I love my friends, and I love having friends, and I will never stop investing time and energy into maintaining close friendships and fostering new ones. But as I turn 40 in a few weeks and manage the responsibilities of parenting two young children and maintaining a strong marriage and contributing to my community and society in meaningful ways, I have realized that there’s only so much time and energy to go around and that I have to keep the quantity of my close friendships pretty limited or I risk spreading myself too thin and sacrificing the quality of those friendships. Obviously, this is not unique to me, and researchers have been studying modern friendships, the role social media plays in our (mis)conception of friendship, and how both an unwillingness to lean on others and having limited time affect quality friendships. It may surprise you that you actually don’t have as many reciprocal friendships as you think you do…
Studies conducted over the last decade show that as many as half the friends we consider close would not categorize us the same way:
Alex Pentland, a social scientist at M.I.T. and co-author of a recent study titled ‘Are You Your Friends’ Friend?,’ said it could be that ‘the possibility of nonreciprocal friendship challenges one’s self-image.’ But the problem may have more to do with confusion over what friendship is. Ask people to define friendship — even researchers like Mr. Pentland who study it — and you’ll get an uncomfortable silence followed by ‘er’ or ‘um.’
How do you define friendship? For me, a friend is someone who enriches my life, emotionally supports me, makes time for me, and helps to create a sense of community (and this often means that I befriend other parents in my neighborhood, especially since I spend so much time with my family and it’s nice to be able to combine family time and friend time, though, of course, I also appreciate friend time away from my family). I also like this idea of friendships: “they shape us and create other dimensions through which to see the world.” Yes! And this: “It’s not about what someone can do for you, it’s who and what the two of you become in each other’s presence,” said Ronald Sharp, a professor of English at Vassar College, who teaches a course on the literature of friendship. Absolutely!
Still, without or without a clear definition of friendship, there are other reasons our quantity of true, reciprocal friendships is limited:
Because time is limited, so, too, is the number of friends you can have, according to the work of the British evolutionary psychologist Robin I.M. Dunbar. He describes layers of friendship, where the topmost layer consists of only one or two people, say a spouse and best friend with whom you are most intimate and interact daily. The next layer can accommodate at most four people for whom you have great affinity, affection and concern and who require weekly attention to maintain. Out from there, the tiers contain more casual friends with whom you invest less time and tend to have a less profound and more tenuous connection. Without consistent contact, they easily fall into the realm of acquaintance. You may be friendly with them but they aren’t friends.
The kind of high-quality friendships that shape you and create new dimensions through which you see the world and affect who and what you are requires time, and “the vulnerability of caring as well as revealing things about yourself that don’t match the polished image in your Facebook profile or Instagram feed,” said Alexander Nehamas, a professor of philosophy at Princeton, and author of the new book “On Friendship.” “Trusting that your bond will continue, and might even be strengthened, despite your shortcomings and inevitable misfortunes,” he said, “is a risk many aren’t willing to take.”
So, whom do you decide to take that risk with? Whom do you allow yourself to be vulnerable with and to whom do you reveal things about yourself that you don’t share on social media with your hundreds of other “friends”?
Hopefully, they are the people who make time for you, whose “company enlivens, enriches and maybe even humbles you,” whom you would miss and who would miss you.
How many close, first- or second-tier friends would you say you have? Do you feel confident they’d categorize you the same way? And how do you define these kinds of distinctions in friendships?