The Hard Facts: A Time For Friends

When I tell people I’m blogging about friendship, they often picture a web page in which I dot my i’s with little hearts and put smiley faces in my o’s. But this blog is not meant to be an earnest celebration of the sisterhood of women. It’s also not intended as a forum for venting about toxic friendships. So much of friend-related writing falls into those categories: sentimental or snarky. My hope is to initiate a discussion that falls somewhere in the middle: honest and optimistic. Navigating the BFF waters is tricky and I want this to be a space to discuss the real issues surrounding adult friendships, as well as somewhere for me to share my sometimes-painfully awkward adventures in friend-making. If it somehow changes the notion that women rarely talk about friendship intelligently, or it inspires you to think about your own friendships, so much the better.

The science of friendship is fascinating—like how having plenty of close friends can drastically improve your chances of surviving breast cancer, or the fact that having an office BFF makes you roughly a billion (or exactly seven) times more engaged in your job. So I’ve decided to officially deem Wednesdays “Research Day.” I’d been adhering to this in my head already, but if there are readers who are only interested in the science, now you know. Come back every Hump Day and I’ll to provide you with a study or finding that’ll make you say “Huh.”

For the official kickoff (it’s kind of like a grand opening, when a store’s already been open for weeks, or a play’s opening night even though it’s been showing in previews—I’ve never really understood that), I want to call your attention to a statistic that I found striking, if not entirely surprising: During our teenage years, we spend nearly one-third of our time with friends. For the rest of our lives, the average time spent with friends is less than 10%.

In the crazybusy adult world we live in—one with time necessarily allocated to work, family, relationships/dating, and errands—we can’t dedicate a third of our time to friends. But less than a tenth? In 2000, Robert Putnam reported on the drastic decline in people either having friends over or going out to see them. “Visits with friends are now on the social capital endangered species list,” he wrote in his book Bowling Alone.

I get this. I really do. Because while I’m enjoying meeting and mingling with potential BFFs, I have a confession to make: It’s exhausting. After a long day of work, faced with the knowledge that I have more work to do at home, compounded with my desire to actually spend some time with my husband and the nagging knowledge of errands undone, the prospect of grabbing drinks with someone I hardly know—just the idea of having to be “on”—can sometimes feel like I’m being asked to strap on a weighted vest and sprint the steps of the Eiffel Tower.

When we’re wiped out and feel like the couch is the only place we belong, what’s the first layer of fat to be trimmed? Friends. It’s not like we can bail on our jobs, or kids, or partners. But we can always call our friends and explain our dilemma and get off the hook, right? If she’s my friend, she’ll understand. Or so we tell ourselves.

And because as good friends we want to behave like good friends, we say “Of course I understand, it’s no problem at all,” when someone cancels. We might even be secretly relieved. But here’s one thing I’ve learned from experience: No matter how exhausted I am, spending real engaged time with a friend—even a potential one—is a pick-me-up. In fact, according to one study, 85% of adults feel less stressed and more energized after they’ve spent time with friends.

Think of friend-dating like exercise. You may not always be in the mood, but you’ll feel so much better afterwards.

Have you found yourself canceling on friends because you’re busy and overwhelmed? Do you find yourself feeling better when you do have get-togethers? And why do women so often feel it’s ok to cancel on friend time?


Filed under The Hard Facts

29 responses to “The Hard Facts: A Time For Friends

  1. AmyK

    What an interesting post! I have often thought about this from an anthropological/biological perspective: are women wired to keep their friendship life active after they grow up? Historically women have been too busy caring for their families to even have girlfriends. Now that marriages are as likely to break up as not, and that extended families are far-flung instead of in the same town or under the same roof, it’s so important that women draw other people into their lives.

    Most women my age have young children, but mine is a teenager, so I have befriended lots of older women who have more free time and who give friendship the same priority I do. The younger friends who would never dream of leaving the husband and kids at home while they go to a chick-flick…them I don’t get to see much of, and I understand, but I just think they’re going to be kicking themselves in a few years!

    I guess there’s a nuggest of advice in there for your BFF search – mine are 13 and 25 years older than I am and both crazy fun, so maybe try to seek out art-y events/groups where the crowd is middle-aged on up!

