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The consequences of the friendship gap

Three high school friends meet for the first time since school was cancelled six weeks ago on May 2, 2020 in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)
Three high school friends meet for the first time since school was cancelled six weeks ago on May 2, 2020 in Prospect Park in Brooklyn, New York. (Andrew Lichtenstein/Corbis via Getty Images)

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The percentage of people who say they don’t have a single close friend has quadrupled in the past 30 years, according to the Survey Center on American Life.

Nearly half of those surveyed say they’ve lost touch with friends over the past year, while one in ten reported having lost touch with most of their friends.

So what’s driving the American friendship gap?

Today, On Point: What having fewer friends could mean for the health of our nation.


Jennifer Senior, staff writer at The Atlantic. Author of the article It’s Your Friends Who Break Your Heart. (@JenSeniorNY)

Dr. Marisa Franco, psychologist and friendship expert. (@DrMarisaGFranco)

Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman, co-authors of the book Big Friendship: How We Keep Each Other Close. Co-hosts of the podcast Call Your Girlfriend. (@callyrgf)

Listen: In ‘Big Friendship,’ Best Friends Share How To Stay Close For The Long Haul

Interview Highlights

On the impact of having fewer close friends

Dr. Marisa Franco: “We don’t tend to think about it this way, but loneliness is as toxic for our bodies, and researchers have found that it’s actually as toxic as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, in its impact on our longevity. So if you want to think about an older age, thinking about what time you have for the rest of your life, if you want to try to expand that time, then you need to have friendship. I think another reason why friendship is super, super important is that connection is the key to positive mental health. I would say more than anything, there’s researchers that looked into the case of very happy people, and what makes them distinct. Do they have more positive events happening to them? And they found no. The thing that’s most pronounced about these happy people is that they’re socially connected. That’s their secret to happiness.

How does having fewer friends impact how we engage as a society?

Jennifer Senior: “I think that the prognosis isn’t great. I think social ties have been in decline for years. Robert Putnam wrote this groundbreaking book in 2000 that I think influenced the way a lot of people thought about this. And then it was almost the duty of every American president ever to sit with him and chat about this. About the decline in social capital that we have. Where church attendance and synagogue attendance and mosque attendance, all these things are declining. We are no longer in the Elks Club. We’re no longer Rotarians. We’re no longer in unions. We don’t know our friends and neighbors.

“This has been going on for a while, the sort of atomization of American life. And I think the internet probably speed things up, paradoxically. I mean, I know it’s supposed to connect us, but I think not in the ways that the most meaningful, which is to say embodied. … I think that we’re sort of speeding out in the wrong direction.”

Who are Americans turning to for their emotional support?

Dr. Marisa Franco: “I actually read this recent book that talked about how actually couples are becoming more insular. They’ve been spending less time together and they’ve been spending less time with their outside networks over the years. I think where we’re turning to is honestly social media, right? And you know, Robert Putnam’s book went into this.

“His was on the television at the time, and he sort of talked about how the television is contributing to the ways we are disengaging from public life, because it’s simply giving us something else to do. Now, if I’m not going to that Rotary Club, I have something else to entertain me. And the other thing is that he talks about how the television kind of activates this lethargic state in us. Where if we’re watching it for too long, we don’t want to get up and we don’t want to do anything, even if that’s what’s good for us.

“… Social media wasn’t a thing at the time of his book, but I think a lot of this has been exacerbated by social media. Where we just have something else to do, something else to distract ourselves. And even if it’s going to make us feel worse over time, it’s like candy in the moment for us. That’s what we’re reaching to. That’s what we’re grabbing to, to try to regulate and soothe our emotions. And we get a tiny hit. But again, like turning to social media for support and connection. It’s not going to do the same thing as what Jennifer called embodied connection. And actually the best way to use social media, according to the research, the way to use it so it doesn’t make it lonelier is to use it as a tool to facilitate in-person connection.”

