In the hierarchy of relationships, friendships are at the bottom. Romantic partners, parents, children—all these come first.
This is true in life, and in science, where relationship research tends to focus on couples and families. Friendships are unique relationships because unlike family relationships, we choose to enter into them. And unlike other voluntary bonds, such as marriages and romantic relationships, they lack a formal structure.
And though friendships tend to change as people age, there is some consistency in what people want from them. In adulthood, as people grow up and go away, friendships are the relationships most likely to take a hit.
How friendships change in adulthood
Throughout life, from grade school to the retirement home, friendship continues to confer health benefits, both mental and physical. The saga of adult friendship starts off well enough. During young adulthood, friendships become more complex and meaningful.
Their friendships help them do that. The world may never know. By young adulthood, people are usually a little more secure in themselves, more likely to seek out friends who share their values on the important things, and let the little things be. To go along with their newly sophisticated approach to friendship, young adults also have time to devote to their friends.
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According to the Encyclopedia of Human Relationshipsmany young adults spend 10 to 25 hours a week with friends, and the American Time Use Survey found that people ages 20 to 24 spent the most time per day socializing on average of any age group. Friendship networks are naturally denser, too, in youth, when most of the people you meet go to your school or live in your town. As people move for school, work, and family, networks spread out.
Moving out of town for college gives some people their first taste of this distancing. In a longitudinal study that followed pairs of best friends over 19 years, a team led by Andrew Ledbetter, an associate communications-studies professor at Texas Christian University, found that participants had moved an average of 5.
As people enter middle age, they tend to have more demands on their time, many of them more pressing than friendship. The time is poured, largely, into jobs and families. As they move through life, people make and keep friends in different ways. Some are independent, make friends wherever they go, and may have more friendly acquaintances than deep friendships.
Others are discerning, meaning they have a few best friends they stay close with over the years, but the deep investment means that the loss of one of those friends would be devastating. The most flexible are the acquisitive—people who stay in touch with old friends, but continue to make new ones as they move through the world. But if you plot busyness across the life course, it makes a parabola. The tasks that take up our time taper in old age. Once people retire and their kids have grown up, there seems to be more time for the shared-living kind of friendship again.
And it seems more urgent to spend time with them—according to socio-emotional selectivity theory, toward the end of life, people begin prioritizing experiences that will make them happiest in the moment, including spending time with close friends and family. And some people do manage to stay friends for life, or at least for a sizable chunk of life.
But what predicts who will last through the maelstrom of middle age and be there for the silver age of friendship? Whether people hold onto their old friends or grow apart seems to come down to dedication and communication. Hanging out with a set of lifelong best friends can be annoying, because the years of inside jokes and references often make their communication unintelligible to outsiders.
But this sort of shared language is part of what makes friendships last. The game was similar to Taboo, in that one partner gave clues about a word without actually saying it, while the other guessed. Of course, people can communicate with friends in more ways than ever, and media multiplexity theory suggests that the more platforms through which friends communicate—texting and ing, sending each other funny Snapchats and links on Facebook, and seeing each other in person—the stronger their friendship is.
There are four main levels of maintaining a relationship, and digital communication works better for some than for others. The first is just keeping a relationship alive at all, just to keep it in existence.
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They keep it breathing, but mechanically. Next is keeping a relationship at a stable level of closeness. Social media makes it possible to maintain more friendships, but more shallowly. And it can also keep relationships on life support that would and maybe should otherwise have died out.
Tommy would be a memory to me. Like, I seriously have not seen Tommy in 35 years. Yay for him!
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But in the current era of mediated relationships, those relationships never have to time out. These friendships fall into three : active, dormant, and commemorative. A commemorative friend is not someone you expect to hear from, or see, maybe ever again. But they were important to you at an earlier time in your life, and you think of them fondly for that reason, and still consider them a friend.
Facebook makes things weird by keeping these friends continually in your peripheral vision. Because your camp self is not your school self, and it dilutes the magic of the memory a little to try to attempt a pale imitation of what you had. The same goes for friends you see only online.
It becomes a relationship based on storytelling rather than shared living—not bad, just not the same. If you think of all the things we have to do—we have to work, we have to take care of our kids, or our parents—friends choose to do things for each other, so we can put them off.
They fall through the cracks. After young adulthood, he says, the reasons that friends stop being friends are usually circumstantial—due to things outside of the relationship itself. So we stop expecting as much, which to me is kind of a sad thing, that we walk away from that.
But the things that make friendship fragile also make it flexible. It feels like the blink of an eye. Popular Latest. The Atlantic Crossword. In Subscribe.