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?