative self-talk and doubts come through. Here is where the initiation, development, and maintenance of adult friendships can be especially challenging: adult friendships are all about choice. 

In an article written by Julie Beck in The Atlantic “How Friendships Change in Adulthood,” she explains this concept in the following way: “The voluntary nature of friendship makes it subject to life’s whims in a way other relationships aren’t (Beck, 2015).” There is no rigid structure that exists within the definition of friendships, yet there is the choice. There is an incredibly impactful nuance of adult friendships that says, “despite all the distractions of life, I choose you as my friend.” As we move through life, friendships (and the way in which we maintain them) will likely change.  We won’t be able to avoid the circumstantial nature of the changing relationship, however, we are able to “choose” how we want to navigate and communicate through the change.

 No longer are we responsible for upholding the expectation to spend time with friends as we once did in childhood… and it is okay to explore the deconstructed nature of an old friendship. It is also okay to recognize that a friendship that served you at one point in time, may not be serving you anymore. It is okay to prioritize our time and energy differently throughout different stages of life. As Julie Beck from The Atlantic writes, “Friendship is a relationship with no strings attached except the ones you choose to tie, one that’s just about being there, as best as you can (Beck, 2015).”

If you or a loved one is navigating through difficult friendships and would like to talk to a licensed therapist, please reach out to us at Symmetry Counseling. You can contact us online or by phone at (312) 578-9990 to schedule an appointment with a clinician today.


Beck, J. (2015, October 22). How friendships change when you become an adult. The Atlantic. 

Furman, W. , Hohmann, L. and Berger, L. (2017, January 26). Friendship. Encyclopedia Britannica.

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