The Hard Facts: All the Single Ladies

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

“Lois Ames, a psychotherapist and poet in her seventies, tells us that she discovered a simple and unfortunate rule of thumb after her divorce forty years ago, and she has been teaching it to women ever since: a single woman must make three times as many phone calls as she gets and offer three times as many invitations as she receives if she wants to maintain her network of friends. One might hope that the ratio has dropped over the last forty years as divorce has become so common, but Ames does not believe it has.”  (The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-first Century)

I don’t think this is going to be a very popular bit of friendship research. Keep in mind it is not fact. It has not been studied. This is one woman’s rule of thumb, quoted in Jacqueline Olds and Richards Schwartz’s 2009 book about the increasing loneliness in American society.

Ames’s point, as the authors explain, is that when it comes to friendship, “either you make it happen or it doesn’t happen.” I’d argue that such logic applies to everyone—not just single folk. When I moved to Chicago (with my husband) one of my earliest mistakes was waiting for the phone to ring. I figured I was new in town so potential new friends should reach out to me. Take me under their wing. Doesn’t work that way. If I wanted to build a social network, I needed to lay the foundation.

But Ames isn’t talking about building a network, just maintaining one. And I can’t speak to the truth of her rule because I’ve never really been single… at least not when it mattered. Matt and I got together in college, so—save for a three month post-grad breakup—I haven’t led much of an unattached adult life.

When I first read this passage, my thoughts immediately turned to my mom. A widow of almost four years, I wondered if she’d agree with Ames’s rule. I bet she would. Mom’s got lots of friends, but she lives alone and I’d imagine she often feels the frustration of having to do extra work to fill her social calendar.

Olds and Schwartz write, “Calling people takes just the kind of social confidence that aloneness tends to undermine. That is the wisdom of Lois Ames’s three-times-as-many rule: it reminds you to keep on calling because that’s just the way the world works, not because you’re a loser. If you are living with others and your social connections fray, it is easy to let yourself be carried along on someone else’s connections until your own get repaired.” But when you live alone, there’s no one to carry you, so you have to reach out yourself. Three times as much.

I wish very much that this rule of thumb were bogus. But I doubt it is. I’d imagine that an adult who lives alone and is single—especially a divorced or widowed one—feels the added burden of keeping up her social life. It’s not necessarily fair or right, but it’s likely how it is. People with a partner spend less time building outside social networks because they’re also focused on intimate couple time.

What do the single ladies think? Is the three-times-as-many rule a reality, or has the age of divorce and getting married later changed that for the better? Is it tougher to keep up friendships when you’re single and all your friends are married, or are friendship and marriage totally unrelated?

15 Comments

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15 responses to “The Hard Facts: All the Single Ladies

  1. I don’t know if it’s true but it’s sad! Maureen over at Island Roar has something similar but in relation to divorced women.

    I wish making and keeping friends were easier. Or is it just difficult for some of us?

  2. Jackie

    I have been divorced for a little over two years and have found the this to be so very true. I was and am determined to have a social life and although I have friends that call, I find that most of the time it is me doing the calling and planning.

  3. katieleigh

    Like you, Rachel, I’ve been with my now-husband since college. But when we were apart during the summers and for a year when I was in grad school, I found this to be true. For all intents and purposes, I was “single” for those periods of time, and found myself having to make lots more phone calls. (Especially during grad school, when I was back in Oxford and having to make LOTS of new connections.) Sad but true, I guess – but also a bit of a relief. Having to make more effort because “that’s just the way it works” is better than having to make more effort because people don’t like you.

  4. Megan

    I think it’s REALLY hard to keep the friends you’ve worked SO dang hard to make once everyone starts getting married. This culture sends implicit messages to single ladies that they aren’t valued until they’re attached to a man, so many women, unaware of what they’re doing, sacrifice everything for a man, including the really close friendships they promised they’d maintain. (Sorry to sound a bit bitter, I’ve just been to about 8 weddings – with three more in the next month – where the bride was my really good friend, or so I thought [even promised to involve me in the wedding] and I’ve not heard from her since even before the Big Day). It’s really hard to hang out with you friends once they’re married and you’re “still” single, too, because you don’t want to be the awkward third wheel (or, in my case, be around all the PDA that married people – at least the ones I know – think they have a license to do whenever they want). Again, sorry to rant, but this is quite obviously a sore spot for me.

  5. Alison

    On a related note, my mum said that after she got divorced, one of the things that she was most grateful for was that she had made the effort to maintain her female friendships when she was married and raising a young family. If she hadn’t made the effort then, it would have been very difficult and exhausting to reconnect and/or make a whole new set of friends post-divorce.

