What happens to your friendships over the course of your life? Do you accumulate close friends over time or shed them? Does it matter if you are single or married? If you are a parent? If you are a parent but your kids have flown the coop?
The best way to answer those questions would be to follow a big, representative sample of people over the course of their lives, to see how their friendships change. I know of only one study that even came close to doing that, and it only followed people for up to six years, and only looked at the transition from being single to moving in with a romantic partner or getting married. That study showed that when people moved into a cohabiting arrangement or got married, they spent less time with their friends than they did when they were single.
A previous study looked at the friendships of people in a variety of relationship, marital, and parental statuses:
- Single people who were not dating
- Single people who were dating (the same person for at least 3 months)
- Married or cohabiting people with no children
- Married or cohabiting people with young children (youngest is younger than 6)
- Married or cohabiting people with older children
- Empty nesters: married or cohabiting people whose children have left home
The author, Matthijs Kalmijn, also included people who were divorced or remarried.
The study was impressive in a number of ways. It was a large study, of nearly 3,000 people, and the participants were a representative national sample of Dutch adults under the age of 65. Interviews were conducted in person, and among those who were married, both spouses were interviewed. By including more different statuses than just single versus married, the study had the potential to tell us a more sophisticated story than the one we usually hear. However, the one big limitation is that the people in the different groups were different people. The same people were not followed as they went from being single to dating to cohabiting and so forth. That means we cannot know for sure if any differences between the different groups are because of their different relationship or parental statuses, or if they can be explained by some other way the groups may differ. The findings, then, should be considered more suggestive than definitive.
The participants were asked four sets of questions:
- The number of friends they had. Participants were asked to name up to five of their best friends, not counting their spouse or children.
- The amount of contact they had with their friends. Participants were asked how often they spoke to each of those friends in a month.
- Shared friends: For the couples, the percentage of friends they had in common.
- Time spent with your friend, but your spouse is there, too: For the coupled participants, when they socialized with a friend, what percentage of the time was their spouse there, too?
When Kalmijn graphed the number of friends and the amount of contact with friends across the 6 different groups, the results were clear:
- The number of close friends that people named decreased across the six groups. Single people who were not dating had the most friends (an average of 4) and empty nesters had the fewest (an average of 3).
- Men who were divorced had fewer friends than the men who had always been single.
- The amount of contact with friends also decreased across the six groups. Men saw or spoke to their close friends an average of 14 times a month when they were single and not dating. But the men who were empty nesters saw or spoke to their friends only 5 times a month. The results were similar for the women: They were in touch with their friends most often when they were single and not dating – an average of 13 times a month. But the women who were empty nesters were in touch with their close friends only about 6 times a month.
- For women, the biggest decrease in the number of contacts with friends occurs for the women who are dating, compared to those who are single and not dating. The men also show a noticeable dip in the number of friends for those who are dating, compared to those who are single and not dating. For the men, another significant decrease occurs for those who live with a spouse or romantic partner. They have less contact with their friends than the men who are dating.
- Among the couples, more of their friends are shared across the various groups. For example, among couples who are dating, about 20-25% of their friends are shared. But for people who are living with a spouse or romantic partner, about 50% of their friends are shared. The percentage of shared friends continues to increase for the other groups, but the biggest difference is between those who are dating and those who are married or cohabiting without kids.
- For women, the differences in shared friendships are less dramatic than they are for men. Women keep a greater proportion of their friends to themselves than men do.
- What about spending time with friends when your partner is there, too? The biggest difference is between the couples who are dating and those who live together without children. Once couples are living together, they are much more likely to have their partner around when they see their friends.
- Once the first child is born, women are less likely to have their spouse around when they are spending time with friends.
A few other interesting results:
- Kalmijn used two ways to figure out how many friends were shared. First, for each friend that one partner named, he asked if their partner was also friends with that person. Second, he compared the two partners’ lists of friends. The couples thought that they shared more friends than they actually did. For example, Joe may have thought Mary was friends with a lot of his friends, but in fact, Mary listed only 58% of the friends Joe thought she would (and vice versa).
- People with more education name more friends but they see their friends less often.
Who sheds their friends? The results suggest (though do not show definitively) that as people go from living single without dating, to dating, to moving in with a spouse or romantic partner, to having kids, to becoming empty nesters, they shed friends – and especially, contact with friends – all along the way. The marginalizing of friends is most noticeable for the transition between being single and unpartnered to being single and dating. For men, there is another big decrease in staying in touch with friends for those who go from dating to living together.
As is true for all studies, the results are averages. That means that they do not describe everyone. Some people will accumulate friends over time rather than shedding them.
[For more about single people and their friends, click here.]
Kalmijn, M. (2003). Shared friendship networks and the life course: an analysis of survey data on married and cohabiting couples. Social Networks, 25, 231-249.