    • Valerie

      Hi Amy,

      I’m in the same boat as you are. Most of my friends are married with young children and I have a 13-year-old son. Although I enjoy hanging out with my younger friends, typically I only see them once a month. So I am trying to find older/single friends who have more free time and value friendship. I wonder why so many people feel they have to give up friendship once they get married and have kids? My sister is a single mother, but doesn’t have any friends because she wants to spend all her free time with her son. I wonder what will happen to her once her son heads off to college. . .

  2. Robert Putnam? He’s a family friend. Too funny. This is the second time in Chicago where I’ve run into someone quoting him (first time was when I fell in love with a painting, got to chatting with the artist and learned he is her inspiration to dedicate her life to the arts – that painting now sits in our kitchen!).

    Anyway, in my 20’s, I had all the energy in the world. I was out 5-6 nights a week socializing with my many different groups of friends. My 30’s has ushered in more of a balance in my life. Part of it had to do with finally buying my own condo (in my late 20s) and wanting to spend time there (versus the countless, uninteresting apartments I lived in up until that time). Part of it has to do with getting a dog and the responsibilities related to that (I can no longer go out straight from work and not get home until the wee hours). Part of it has to do with my husband (he really has become my best friend and I can’t imagine not spending time with him everyday). And part of it is I’m just tired – much more tired than I used to be.

    That said, friendships are important. So, now, by choice, I have a smaller group of friends than I used to. And while I don’t see them all the time, I do try to get together with them on a regular basis. Plus, mobile phones, email and social networking technology makes a huge difference in how connected I feel to them even when we’re not in the same room.

  3. Emily

    As I read this, I keep thinking that this sounds like making time for exercising and then you wrote “Think of friend-dating like exercise. You may not always be in the mood, but you’ll feel so much better afterwards.” So spot-on, Rachel.
    I think I will be kicking myself later for not making more time for friends since I do have young children (and I am breastfeeding my infant which could be considered a crutch since it puts me a little out of commission for socializing more frequently). I keep thinking of my parents who had a renewed social life once us kids were older and were on our own more. My mom all of a sudden went out more with her girlfriends and my parents were always going to social gatherings. So I keep thinking of the future, but maybe I should focus more on the present.

    • Thanks Emily.. I think you’re right about renewing our social lives after the kids are out of the house (or so says my Mom). But as for now, it’s never too late! If you do decide to try to carve out a bit more time for friends now (difficult, I’m sure), I’d love to hear how you decide to go about it. Maybe start with one standing date a week or something? Young children (and the breastfeeding thing) make it so tough I imagine… Keep us posted.

  4. I love how I feel energized after spending time with good friends! I always say afterwards, “why is it so long between get-togethers? It’s always so fun!” It’s also important as a stay-at-home mom to have separate friendships where you can be just an individual woman and step out of the MommyBox or the WifeyBox. We can otherwise tend to lose ourselves.

    • That’s exactly what happens to me. I fall into the comfort of the TV or a good book, and am too lazy to talk on the phone. But then when I see friends, I leave saying “Why don’t we do this more? I miss you guys!” As to the MommyBox, I’m not a mom but I have a new friend (one day maybe BFF!) who is a mom of 2-year-old twin boys and works a full-time job. I told her recently how much I respected and admired that she still made so much time for adult interaction, and she was saying how important it is to her mental state. I can imagine for a stay-at-home mom that would be even moreso, since you don’t get the adult activity that comes with an office.

  5. This is great! When I’m stressed out and overloaded, I definitely fall into the relieved camp if friends cancel. It seems like one less commitment, and more time to play catch-up.

    But like others here, when I put the stress aside and make connecting a priority, I feel ready to tackle the world again. I need to exercise my socializing muscle more often.

    • I totally do the sigh of relief when I get cancelled on. It’s natural, if not necessarily good for us.

      Exercise the socializing muscle… love it!

  6. Laura

    Friendship really is a funny thing once you become an adult.

    I’m at the opposite end of the spectrum; as the single, childless one, I depend on my friends for my social life. And since my friends are mostly married-with-small-kids types, sometimes I feel like I’m a bit of a second-class citizen, relegated to being the one who occasionally can be fit in between t-ball practice and bedtime stories.

    And I get it: the guilt associated with leaving the husband and kids when you most likely spent all day working and away from them. The demands of kids with schedules of their own. And on and on.

    And so I think to myself, “Self, go out there and find people more like yourself!”. And then I think, “But I *like* my friends and don’t need new ones”. Which is followed by “Maybe all these conversations in my head mean I spend too much time alone….” Or something like that.

