When my son asked me at dinner a few nights ago why my friend Alaina and I stopped being friends, it momentarily stirred up a bushel of hurt and old feelings of inadequacy. It also got me thinking about adult friendships. New research shows that friendships don’t simply make life more enjoyable; they literally make our lives healthier and longer.
So, as adults how do friendships form, what makes adult friendships last, and why do they sometimes fade away when no particular incident stands out as the cause of disintegration?
Specifically, my son asked, “Did you stop being friends because they didn’t invite us to their party?” Naturally, I knew exactly what he was talking about and while that moment did not end that friendship, it caused me pain and certainly served as a mile-marker on the way toward the end of the line. In truth, I still care about Alaina and her family. I still feel sad that what I believed was a lifelong friendship got relegated to the status of “someone I used to know” while someone else took my place. Thankfully, hindsight, maturity, and a bit of self-confidence allowed me to understand that my friend didn’t actually choose another person over me and that I am not inherently unlikable. Now I see that my friend (and her husband) chose a different set of shared values and interests. And sadly, I think she chose easy over hard. At the time our friendship began to fade, I had gone through a very rough patch of postpartum depression that left me changed. That challenging period revealed the damage done by old wounds. Despite my efforts to conceal it, that pain made Alaina uncomfortable and we began spending less time together. Simultaneously, a new friend with more mirth in her heart, a shared love of the beach and lake, and similar political and social values came in to fill the game. Soon, my friendship with Alaina withered from neglect on both our parts. Meanwhile, I, too, discovered new friendships that sprouted, blossomed, and continue to flourish today.
So…how can we prevent a friendship from drying up on the vine? As adults can we seed new friendships and help them grow or is it sheer dumb luck?
Not surprisingly, science has answers. Two studies released over the last few years actually quantify both the number of friends the human brain can cognitively manage as well as what it takes for those friendships to form and thrive.
In 2011, Dr. Robin Dunbar, an evolutionary psychologist and anthropologist from Oxford University, first posited that human beings can only cognitively manage 150 relationships – in spite of what your Facebook friends list tells you. Dunbar found inspiration, in part, in the work of GORE-TEX founder, Bill Gore. Gore, who started his textiles company in his home, discovered that once his factory exceeded 150 workers, it lost the personal connections that inspired dedication and allowed employees to work collaboratively. So, he opened a new factory and when that hit 150 employees, he opened another one and so on, with each facility maximizing efficient production.
Dunbar explored this idea and expanded on the notion so thoroughly that today the theory that humans can realistically only manage 150 relationships remains known as Dunbar’s Number.
Dunbar’s work looked at tribal communities, religious communities including the Amish and Hutterite, as well as military companies from various nations. Indeed, his work went even deeper, examining the relationships of our primate relatives. In every context, 150 emerges as the optimal number for community, allowing for collaboration, problem-solving, support, and with our primate cousins, the evasion of predators. And, for us humans, at least, it seems our memories simply max out at 150. Dunbar’s work does acknowledge that human brains have the capacity to recognize up to 1500 faces, but points out that having such a large number of “friends,” means that most of those relationships will remain shallow, lacking the depth of meaning and personal connection that leads to the sense of duty and reciprocity we share in our closest relationships.
This is where the work of Dr. Jeffrey Hall, a communications studies professor at the University of Kansas picks up. Hall asserted his Communicate – Bond – Belong Theory in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships in 2018. Hall’s theory, in a nutshell, suggests that humans have an evolutionary need to belong that drives us to form relationships. He further asserts that our relationships exist at varying levels of depth (acquaintance, casual friend, friend, good friend, close friend) dependent upon both the amount of time spent together and the types of activities or experiences shared with a partner. He points out that there exist cognitive limits to the number of each type of relationship as well with most of us having just five close friends and up to 15 good friends. Through two different studies, Hall discovered that it takes 50 hours of interaction to move from the status of acquaintance to casual friend. To advance from casual friend to friend, another 90 hours of shared experience is required. And to become someone’s new bestie, you need to spend 200 hours together.
But wait…the types of activities and experiences shared matter.
You cannot simply say “hey” to someone in the office every day or talk about your WENUS report and expect a friendship to blossom. How you spend time with and communicate with someone you want to know better matters. Take time to ask what’s going on in someone’s life or ask about their kids or their hobbies. Hall points out that laughing and joking around together help form bonds, as do meaningful conversations.