WHAT IS FRIENDSHIP?
The defining characteristic of friendship is a preference for a particular person. However, different people may have distinct definitions of and requirements for friendship. For example, very young children may refer to someone as their “best friend” two minutes after meeting, while very shy people or individuals from reserved cultures may report having only a handful of friends during their entire lives.
There’s no absolute definition of what does or does not constitute a friendship. However, some common traits of friendship include:
- Some degree of commitment, both to the friendship and to the other person’s well-being.
- A desire for “regular” contact with the other person. “Regular” contact could occur once every two days or once every two years.
- Mutual trust, concern, and compassion.
- Shared interests, opinions, beliefs, or hobbies.
- Shared knowledge about one another’s lives, emotions, fears, or interests.
- Feelings of love, respect, admiration, or appreciation.
Anthropologist Robin Dunbar theorized there was a limit to how many friendships an individual can have. In general, most humans have up to 150 friends, 50 good friends, 15 close friends, and 5 intimate friends. These numbers have shown to be consistent across time, from hunter-gather societies to the age of social media.
FRIENDSHIP AND GENDER
Culture strongly affects people’s understanding of friendship. In the United States and many other industrialized wealthy nations, women tend to have more friendships than men and to invest more energy in those friendships. Romantic relationships are, for many men, a sole or primary source of friendship. So as children grow into adolescents and adolescents become adults, boys may have fewer and fewer friendships.
Cultural norms suggest that women are “better” at friendship, more communicative, or more in need of intimacy from friends. This can create a self-fulfilling prophecy in which women are more likely to have friends. Women also spend more time investing in their friendships. A man might only talk to his closest friend once every few months, while on average, women in the U.S. tend to talk longer and more frequently to their friends.
Among people in long-term relationships, women tend to do more work to sustain friendships and other close relationships. This might include sending Christmas cards, remembering birthdays, making phone calls, and updating friends on major life events.
Researchers are increasingly sounding alarm bells about an epidemic of loneliness. Loneliness can shorten a person’s life and erode their health. It may even pose greater public health risks than smoking. This suggests that gender norms about friendships may actually harm men’s health. As marriage rates decline, men without friendships may feel progressively more isolated.
Gender may also affect whom one chooses as a friend. A 2018 study found that gender discrimination can decrease the likelihood that a person will form friendships with members of a different gender. Cross-gender friendships can foster empathy, break down gender barriers, and undermine gender stereotypes. Gender norms that undermine these friendships may therefore perpetuate gender stereotypes and misogyny.
FRIENDSHIP ACROSS A LIFESPAN
Lifelong friendships can be immensely rewarding. People may draw inspiration from talking to those who knew them when they were young. Lifelong friends connect people to their history, offer insight on how a person has changed and evolved, and are often deeply connected to one another’s families. These friendships offer a sense of permanency and consistency that can be deeply reassuring at times of ambivalence, loss, or anxiety.
Sustaining a friendship across a lifespan, however, can be difficult. People’s interests and lifestyles change as they age. In childhood, a friendship might be based upon geographic closeness or a single shared interest. So a move or a change of interests can affect even long-term friendships.
Some barriers to sustaining lifelong friendships include:
- Changes in lifestyle. For example, if one friend has a child and a marriage and the other does not, the two may struggle to relate to one another.
- Geographic distance. Childhood friends often walk next door or hitch a ride from a parent to see one another. When time together requires a plane or long car ride, the friendship is harder to nurture.
- Time constraints. People’s lives tend to become more demanding as they get married, have children, become caregivers for aging parents, embark on challenging careers, and accrue more financial obligations. Finding time for friends can be difficult in adulthood, especially when friends have very different lifestyles or do not live near one another.
- Cultural values surrounding friendship. In the U.S. and in many other countries, romantic relationships are treated as the primary and most important relationship. This can cause some people to value their friendships less as they enter adult romantic relationships.
- Shifting understandings of friendship. There’s no “right” way to have a friendship. One of the challenges of sustaining a friendship is finding a shared understanding of what the friendship should look like—how frequently to talk, what to talk about, how openly to discuss disagreements, etc. As childhood friends grow up, their desires for their friendships may change. This can leave one friend feeling like the friendship doesn’t offer enough, while the other friend feels the friendship demands too much.