    In the end, I know my friends appreciate the time away from their families — it gives them a chance to be something other than Mom and Wife for awhile. And it’s nice knowing that I’m their go-to Gal Pal. Now all I need to do is convince them that spending time with me will burn calories, since it’s just like exercising. 🙂

    • I can sympathize with you there. I’m married, with no kids and have three best friends – two of which have kids. Guess which of the friends I see the most?

      I find it difficult to get together with any of them since they all live about 300 miles away (but the three of them live pretty close together). It’s also hard because at least two of the three of them struggle somewhat with money issues, so we have to tailor our visits around keeping costs low.

      My sister only lives a couple miles away, but as she has three kids, most of our visits are centered around me babysitting for her, and the occasional dinner and birthday party invitation.

      I guess my husband and I need to get out more and make some friends, but neither of us want to suddenly have too many social obligations. Hence, we’re just homebodies who occasionally just get together with my sister or my cousins (who also live locally).

  7. Christina

    Your latest post is interesting, but it makes me wonder if our current generation is perhaps inflating the importance of friendship– when the role of friendship in previous generations was one filled mainly by family members.

    I also really have to wonder if our lives are any busier than in previous generations– particularly when one considers how the sales of home theatre systems and video games, etc., seem to increase every year and obesity is at the level of an epidemic.

  8. Sometimes I’m a little relieved when I get canceled on – and sometimes I have to push myself to go spend time with friends. But more often than not, I’m so glad I did.

    I have a husband I adore, but we can’t fulfill all each other’s relationship needs – no way. So I am glad he has his friends, and he is glad I have mine. (And of course we have friends in common – and it refreshes us both to hang out with them.)

  9. It’s a strange cycle. In order for friend time to be less stressful (i.e. not having to be “on” and just be yourself) you have to spend time with people so you can get to that level of friendship. But the initial hangouts are pretty intense energy wise that we often delay, delay, delay and never get to that easy “I just worked out but am gonna stop by your house for 45 minutes and flop on your couch while I bitch about my boss” phase.

  10. I have always considered myself a reliable person: arriving to work on time; arriving to everything on time, in fact; meeting writing deadlines; returning papers to my students when I say I will, you get the idea. But the one area where I consistently part with my reliability is when keeping plans with female friends. I have always wondered why, particularly, this holds true with my female friends and not my male friends, including my husband, with whom I wouldn’t dare break plans. Then again, I have always felt uncomfortable around females and awkward engaging in the female group dynamic.

    Nonetheless, I had one former boss (the executive director of a non-profit I worked for) explain to me, very aptly, WHY going out with friends is so exhausting for some people: We are introverts. He explained that, for extroverts, exerting effort to socialize is energizing (like that post-exercise buzz). For introverts, it’s just plain draining. I have to agree with this. I do not get the “high” that results from it, either. I wonder how this plain old personality difference factors into the longevity of friendships.

    • Valerie

      Hi Lauren,

      I’m an introvert too, but my friends call me an “outgoing introvert” because I feel energized whenever I’m with my friends (particularly my bosom buddies). I don’t like the huge cocktail party scene where you’re forced to mingle with hundreds of complete strangers, but stick me in a group of four or five women and I feel perfectly at ease. You mentioned that you feel “uncomfortable around females and awkward engaging in the female group dynamic.” Perhaps you just haven’t found the right kind of women to hang out with. I just wanted to let you know that even introverts can blossom once they’re in the right group situation. Don’t give up on us!

  11. Seeing my friends definitely leaves me energized- I just always need to keep a balance between my time and my friend time. I’m someone who needs a lot of quiet to recharge and sometimes I end up over committing and being less than a perfect friend to my girls, and less than an available wife. Balance is a hard thing, but great when you can manage it!

  12. This was a very interesting post. As a mom, I found that my friendships gravitated towards the moms of my kids’ friends. Now that they are teenagers, and have drifted away from many of their elementary school friends, my friendships with those moms tend to be doing the same. It saddens me to acknowledge that we’ve grown apart in ways. So it seems very much like the dating game in many respects.

    There is one mom I’ve known for years (and I apologize for all the mom friend talk, it’s just where I’m at right now) who makes an effort to get all of the moms together, regardless of whether your kids still hang out. And I will say, it is always invigorating – full of laughter and fun, and usually several bottles of wine – and I’m always so thankful that she does this. She does not allow (other than sick kid) cancellations but she’s the type of person who can get away with it!

