The Hard Facts: Friendships Fade With Distance

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Emotional closeness declines by around 15 percent a year in the absence of face-to-face contact, so that in five years someone can go from being an intimate acquaintance to the most distant outer layer of your 150 friends.” (Robin Dunbar, “You’ve Got to Have (150) Friends,” New York Times, 12/25/2010)

This was the first piece of friendship research I’ve read that legitimately upset me. And on Christmas no less! ‘Tis the season for old acquaintance and good tidings and all that. We’re supposed to be celebrating lifelong BFFs, not calling attention to the fact that, if they live far away, they won’t hold the title for long.

I am well aware of how hard it can be to keep up friendships from afar. I talked to Sara this weekend for the first time in I don’t know how long. Too long. I don’t talk to any of my besties as often as I’d like. I still feel close to them—our shared history has made it so—but of course I feel less close than when I went out with them weekly.

I hate seeing the dissipation of our relationships quantified. None of my best friends are going to find themselves in “the most distant outer layer” of my social network. I’m confident of that. But still, it’s disconcerting. I’ve been in Chicago three and a half years. That translates to friendships that are 52.5% less close. Yuck.

Of course, these relationships don’t have total absence of face-to-face contact. Between weddings and travel, I’ve seen most of my old friends at least once this year. Next year will be filled with even more old pals. The wedding circuit is really picking up—we have six or seven nuptials to attend in 2011—and I already have trips planned in January and February for some much needed girl time.

So why did I have such a strong reaction to this seemingly innocuous statistic? I think because it confirms all the fears I had when I first moved to Chicago. I remember preparing to leave New York and joking with the friends who so lovingly gathered at my going away party that they would probably forget me. And you know what they say about jokes and truth.

(Side note: Yes, Callie threw me a going away party. There were old photos and pictures of my favorite TV stars. Jill made a cake. My friends all showed up. Now you see why I was sad to leave?)

I feared important relationships would fade away. Friends told me I was crazy. I chose to believe them. This, I tell you, is why I find this little nugget of Dunbar’s op-ed to be such a bummer. I wasn’t as crazy as I’d hoped.

Have you watched intimate acquaintances balloon out to the most peripheral layer of friends after a move? Fifteen percent per year seems pretty high to me, what about you? And how do you combat it?

11 Comments

Filed under The Old Days, The Search

11 responses to “The Hard Facts: Friendships Fade With Distance

  1. Hmm… I think some of my friendships dwindled after college when people moved away and it was no longer convenient to stay in touch… But in general, if it’s a strong friendship, distance doesn’t really factor in for me. one of my best friends lives in Phoenix and moved there over 5 years ago and we are still just as close as ever. We usually see each other 1-2 times a year, but we email every day and talk on the phone once a week. She probably knows more about what is going on in my life than friends that live 10 miles away… So I think it just really depends…

  2. LizC

    I still feel close to my friends from childhood. In fact, we recently had our annual Christmas gathering which is something I always look forward to. We spent 3 hours at Mr. Gattis just talking and laughing and telling stories. We try to do something like that once or twice a year so I’m not worried about them. We all still have a hometown connection and decades of shared history even if we’re more likely to send an email than make a phone call.

    Oddly enough I’m more concerned about local friends I’ve made more recently. That’s because one person I’ve been friends with for about a year and a half has a tendency to BFF jump? She tries to be friends with as many people as possible which means that some of those people just fall by the wayside. Right now she’s all bff-y with her new next door neighbor because she’s 22 and likes to drink, which is something that I and our other friend don’t like to do (not to mention our other friend is pregnant and has a 3 year old daughter). I keep telling myself that we all have different friends that we do different things with and the niggling feelings of jealousy I feel are pointless. But I had a friend in college who was very similar and was always on the look out for the next new friend rather than spending time working on her existing friendships. We eventually had a huge falling out and are now merely Facebook acquaintances and she was one of my first friends in college. So I think I’m a little gun-shy of people with that same mentality because it’s not something I get and I’ve been basically friend-dumped because I’m not a new and shiny friend anymore.

