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Why We Need to Declutter Our Friendships

09/13/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Some of us are hoarders and some of us are tossers. Many of us do the same thing with our friends. Yesterday, I received a Twitter message that put the idea in bold relief. It explained the problem in less than 140-characters: Bad friends prevent you from having good friends --Gabonese proverb.

More than two thousand years ago, Aristotle pointed out that when it comes to "friendships of good" (or what we might call best friends today) there are limits to the number of relationships that can be juggled simultaneously. The precise number of manageable relationships varies from person to person: Some of us have greater social needs; some are better than others in making and keeping friends. Because of survival needs, some people have less discretionary time for socializing. And some are more adept than others in juggling work, family, friends, and alone time. Gender also comes into play: Compared to men, women tend to favor a smaller, more intimate circle of friends.

Robin Dunbar, a British sociologist, studied social groups of non-human primates to estimate the number of social connections that a human being could handle at one time. That concept has been dubbed "Dunbar's number." He concluded that 150 is the number of friends, both close and casual, that humans are functionally hardwired to handle at the same time (the number limited by the volume of the neocortex of the brain). Another study at Liverpool University in the 1990s also found that most people have an extended network of about 150 people they consider distant acquaintances and about five that they consider close friends.

Friendships are inherently dynamic, but if you're a hoarder, it's tough to let go -- even if the friendship has turned toxic or one-sided. And since ending a friendship is likely to be a one-way street, it isn't something to be done in haste or taken lightly. Yet maintaining friendships that no longer work is like having a closet cluttered with clothes of all different sizes that no longer fit. If you organize and declutter, it's a lot easier and more rewarding to get dressed each morning. Similarly if you're spending your time and emotions on friendships that aren't satisfying, you are keeping yourself from developing new ones that may be more fulfilling.

TWITTER VERSION: Audit your friendships because having too many bad ones can prevent you from having good ones.

Have a question about female friendships? Send it to The Friendship Doctor.

Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and her book about female friendships, Best Friends Forever: Surviving A Break-up With Your Best Friend will be published by Overlook Press on September 20, 2009. She also blogs about female friendships at The Friendship Blog.