On Friending and Unfriending

Last week, the New York Times published a piece about friendship — or lack thereof — that quickly went viral. Do Your Friends Really Like You?, the headline asked, and I (and thousands of others) wanted to know the answer. The piece explores the psychology of friendship and refers to a recent study by MIT researchers that found that friendship reciprocity is way lower than many people believe. In other words, most of us assume that our friends have the same feelings for us that we have for them, but that may not actually be the case. The study analyzed 84 “friendship ties,” and found that while subjects expected their feelings about friends to be mutual 94 percent of the time, the actual result was 53 percent.

Now, this is only 84 subjects, and they were all members of a management course, so they’re a very small and specific sample. But a lot of my Facebook friends — “friends?” — shared this story and seemed to be moved by it, and I have to say that I was too. I’ve had a handful of experiences over the years in which friendships fizzled, exploded, or simply evaporated, and I spent a lot of time wondering why. Was it mean? Was it them? Was it something else entirely? One question I didn’t start to ask myself until recently: Did they even notice what happened? As one of the researchers explains in the Times, “the possibility of nonreciprocal friendship challenges one’s self-image.” Of course we don’t want to think about whether the other person cares as much as we do, or has as much invested. Because if they don’t, what does that say about us, and all of the time we spent/wasted on the relationship? The MIT researchers believe our culture has a huge issue with defining friendship in the first place, and that likely leads to a lot of poor matches. This is something I’ve thought about a lot too, and I can’t help but feel like many of us have been led by movies, television and certain books to believe we should strive for unrealistic — and arguably unhealthy — styles of friendship.

Our culture glorifies friendships that border on obsession (think: Anne of Green Gables) and encourages the idea that we each need a sidekick (think: every single Disney Channel show and movie). It doesn’t give us a ton of tools for achieving those things or navigating them, though, and especially as we get older and demands like work and kids fill up our time, “real” friendship becomes increasingly hard to achieve. The big question is: What are we supposed to do when we realize it’s not working out?

The Times piece ends with this:

So it’s worth identifying who among the many people you encounter in your life are truly friends. Who makes time for you? Whose company enlivens, enriches and maybe even humbles you? Whom would you miss? Who would miss you? While there is no easy or agreed upon definition, what friendships have in common is that they shape us and create other dimensions through which to see the world. This can be for better or worse depending on whom we choose as friends. As the saying goes, “Show me your friends and I will show you who you are.”

Great, now we’re getting somewhere on that whole “what is a friend?” question. But still — then what? Say you’ve known someone for 10 years and that friendship has often felt strained or confusing or simply unsatisfying, but you thought that was just how things were supposed to be. Now you realize you were wrong. You realize they don’t make time for you, don’t enrich you, and don’t seem like they would miss you. What are you supposed to do?

The answer to this is most often “whatever feels right” or “whatever is right for you,” but I believe that one reason we may have such poor friendship reciprocity — and that so many people are surprised by those numbers — is that we have no solid blueprint for actually navigating these relationships, especially when they go wrong. In general, it seems that we don’t really know how to talk to each other if we aren’t related or in a romantic relationship. My guess is that this is why so many people simply “ghost.” But is that the best way? Maybe. It’s certainly better than emailing a friend with a checklist: “Do you feel that I enliven your life? Check yes or no.” Maybe we don’t need a blueprint, either. Maybe what we need is stronger self awareness and self confidence, so that we don’t need people, and friendships are less fraught.

Ultimately, the Times piece was validating for me. It reminded me that I’m not alone in being blindsided by a friend’s sudden disinterest in me. But it gave me a lot of new questions, as well. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this, dear readers! Tell me your experiences with lack of friendship reciprocity, and your theories as to why it happens. I’ll be revisiting this topic again soon, and I’d love to have your input!