On navigating life changes in friendships

Ann Friedman: “The kind of broader culture we live in gives us all kinds of messages about investing in our spousal relationship, or our family unit. And does not really model how to invest in friendship or community in the same way. So I think that’s the root of a lot of this stuff. It’s interesting because some of this is like reverse engineering. You know, when we spoke to experts about the things that keep a friendship strong through shifts, we could sort of say, Oh, right … these are things are showing up in the friendships we have that are strong.

“Ritual is one thing. So having a friendship anniversary that you celebrate, or having like a recurring trip every year or having a built in once a month, we all get together and play cards, to choose a really retro example that I’m loving lately. These are things that allow us to stay connected, and kind of continually check in. And then there are just the basics that apply to any good relationship. Actually making an effort to speak openly about what’s really going on with you, assuring your friend that you want to hear about where they’re at right now, and wanting the unvarnished truth.

“I think that you’re right that sometimes it’s not always top of mind to do this kind of emotional check in, like the discuss the relationship talk with our friends. But the cool thing about us all emerging from this, hopefully emerging from this pandemic together, is that we have a collective shift we’ve just been through. And so it’s a huge opportunity to say, how are you feeling about your relationships right now? What are you feeling you might need from me as a friend that you didn’t before? And opening that conversation with some intention.”

How can you repair friendships that you’ve lost?

Dr. Marisa Franco: “It is really devastating to lose a friendship. And the problem is that when we lose a friendship, similarly to when we are struggling with infertility, or going through miscarriage or lose a pet, we experience what’s called disenfranchised grief. Which basically means that we don’t have community to heal with because our community might de-legitimize the depths of our grief. And we do heal from grief in community with others. So it just sort of disrupts our healing process.

“So I just wanted to speak to why it might be so hard, and why it’s normal for it to be so hard to really be able to grieve these forgotten friendships. I would say, if you want to repair the friendship, I think it’s important to obviously go through a period of reflection on what went wrong, and that involves also thinking about like, how did you contribute? Thinking about, this is a dynamic, right? What part of your behaviors might have contributed to the ending? What part of their behaviors might have contributed to the ending? And you know, ask yourself what would be different this time.

“I think when you reinvest in a relationship, it’s good to think about it almost as a different relationship. So that you’re not stuck in the sort of script of what it used to be. So how are we going to make this friendship different than what it was before? Instead of assuming that we are going to return to the same relationship it was prior, and somehow we’re going to make it work.

“And then the last thing I really suggest is that if you really do want to rekindle this friendship or initiate new ones in general, I always suggest you have to be optimistic that it could actually work. Because if you’re in a state of pessimism or cynicism, you’re never going to reach out and figure out whether it could work. And then I think you should definitely ask yourself, if this doesn’t work, How will that sit with me? Could I be able to tolerate the devastation of going back to this and it’s still not working? To figure out whether you’re in a good place to actually go about rekindling the friendship.”

What can people do to reconnect if they do feel that isolation?

Dr. Marisa Franco: “The biggest thing that we’re up against is the assumption that friendships should happen organically because it did when we’re kids, right? And when we’re kids, we had the ingredients of continuous unplanned interaction and shared vulnerability, in school, at recess. As adults, we don’t have that. So my big message is like, you really have to try to make friends in adulthood. Like if you meet someone say, I’ve really enjoyed connecting with you, could we exchange contact information. Reaching out after that. And people are so afraid of rejection.

“But I’d like to share some of the science here. There’s a study on phenomenon called the Liking Gap, which found that when strangers interact, they underestimate how liked they are. And this is even more pronounced for people that are very self-critical. So the one thing that I like to suggest to people is not only initiate, but assume people like you. Because that is also a self-fulfilling prophecy. It’s a phenomenon called the acceptance prophecy that when we think people like us, we are more likable. We’re more warm, we’re more friendly, we’re more bold, we’re more willing to put ourselves out there. But when we think they’re going to reject us, we close off and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.