  13. When I was at my former employer, I was working so dang many hours, I just couldn’t handle having other things planned on my schedule. So I kind of fell off the face of the earth… sort of. I tried my best to keep in touch with my friends but work was sort of sucking my will to live…

    I rarely cancel on friends, though, but I hate it when people cancel on me.

    Spending time with girlfriends does re-charge my battery like nothing else. I always seem to walk away with a spring in my step and a smile on my face. They help me keep my life in perspective. They help me remember what is truly important in life!

    The < 10% statistic is sad. 😦 But probably very true.

  14. Ana

    I agree that the statistic is sad but likely true even in my life. I heard somewhere to picture your life like a pie chart, broken into all the elements: family, work, friends, hobbies, etc… And during different stages in your life, those pieces may shrink or grow to take up different percentages of your life. Clearly when we are younger, friendship is a high percentage (mainly b/c we have nothing else to do!), but as responsibilities pile up, friendship tends to get shrunk down, sadly. I think if we decide that we don’t WANT to wait until we’re older/retired/empty nesters in order to re-grow that friend piece, we have to make it a priority and try our hardest to cut back on other things.

    I often couldn’t muster up the energy for social gatherings and was SO relieved with cancellations. But now that I just spent 3 months at home alone on maternity leave, I found myself really craving friend-time. I jump through hoops to be able to go to happy hour, or meet a friend for a walk.
    Laura, above, is right—moms don’t only want to hang out with other moms. While I sometimes need a sympathetic ear or advice about the baby-drama, I also need people to talk to about ALL the other parts of my life & theirs!

  15. barbara

    I’m really enjoying this blog. I used to work and work and work and cancel on my friends or breathe a sigh of relief when they canceled on me. Now that I’m in my 50’s, I’m amazed at how small my life has become and I’m on an active quest for new BFFs. What I can say to the younger women here is to be sure that you make your friends a priority because they matter more than you realize. New friends are lots and lots of fun, but one day you just might wake up and wonder where all the old friends have gone to.

  16. What is it about the lure of the couch?? I am a social person. I love to go out. I love to be with friends.

    And yet.

    When the time actually arrives for the plans to actually happen, I find myself hoping whatever friend I’ve made plans with will cancel. Why? So I can sit on my couch and watch bad (ok, good) tv?


    I really don’t know what my deal is. What I do know is that there are a handful of friends I don’t cancel on. Ever. I guess that’s a pretty good indicator of who the BFFS are….

    • AmyK

      Lauren, we must have bought the same couch! 🙂 I have been trying to examine why I can’t wait to get home from work and veg out, and I think it’s because I absorb so much of everyone else’s energy all day at work, I just get overwhelmed with it and have to decompress. I obviously need a certain amount of alone time, so maybe it would be better if I worked alone, then I would have energy to spend my “people time” with my friends instead of with co-workers and customers 🙂

      • Amy, I think you just put into words what I’ve been trying to comprehend for a long time–“because I absorb so much of everyone else’s energy all day…, I just get overwhelmed with it and have to decompress.” I’m a stay-at-home mom and find that my energy is so zapped by days-end because I’ve been giving, giving, giving all day. Thanks for that!

  17. really interesting post…my focus has been on helping my 14 yr old daughter form and foster relationships. i want that for her, i realize the importance of a good friend in a young girl’s life. i rarely, if ever, think about the importance of a good friend in MY life.

    i think it’s time to focus on fostering a few of my own relationships…i am so grateful for bloggy goodness like this to remind me. thanks for that!

    following now.

    feel free to come by my place…i am currently hosting a giveaway for a $25 Target Gift Card AND host monthly drawings exclusively from my list of followers for fun prizes…just for following.

  18. I’d like to echo your sentiment that spending time with girlfriends is energizing. Even talking to them on the phone can leave you feeling better than before. I don’t tend to cancel on already-made plans, but making the plans is my stumbling block. Even though we preach having a girlfriend date once a month, it can really be difficult to find the time – or rather, to give ourselves permission to use our time for friendship rather than cleaning the house, tucking the kids into bed, or finishing a work assignment. I do believe it’s worth the effort, just like getting your butt off the couch and into the health club. That reminds me. I need to schedule my next girls night. 😉

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