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?