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“Friendships don’t just happen,” says William Rawlins, a professor of interpersonal communication at Ohio University. “They don’t drop from the sky.”
Like any relationship, friendships take effort and work. But they’re often the last to receive that effort after people expend their energy on work, family, and romance. And as I’ve written before, as time goes on, friendships often face more hurdles to intimacy than other close relationships. As people hurtle toward the peak busyness of middle age, friends—who are usually a lower priority than partners, parents, and children—tend to fall by the wayside.
Our increasingly mobile world also strains friendship. In one study that longitudinally followed best-friend pairs, people moved 5.8 times on average, over 19 years. But it’s not just that people move frequently in the modern era—they also cover more ground than they ever have, historically. The epidemiologist David Bradley once looked at the “lifetime track” of four generations of his family. “Lifetime track” is a term zoologists use to describe the entire sum of an animal’s movements from birth to death. Bradley found that his great-grandfather’s entire life took place “in a square of only 40 kilometers.” His grandfather’s lifetime track was about 400 square kilometers; his father’s was about 4000 square kilometers, and his own extended all over the world, for a 40,000-kilometer square.
“Thus in four generations the range of linear traveling has increased by a factor of 1000 and the area within which movement takes place has increased by a factor of 1 million,” Bradley wrote. “The experienced described here is not atypical.” This was in 1989—one imagines that between then and 2017 the average roaming range of humans has only grown.
This matters because when people move, their families may come with them, but they leave their friends behind. And even though extended, remote social networks are more accessible than ever for anyone with an internet connection, proximity still makes a difference. Moving is associated with shallower relationships, and people who move frequently are more willing to dispose of their friends, perhaps because they get used to losing them.
At the same time, there’s been a growing interest in exploring the complex dynamics of friendship. As people get married later, and the ranks of single women rise, more and more books and television shows have been exploring friendship dynamics.
But even if someone wants to make friends a high priority in their life, unlike with romantic relationships, for friendships there are fewer cultural scripts to follow to do the work of befriending someone, or making a friendship closer.
“The opportunities for friendship come with how people’s lives are organized,” Rawlins says. “When I talk to students, I say ‘Pay close attention to the habits you’re forming, because before you know it, you have organized your life in a way that doesn’t allow for the kind of friends that you would like to have.’”
Ryan Hubbard, who lives in Adelaide, Australia and works in “design for social innovation,” started a research project called Kitestring to try to figure out how people organize their lives to prioritize friendship, and some of the more specific ways that friendships get deeper. Later, they hope to use what they learn to fuel some sort of business or nonprofit venture aimed at better facilitating friendships. Kitestring recently put out a report of its findings from around 20 in-depth interviews, and 50 smaller interviews. While it’s not an academic study by any means—their methodology was closer to what companies do for market research—they came up with several interesting insights.
The first was that the more points of connection you have with someone, the stronger the friendship will be. “We think of friendship as a singular connection, but it’s a structure,” Hubbard says. A friend who you see in only one context—the office, for example—is likely to be a less close friend than someone who you see in many contexts, and connect with over many different things, rather than a single shared interest.
The second takeaway was actually borrowed from existing research on romantic relationships. The psychologist John Gottman came up with the concept of “bids” in the 1990s. “Bids” are small requests for connection—anything from a smile, to attempting to start a conversation, to inviting your partner on a trip with your family. As Emily Esfahani Smith previously reported in The Atlantic, the more partners respond to each other’s bids by “turning toward” them—engaging and offering the requested connection—the stronger their relationship. The more they “turned away” from the bids, the more likely they were to get divorced, Gottman found.
In the interviews Kitestring did, Hubbard found that bids also deepened friendships, and could set off “a cycle of increasing vulnerability and trust.”
Kelci Harris, a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Toronto who studies friendship, says that bids seem “probably equally viable for friendship” as they do for romance and marriage. She thinks that’s a promising avenue for research—taking concepts from romantic relationships and seeing if they work for friendship as well.
But as far as getting that cycle going, “it does take some push from someone,” she says. “I think a lot of people, myself included, can sometimes get stuck. Like ‘They haven’t called me, so I’m not going to call them.’ If you want to talk to your friend just call them. You don’t have to play chicken about who’s going to take the first step.”
Rawlins, however, doesn’t care for the bid concept. “I don’t think of friendships in economic terms,” he says. “I don’t think about ‘investing’ in friends. I see friendship as an ongoing conversation. A way of literally coauthoring the story of our relationship.”
Another metaphor Rawlins doesn’t like is Kitestring’s third takeaway—the idea of putting friendships in “containers,” where friendships are easier to maintain if you create some kind of regular practice in which to hold them—a weekly dinner, or a monthly book club.
“I think friendships are more dynamic than to be placed in a container,” Rawlins says. “But I like the notion of rituals.”
One interesting way Hubbard uses the container metaphor is this concept of “repotting” friendships to make them closer, as you might repot a succulent that has outgrown its terra-cotta cup. “Sometimes you’ve got a friend at work, and you see them every day, but the pot that plant is in at work is quite small,” Hubbard says. “It’s going to reach the size of the pot, and that’s it. If you want it to be a bigger, deeper friendship, you need to repot it to a bigger context. You might need to bring them to your house. Or invite them to meet your family—that’s an even bigger pot.”
Regardless of the chosen metaphor, Rawlins has some similar advice. He recommends “taking the risk to express to someone that you’d like to do something with them outside of situations where you’re required to spend time together.”
Obviously you have to build up to it; it probably wouldn’t be advisable to try to start a strict weekly dinner date with a brand-new friend. Hubbard uses the terms “intention” and “air”—“intention” being earnest efforts to connect with someone, and “air” being the breathing room you give the relationship. “If you have a lot of trust in a relationship, it can bear more intention, and if you don’t have as much trust, you need more air,” he says.
A lot of things about modern life make it easy for the air in a friendship to overtake the intention. “I think the times we live in are really an obstruction to friendship, and it needs to be said out loud,” Rawlins says. “We are living in very very divisive times where the tenor of discourse in public places sets the tone for conversation and it works its way down very quickly to dyadic relationships.”
He also expressed concern about the “proliferating technological illusion of connection.”
“We live in a very sped-up time where people are getting messages to multitask, to be doing several things at once, to in many ways not actually be where they are,” he says.
Harris disagrees, noting that social media can allow for a “constant chain of communication, wherever you are in the world,” with your closest friends. They both have a point: Technology can make friendships shallower, but it can also make them stronger, depending on how ... intentionally ... you use it.
I honestly lost track of the number of times I heard the word “intentionality” while reporting this piece. All it really means, Harris says, is putting effort into a relationship. And the fact of that effort is probably more important than the exact form it takes.
In a study that Harris did, the quality of the time friends spent together—specifically their self-reported depth of conversation, and the amount of self-disclosure—was linked to higher friendship satisfaction.
And you have to be realistic about your friends’ other responsibilities. Sometimes life is so busy that people may not be able to keep friendship from falling to the bottom of their priority list, much as they may desire otherwise.
“Part of the genius of friendship is that people respect and encourage each other to make their life the best it can be,” Rawlins says. “How do you do that in a way that respects the contingencies of each other’s lives while also trying to build in, if not a regular practice, the expectation that we’re going to see each other? It can be a challenging needle to thread.”