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How many close friends do we truly need?

September 14, 2015

First published in Daily Life, August 2015

If you grew up binge-reading magazines, there’s a high chance that you can spot the phases of romantic attraction with a detective precision but be clueless when it comes to identifying friendship soulmates.

You know, the people who are destined to down too many espresso martinis with you on your birthday, pick up a panicked 3am phone call or swallow their laughter when you describe an encounter that could make Hannah Horvath blush?

My bond with the friend who helped me flee Melbourne to Sydney was forged over two months trading Buffy references as workmates in our early 20s. The ties I share with the friends who helped me celebrate my 30th were formed during five months as impoverished travellers in a flat in London. And the connection with the friend I called when I crashed my car was conceived during four years of teenage phone marathons that went long into the night.

But numbers can’t quantify the forces that galvanised my closest friendships. After all, the number of friends and followers we have on social mediabetray nothing about those special few.

The study also says we’re only truly comfortable calling or texting between four to seven people if we’re ever in trouble late at night or have a burning personal crisis related to relationships or sex.  Interestingly, the findings fluctuate slightly with sexual orientation and age.

Twentysomethings expect between 8 to 10 friends to celebrate them turning a year older while gay and bisexual men and women are likelier to count on an even number of close male and female friends than straight respondents, who tend to depend on those of the same gender.

But most importantly, the research shows that life satisfaction is determined by friendship satisfaction and job satisfaction and not by the number of friends we have both online and off. “At a time when Facebook friend lists run several hundred—if not several thousand—names long, it can be easy to feel as though we live in a world with enormous emotional cocoons. But the truth is that while we share travel photos and life musings with a long list of virtual friends, the average person still only relies on a few people,” Robert A. Ferdman points out in a July 2015 article in The Washington Post.

We know that rom-coms offer us a blueprint for our romantic fantasies (or nightmares), but our attachment to films that chart the trajectory of tight-knit friendships – or the idea that these can be as formative as your relationship with your family or partner – is woefully under-explored.

It’s no accident that Stand By Me, the cult Robert Reiner film that sees Will Wheaton’s Gordie Lachance, a 12-year-old boy who’s neglected by his father, find his family in a group of misfits made $52.3 million when it hit cinemas in 1986. And Now and Then, which focuses on four women who reflect on how their lives were shaped by their intense, pre-teen adventures and captures the awkwardness of adolescence in Technicolor detail is a touchstone for any girl who grew up in the 90s.

My Sex and the City boxed set is gathering dust in the back of a drawer but I can’t bring myself to throw it out. Ten years ago, a friend and I, jobless and aimless, put on it repeat and watching Carrie, Samantha, Miranda and Charlotte turn to each other again and again brought our own bond into focus. Now, the telltale pink shoebox feels like a talisman. As Tavi Gevinson writes in her most recent Rookie Editor’s letter, “I find it odd find it odd to characterise romantic relationships as “more than friends.” It seems friendship ought to be the prized jewel.”

In a November 2014 New York magazine article, “Friendship Breakups Are Our First Heartbreaks” Ann Friedman, who co-hosts the much-loved podcast Call Your Girlfriend, attributes this issue to the fact that the culture lacks institutions that speak to the value of our important friendships, the same way we spend Christmas with our families or throw a party if we get engaged.

Although social media can put us in touch with anyone in the world, it can also flatten out the histories that brought us together, so that the people we can count on are indistinguishable from the acquaintances who favourite your Tweets.

In Internet parlance, connection is the highest order of existence. But connection stems from the Latin word that describes the permanence of joining together rather than the real-time thrills of plugging in.

It’s true that our potential for connection is endless but true friendship is a closed circuit.

Posted on September 14, 2015

Tags: essay