It used to make me crazy when people would invite my then-husband and me over to dinner only to discover that another couple we’d never met had been included because the hosts thought we would “just love these folks.”
Whether we did or not, we’d have to spend the whole night making small talk and asking, “So, how old are your kids?” I was at an age and stage in life where I didn’t want to learn how old someone’s kids were. I just wanted to relax with people I already knew.
Hence, I developed a “no new net friends” policy. If I met some new person I really liked, then somebody in the existing network had to go. I only had so much time. My social network was set, right?
OK, OK, I was never really serious about the “no new net friends” policy. And that’s a good thing because suddenly my marriage was ended and my kids and I started life over 750 miles away in a new town, near my childhood hometown. Talk about a social network change. Upheaval, really. Guess what? I learned I had more “room” than I thought.
Now I love it when folks have “someone for me to meet” — assuming he’s single!
But I digress. The point is that I’m fortunate in that my whole life, especially through the major changes of recent years, I’ve always had a small group of close confidants, the core of which has been there for decades.
Apparently, that’s not the case with many Americans. In general, it seems, we have fewer and fewer friends. That’s the finding from a report in the American Sociological Review published earlier this year. As Christianity Today magazine recently put it in reporting on the study, “Researchers reported a ‘remarkable drop’ in the size of people’s core network of confidants, those with whom they could talk about important matters. As of 2004, the average American had just two close friends, compared with three in 1985. Those reporting no confidants at all jumped from 10 percent to 25 percent. Even the share of Americans reporting a healthy circle of four or five friends had plunged from 33 percent to just over 15 percent.”
“In 2004, an adult … American was much more likely to be completely isolated from people with whom he or she could discuss important matters than in 1985,” read the conclusion of the report itself.
Having those confidants is crucial. Social isolation can lead to a range of negative outcomes, including heart disease, depression and a variety of self-destructive behaviors. (I know I certainly couldn’t have managed the last few years without my “core group.”)
In the study authors speculate on several reasons for the change, including more women working outside the home, more geographical distance, longer commutes and all of us working more hours.
Perhaps technology has something to do with it, too. Maybe we’re more connected to our computers than to each other and our communities.
One possibility intriguing to me put forth by Christianity Today: “Perhaps the same thing that is sabotaging marriage is undermining friendship: our increasing unwillingness to commit to relationships that require sacrifice, mutual accountability and a generous share of humility.”
As we see the relationships foundational to our society falling apart, is that translating into a fear of other kinds of friendships because they, too, might end? Maybe.
In any event there’s no question we’ve become a more “me” oriented society in general, and it’s hard to have close friends in that environment.
Yet I agree with the assertion in Christianity Today that people continue to crave significant relationships. We’ve just become less able, or willing, probably for many different reasons, to have them.
Well, I have a few New Year’s resolutions. I’m not sure I’ll keep the one about not using my credit cards for the first two months of the year, but I am determined to help my children better learn the age-old wisdom that “to have a friend you need to be a friend.” And I’m resolving to do something really important in 2007 — and better practice that age-old wisdom myself.
(Betsy Hart is the author of the forthcoming “It Takes a Parent: How the Culture of Pushover Parenting is Hurting Our Kids — and What to Do About It.” E-mail her at letterstohart(at)comcast.net.)