Why Close Friendship is Elusive

A friend of mine was irked because his partner didn’t want to send out Christmas cards this year. Nothing to do with the expense, the time, anything, turns out she just didn’t feel like it. “We didn’t deserve to receive any,” he reflected.

A year off is no big deal, but this understandable tension illustrates a foundational idea that explains why close friendships are elusive—they depend upon reciprocity.

Zuckerberg has zucked up our understanding of terms like “acquaintance,” “friend,” and “close friend”. If you’re like most people, you have many acquaintances, maybe a handful or two or three of friends, and very few close friends. This Daily Mail article says most people have two close friends, down from three 25 years ago. I’ve seen similar U.S.-based research numbers. What distinguishes friends from acquaintances and close friends from mere friends?

Friends spend more time together than acquaintances. Acquaintances are people we enjoy when we occasionally end up at the same place at the same time. A large proportion of Facebook “friends” are acquaintances. With an acquaintance, you can go weeks or months without any face-to-face contact. You don’t really know what makes them tick and they’re clueless as to your inner life. In contrast, friends do things together more frequently—whether writing back and forth, talking, helping one another, working out together, eating, traveling, etc. Time together gives friends a feel for each other’s daily activities, hopes, fears, and thoughts more generally.

What distinguishes especially close friendships is both people initiate a similar amount. Communication; invitations to do things; and the degree of honesty, transparency, and trust are balanced. There’s a natural, shared reciprocity. That sounds more simplistic than it is. In actuality, no friendship is ever perfectly balanced. Close friends can weather a slight imbalance (10-15%?) at any given time, but more than that and closeness is inevitably sacrificed.

How to apply these ideas? Most people would trade several acquaintances for a friend and a handful of friends for one especially close one. Quality trumps quantity. All of us have friends we wish we were closer to, but they don’t initiate as much as we’d like. This is why life for middle schoolers is so filled with drama, the social imbalances wreak havoc. When it comes to unrequited friendship, most middle schoolers are not self-confident or secure enough to say, “Your loss.” We never completely escape the complexities prompted by social imbalances.

Think about your social constellation. Who are your acquaintances, friends, and close friends? Odds are you have acquaintances or friends who you wish would initiate more. I shortchange my long-distance friends because I’m allergic to telephones. I shortchange local friends because I’m similarly allergic to cell phones which means, like a modern day Rudolph, I can’t join in all the texting fun. More important than telephone calls and texts is a willingness to be vulnerable enough to allow friendships to deepen.

Consider using the changing of the calendar to tell a friend or two through your words and/or actions that you’d like to spend more time with them. If they don’t initiate any more than normal for whatever reason, don’t push it or dwell on it, life’s too short, close friendship can’t be forced. If need be, accept the limits of that particular friendship and invest your time and energy in another friend who may be waiting for an invitation to spend more time together and to be more vulnerable.

Here’s hoping your 2012 is filled with meaningful friendships.

Of related interest, here’s a 2008 post on how the limits of time force friendship making trade-offs.

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