Understanding friendship


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Many Americans have trouble maintaining close friendships. According to a 2006 study from the American Sociological Review, "25% of Americans have no close confidants, and the average total number of confidants per citizen has dropped from four to two." (source)

Men in particular have too few friends. "Of all people in America, adult, white, heterosexual men have the fewest friends. Moreover, the friendships they have, if they’re with other men, provide less emotional support and involve lower levels of self-disclosure and trust than other types of friendships." (American men’s hidden crisis: They need more friends!)

Numerous studies have shown that people with strong networks of family and friends tend to be happier.

Can money buy happiness? Sort of. That is, a little more money can buy the poor a lot of happiness, but only a lot more money can buy the rich even a little happiness. Material wealth has, as Gilbert says, “very diminishing returns.” A far more reliable indicator of a person’s happiness is his or her wealth of personal relationships.
  (source: Professor Happiness)

The ancients thought that true friendship was more perfect than marriage, since friendship is more selfless and freer of corrupting biological distractions. But what's the role of friends in the modern world? People seem confused about what to expect from friends and about how to balance friends, family, and careers.

Eric Weiner in The Geography of Bliss reviews research suggesting that extroverts tend to be happy. Weiner writes:

The self-help industry hasn't helped. By telling us that happiness lives inside us, it's turned us inward just when we should be looking outward. Not to money but to other people, to community and the kind of human bonds that so clearly are the sources of our happiness.

Karma Ura, a Bhutanese scholar and cancer survivor, went further and said, "There is no such thing as personal happiness. Happiness is one hundred percent relational." (ibid)

Yet many people are skeptical, and even cynical, about community and friendship. As a character in Jean-Paul Sartre's play No Exit said, "Hell is other people."

Here are some possible reasons for having few close friends:

  1. Many people have been emotionally damaged by betrayals and rejections.
  2. America's emphasis on rugged individualism and on self-reliance make it hard for people to live in community.
  3. Many of us are too busy with work and family.
  4. What good is a mere friend when a lover fulfills our needs so much more completely? In other words, many people (especially guys) mostly want sex and consider mere friendship unfulfilling. Or they pretend to be interested in friendship as a ruse to get sex. (See The Friend Zone. "Women are not slot machines who respond to your kindness with sex.") Can people be blamed for wanting sex? Reproduction is our biological purpose here on earth. Many people are crude and greedy. Nothing surprising about that.
  5. Some people expect too much from their friends: time, emotional support, sympathy, or money. They have "boundary issues."
  6. We spend too much time watching TV or playing on the Internet.
  7. We spend time on social networking sites and on blogs, perhaps with the hope of making friends, but deep friendships tend not to develop online.
  8. Many people are addicted to food, drugs, or sex.
  9. People in romantic relationships often spend all their free time with their partners.
  10. Some people claim that the distinction between straight and gay is artificial: that everyone is naturally bisexual. It suggests that the distinction between friendship and romance may also be artificial, and hence friendship may be fraught with difficulties. Maybe Freud believed this. Living in society requires people to behave contrary to their base nature; and some people never learn to do that and hence are unable to develop friendships. Some people haven't matured to the point where they can connect nonsexually with others.
  11. A straight man may avoid friendship with women because he knows that he'll be romantically attracted to them. (See this fun video.) Similarly with gay men, straight women, etc.
  12. Peoples' partners and friends sometimes discourage them from making new friends, for fear of rivals.
  13. Some men feel competitive towards other men and much prefer female friends. Similarly, some women feel competitive towards other women and much prefer male friends. This halves the number of potential friends.
  14. Some heterosexual men avoid close friendships with other men for fear of homosexuality, or for fear of being perceived to be gay.
  15. At work we need to maintain a professional distance -- which makes it hard to develop friendships at work, even though you spend half your day there.
  16. Some people feel unworthy of friendship and are ashamed of their looks, careers, homes, or achievements.
  17. Some people avoid friendships with people they feel inferior or superior to.
  18. Some people avoid friendships with people whom they consider physically unattractive -- or too good-looking for them.
  19. Many people quarrel with their friends and their families.
  20. Suburban sprawl and the car culture make friendship difficult.
  21. Some people avoid friendships with people of different political or religious beliefs.
  22. Some people avoid friendships with people of different races or economic classes.
  23. Many people (including possibly ourselves) are sometimes unpleasant to be around because they're often self-absorbed, boring, immature, selfish, shallow, tactless, or neurotic. To be a good friend you need to be a good person.
  24. People who don't attend a church, synagogue, mosque, temple tend to have less social interaction.
  25. Friendships don't last, especially online friendships.
  26. Some people have many casual friends but don't allow anyone to become a close friend.
  27. Oftentimes young people have many friends, but when they grow up they become busy and lose their old friends.
  28. Elderly people often become alone as their friends pass away.
  29. People relocate so often that they never "put down roots" and they lose track of friends.

