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When there are inner and outer circles among friends

Being part of a circle of friends is one of life’s great joys, but the dynamics of a group are not always easy. Psychologies asked a panel of experts for advice on how to navigate some of the thorniest issues

by Psychologies

THE ISSUE

‘I am part of a group of parents at school, but in the ‘outer circle’ – there are three or four couples who socialise a lot more together while we (and others) are occasionally invited. Last time, as we were leaving a dinner, I could hear them making arrangements for another meet-up that did not include us. It seems so rude – to me, friends are friends. Should I just tell them where to go next time they deign to allow us into the inner sanctum? Or should I try to see things differently?’

THE ADVICE

Being left out never feels good. Psychologies' agony aunt Mary Fenwick says she uses situations like this to remind her how it feels for her own children in similar situations, so at least it engenders empathy. She also suggests that in this kind of situation you turn the questions around: ‘never mind how they feel about you, do you actually want to spend more time with them?’

Evolutionary psychologist Carole Jahme sees this as a classic case of contemporary human behaviour aping primal ancestors. ‘Mums can get particularly hierarchical with each other, as children of high-status mothers tend to do better than the progeny of low-status mothers,’ she says.

She suggests taking a step back, viewing the situation objectively. ‘In apes, future leaders are found in the outer circle, so think long-term and bide your time. Bear in mind that a primate’s social status goes up and down several times a day.’

If you’re still feeling like you’re stuck in Mean Girls, take comfort from Professor Irene Levine, who also produces The Friendship Blog: ‘Your connection with these people through your children means you should try to maintain a cordial relationship, but don’t count them as your closest friends; consider them acquaintances. You were thrown together becauseof circumstances. Only accept invitations when you feel inclined to be with these couples, or you see it serving some other useful purpose.’

THE EXPERTS

  • Carole Jahme, evolutionary psychologist and author of Beauty and the Beasts: Woman, Ape and Evolution (Virago, £10.61); jahme.com
  • Irene S Levine, psychologist and professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine; thefriendshipblog.com
  • Mary Fenwick, Psychologies’ resident agony aunt, coach and journalist; maryfenwick.com
  • Will Murray, founder of Packtypes self-awareness cards and author of Understand Everyone (Friendly Publishing), packtypes.com

Photograph: iStock

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