    Sometimes I think I’m better off not having local friends because sometimes the worries and fears of losing them can get overwhelming. It’s different than if you just lose touch because someone moves away and you see each other less. That feels more organic and natural but if someone who lives 10 minutes away from you decides you’re not worth making time for anymore then that simply sucks.

    • Ivana

      Hey Liz, I know just how you feel. I’ve been there and it really sucks. But I’ve learned to toughen up and lighten up too, if a so called friend suddenly decides you are not worth making time for, then perhaps they are not worth your time and friendship. :-)

  3. Iris

    I have moved to work different places starting in the mid-1990s, and now live in Texas– where none of my longtime friends live. I’ve gone as far as overseas to a foreign country and lived in Hawaii for 6 years. Yet, my closest friends are still my closest friends, even though I have not lived near them in 15 years. Distance will kill casual friendships…but the strong ones survive through effort and mutual desire. Calls, packages, visits, and now– email, texts, and Facebook all help keep the friendship going. My longest friendship is now almost 30 years with a dear friend who is flying in tomorrow for a visit…I have a girlfriend weekend planned with another longtime friend (23 years) this spring. And Christmas for me means shipping these close friends their packages in early December, so they get my boxes of love. Friendship does survive– but it requires work!

  4. Megan

    Yes, it’s been four and a half years since I moved “away”, and I’ve lost contact with all but about 4 of my friends in my hometown. I see them once a year when I go back for Christmas, and it feels awkward, not close anymore. That statistic has, for me, been true.

  5. I don’t think this has been true for me with my close friends. My high school BFF and I have remained close for the last 20 years, both living in the same town and states away. I have three close friends from college (graduated in ’94) and with all three even though we don’t talk more than once a month and probably only see each other every 2-3 years, I still feel like we can just pick up where we left off. Same with my one very good friend from work – she moved to Baltimore about ten years ago, I’ve probably seen her 3-4 times, but same thing, we get together and it feels like we’ve never been apart. So IMO that statistic is probably true for my more casual friends, but definitely not for my most intimate. They’re also the ones I’m more likely to call when I really need someone to lean on.

  6. Robin

    One of my best friends moved two years ago. Communication has all but stopped in the last nine months, since she was maid of honor at my wedding. I know she is wrapped up in a new relationship, a new house, etc. I’m doing my best to stay in touch through emails but getting nothing in return unless I initiate it. I’m starting to feel stupid. I really love and miss her and don’t want to let the friendship fade, but it has to be reciprocated. It’s hard to not take it personally, and it makes me sad! I have no idea how to fix it or if I should let it go.

  7. Ann

    This article upset me when I saw it on Christmas. The next day, I was reminded of that “Wear Suncreen” speech from the late nineties:

    “Understand that friends come and go, but for the precious few you should hold on. Work hard to bridge the gaps in geography in lifestyle because the older you get, the more you need the people you knew when you were young.”

    Among my best friends, I am lucky if I speak to more than one of them in a given month. But they’re still the people who can be brought up to speed in a three minute phone call. The casual friends fade, and it’s okay.

    Although sometimes a friend starts a blog on a topic I can relate to, and through the months and years of separation, I feel the same affection and comraderie from a distance. I know we’d be right back up to speed if our original book club magically wound up in the same city again.

  8. Jean

    This is very disturbing to me. I think the 15% decrease per year is a high estimate. It probably dwindles the first few years but then stabilizes after that. I agree that casual friendships probably fade away, but not the important ones. It does require work though. In fact, one of my New Year’s Resolutions is to adopt Rachel’s monthly update email that I’ll send out to my good friends. (Thanks for the great idea!) And I’ll try to keep it from being just a list of the activities I did that month. Hopefully, it’ll inspire my friends to do the same. With my search for new friendships in full swing this year, I got a little concerned that my long distance friends weren’t getting as much attention. And now I’m really concerned after reading about this article. : )

  9. Pingback: My Hopes for a Friendly New Year | MWF Seeking BFF

  10. Christina

    I think Irene Levine, the Friendship doctor for the Huffington Post, has a statistic that the majority of our friendships end within 5 years anyway…so yeah distance does affect some types of friendships over time.

    However, on the other hand, there are other types of friendships that seem to thrive on distance.. like pen pals.

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