Perhaps you can suggest some additional significant reasons that I overlooked. Click here for a short list of recommended books about friendship.

I'm writing a book about close friendship. I'm particularly interested in exploring friendship's relation to love and romance. I want to hear peoples' thoughts, frustrations, and stories on the issues raised above.

The issues cover a lot of ground. The three areas I want to concentrate on are:

  1. Why do some people have trouble maintaining close non-romantic friendships? The answers may vary depending on whether the friendships are same-sex or opposite-sex, and on whether the people are heterosexual or homosexual.
  2. How do platonic friendships interact with romantic relationships? Are they in conflict? Many people in close romantic relationships become cut off from potential friends. Why is this and what can we do to remedy it?
  3. Can close non-romantic friendships develop online? How can blogs and social networking sites increase the depth and quality of friendships?

If you can spare 5 minutes, please enter your comments and/or fill out the survey below. Even if you don't have time to answer the multiple-choice questions, I'd love to hear your what you think about friendship.

You can also email me at Donald A. Smith, PhD.

I realize that you may be busy. If you don't have time to answer the detailed questions below, please fill in general thoughts about friendship here.

Survey about friendship

Demographic questions        (We do not store identifying information.)

Under 10 10 - 14 15 - 19 20 - 29 30 - 39 40 - 49 50 - 59 60 - 69 70 or over

White African American Hispanic Asian other

Economic class
Lower Lower-middle Middle Upper-middle Upper

Sexual orientation
straight gay bisexual

Relationship status
Single, never married Married, first marriage Remarried In a non-marital relationship Divorced Widowed

USA Canada Europe Asia Africa South America Other

Male Female

Questions about friendship

Please choose the closest response that matches.

The questions mention "close friend" and "casual friend". By "close friend" I mean someone you trust a lot, have affection for, and generally depend upon for emotional support. By "casual friend" I mean more than a mere acquaintance but not a close friend. Typically, someone becomes a casual friend only after you've met them a few times. (Online social networking sites like Facebook often let you have "friends", but such people aren't necessarily real friends, according to my understanding. Oftentimes they're not even acquaintances.)

  1. Excluding your (possible) partner and family, how many close friends do you have of the same      sex?   4 or more ,   3 ,   2 ,   1 ,   None .
  2. Excluding your (possible) partner and family, how many close friends do you have of the opposite sex?   4 or more ,   3 ,   2 ,   1 ,   None .
  3. How many casual friends do you have of the same sex?        Many ,   A few ,   None .
  4. How many casual friends do you have of the opposite sex?   Many ,   A few ,   None .
  5. Do you tend to avoid friends of the same sex?   Yes ,   No .
  6. Do you tend to avoid friends of the opposite sex?   Yes ,   No .
  7. Do you tend to avoid friendships with physically unattractive people??   Definitely ,   Sometimes ,   Never .
  8. Do you tend to avoid friendships for fear of becoming romantically involved?   Often ,   Sometimes ,   Never .
  9. Does your (possible) partner pressure you to avoid friendships for fear of romantic rivals?   Often ,   Sometimes ,   Never .
  10. Do you yearn for more (close) friends?   Often ,   Sometimes ,   Never
  11. Do you avoid friends because of shame about your unworthiness?   Often ,   Sometimes ,   Never .
  12. Do you avoid friends because of fear of rejection?   Often ,   Sometimes ,   Never .
  13. How often are you angry at your friends?   Often ,   Sometimes ,   Never .
  14. Do you think about or mourn the loss of old friends?   Often ,   Sometimes ,   Never .
  15. Are most of your friendships new or long-lasting from years ago?   Mostly new ,   Mixed   Long-lasting .
  16. Do you hug, kiss or hold hands with some of your (close) non-romantic friends?   Yes ,   No .
  17. Do you depend on your close friends for emotional support?   A lot ,   Some .   Not much .
  18. Do you love any of your friends (excluding your partner)?   Many ,   Some .   None .
  19. Do you have trouble making friends at work given the need to maintain professional distance?   Yes ,   No .
  20. Are you friends with your neighbors?   Many ,   Some ,   None .
  21. Do you tend to fight with friends and then break up?   Often ,   Sometimes .   Never .
  22. Do you ever compete with your friends?   Often ,   Sometimes ,   Never .
  23. Are you jealous of your friends?   Often ,   Sometimes ,   Never .
  24. Do you have close friends online?   Yes ,   No ,     
  25. Do you have casual friends online?   Yes ,   No .
  26. Do have friends siginficantly older than yourself?   Yes ,   No .     
  27. Do you have friends significantly younger than yourself?   Yes ,   No .
  28. Do you have friends of different religion?   Different political philosophy? Different sexual orientation? Different race? Different economic class? Please explain.
  29. How do you do meet with your friends?   Church/synagoge/mosque/temple? Sports? Movies/concerts/shows? Food and drink? Talk? Games? Hobbies? Work? IM? Email? Please explain.

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