I would love to know more about how long friendships last. For example, if you were to do a study asking people about the most important friendship in their life, or the most enduring one, what would you find about how long those friendships have lasted? And how would that compare to the average duration of a marriage?
I don’t know of any research like that. However, a recent essay in the New York Times mentioned a study from 2009 in which a Dutch sociologist, Gerald Mollenhorst, tried to figure out how many of the people in our social networks are still there after seven years.
Professor Mollenhorst elicited the names of friends by asking questions such as:
- Who do you talk with, regarding important personal issues?
- Who helps you with DIY in your home?
- Who do you pop by to see?
More than 1,000 adults from the Netherlands between the ages of 18 and 65 were asked those questions and others when they were interviewed for the first time. Then, 7 years later, they were asked the same questions. Just over 600 of the participants agreed to be interviewed the second time.
The key finding was that of all the people named as friends at the time of the first interview, 48 percent were named again seven years later. (That didn’t mean that the participants ended up with fewer friends, though; the ex-friends were replaced by new ones, such that the size of people’s networks stayed the same.)
In the New York Times essay, Lauren Mechling described the results this way:
“When they followed up seven years later…, only about half of the friendships were still going.”
I was skeptical about one word in that sentence. Maybe you can guess which one it is.
“Only about half of the friendships were still going.”
“Only” suggests dismissiveness, as though we should have expected more. But is that true?
Friendship has no strong norms holding it in place; we don’t typically feel obligated to stay friends with our friends. In the US (and maybe in other countries, too), friendship is not protected by the laws that watch out for marital relationships or parent-child relationships. Workplaces don’t care about friends, either. If you are married and your company relocates you, they will probably pay the relocation expenses for your spouse as well – and maybe even help your spouse find a job. Try asking for the same consideration for your best friend.
With no strong norms, no protections, and no perks, friendships can fade. When we change, when our friends change, when we move or when they do, we may become less likely to do what it takes to maintain those relationships — talk to those friends about important issues, or ask them to help, or pop by to see them.
To me, holding onto about half of our friends over a 7-year period sounds impressive. I wish Professor Mollenhorst had also asked about romantic relationships. If people who are into that sort of thing had been asked about the number of ex’s they still counted as friends seven years on, I bet the answer would be way, way, way less than 48 percent. Of course, the norms are different for romantic relationships than for friendships, but that’s part of my point. Romantic partners seem to be discarded fairly regularly; they don’t stick around to “just” be friends.