  6. Pam

    I have been divorced (officially) for a month, but i have been separated from my now-ex-husband for over 2 years, and I can tell you this: It is HARD to maintain friendships.

    I lost a lot of my friends when I started dating my ex-husband because he was so controlling and didn’t like me to spend time alone with my friends (I should have seen that as a red flag, but I didn’t)… struggling against him to maintain friendships was hard… but I totally gave up when I left him because I was MORTIFIED at losing my “status” as a valued woman by leaving a marriage (and it sounds stupid to me too).

    Not having a lot of friends though my university and married years, I have been having a hard time since recreating a social life with confidence — especially when having to work around my children’s schedule.

    I can tell you that if I don’t make it happen, if I don’t reach out to friends (and family) on my own, it doesn’t happen… and that’s just how it is. I’m working on it, but meeting other women who are open to new friendships –either they are moms and busy, they are married, or they have “enough” friends already– is harder than it was when I was around other singles all the time…

  7. Ana

    This is really sad to me, that when a women needs support most, she has to be the one to reach out, instead of the other way around. Clearly there are a lot of women out there who want more social connection —single, married, with or without kids—you’d think there’d be ready-made support systems! I hope I’m not trying to ignore or leave out my single friends…but this makes me want to up the effort to keep those valuable friendships strong and make sure my awesome single ladies don’t feel excluded.

  8. I think it is harder to maintain a friendship after your married. and it only gets worse if you make friends (mutal friends of your significant other) and then you get divorced.

    Every friendship I have that are ppl from H.S. I have had to work really hard to keep.

  9. marriedlady

    I actually feel the opposite. I recently got married, but for a long time was one of the single girls. Now that I’m married, I am ALWAYS putting forth effort to make social plans with my single friends. I get the “I didn’t think you would want to go” excuse all the time, assuming that I wouldn’t be interested now that I’m married.

    I have talked to many about it, and they say I need more married friends, but what about my pre-existing friendships that seem to be leaving me out since I’m now coupled?

    • Emily

      I think the key on this one is whether you’re the first of your friends to get married. I was, and I experienced a ton of what you describe – finding out about get-togethers after the fact and being told that I wasn’t invited because no one thought I’d want to go. That hurt! But now that most of my friends are married I don’t have that problem anymore. It’s like once they got married they realized that ‘Hey, married women need their girlfriends too!’

      • You’re right. I was among my friends to get married and it’s been hard to maintain friends. Planning for get together with married friends are hard since both sides got own priority and we needs early advance notice🙂. So, I tend to make plans with my single friends. It’s however becomes difficult because some activities are not suitable anymore such as going for long trips or doing serious shopping with the kids in tow. The single friends also might feel excluded from your life because they haven’t experience the marriage or having children and might not want to be the third wheel if the husband are tagging along. While I’m not the one who talks about their kids on and on or bring the other half along, I understood their reason.

        I expect the single are also having problems when they are the ones left behind (most of their friends are married) as the circle of good friends becomes smaller and less people they can invite to go out in short notice.

        My take on this is that it would take more effort for the early married and the single leftovers than if the friends are in the same ‘status’.

  10. I was single into my 30s, and found this was true then – but I had many other single women friends at the time.

    I have now been single again, for 9 years. All the married friends dropped away post-divorce, for the most part. And making new friends at 45+ when you’re a single woman is extraordinarily difficult.

    Sad but true indeed, sansdata.

  11. Well, I will say that I am usually the one to initiate plans if I want to see my married friends. They are less likely to reach out to me, probably because they live with their best friend so they don’t really ‘need’ me as much as they used to? I mean, they still need me, but maybe they just need to email me or talk to me on the phone. They don’t need to see me face to face, like I need to see them face to face. So yes, I make more phone calls. I send more emails asking if people want to get together. It’s the reality of being a single gal!

  12. luasol

    I have been divorced almost 7 years. I lost a lot of friends, either sided with my ex or disappeared. In this day and age, with more singles, I am still not invited to couples parties, which is more than fine. I have a few close friends and long distance friends. I rarely hear from married friends. IMO, friendship is a two way street, married or single, kids or no kids. If no one can reciprocate by taking two minutes to email or call, I am not going waste my time. If have time to post on FB every 2 minutes, seriously. Just because I am single and don’t have kids, does not mean I have all of this extra time. My time is valuable too. Some of you may not agree with me, but that is okay. If I sound negative or bitter, I don’t mean to. Just based of my personal experiences.

  13. Christina

    I think it is true if your friends are married or in committed relationships but if you have friends that are also single you can hang out pretty easily.

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