The other day in my Jesus Collective “hub” meeting (kind of a cell), Jeremy Duncan of Commons Church in Calgary, helped us with the topic of the day: loneliness. I won’t tell you what he said of course, since I’m sure you don’t quote people from your cell without them knowing about it either. I just wanted to give him a shout out since he sent along the article I’m using.
We were talking about how lonely many of us have been! Covid exacerbated all the other things that keep us distant from the relationships that give us life — like our friends! Remember hanging around with your friends? That was great. Remember the hang out time after the Sunday meeting? I can’t number how many people have told me they miss that. Even the ones who avoided those chips and cookies miss knowing the opportunity was there to avoid! We need each other.
Have enough friends?
Depending on how you look at it, you probably don’t think you have enough friends, and that may be true. The difficult news is: you’ll have to take the time necessary to develop them if you want some. That’s where the article I want to share may be helpful. In the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships (not kidding, it is a field of study), Jeffrey Hall published this study in 2019: “How many hours does it take to make a friend?” You can Google the title and read the whole thing.
The short answer is it takes about 300 hours to make an intimate friend. If you spent all your waking hours with someone, that’s about 18 days. You can see why many of our closest friends are or were the ones we made in high school and college when we had more disposable time and we had proximity through school activities and possibly through communal living. Soldiers and people who go on mission trips will often say they made lifelong friends in a highly concentrated time. I lived communally for eight years with a group of people in my twenties and most of them are still dear friends.
Close friendships require tending of course. So you may feel distant from old friends now that you spend so much time with your mate or with nurturing your children or are swallowed by your job. Concentrating on building friendships may feel like a chore you never quite get to, not a joy. But do you ever have enough friends?
Levels of friendship
Friendships are a key predictor of happiness. The Department of Labor said in 2015 that Americans spend about 2 hours a day watching TV but only 41 minutes, on average, socializing. (No, I don’t know how they get these figures). You might have spent even more time on TV and less time socializing when Bridgerton was on, even though the whole show was about how they hang out and make friends (and enemies, of course).
The famous Dunbar work on social networks, of which we are fond, tested with how many people each of us can maintain “a coherent face-to-face relationship.” The findings? — about 150-200. That’s one reason we decided to maintain congregations of about that size, so we could be “face-to-face.” Having more relationships usually means we spend less time with intimates (and proportionally less time with everyone in the network). So even though our congregations are small, you may feel stretched by your connections when you include your family system and people in your employment setting and neighborhood. It is easy to feel over one’s limits.
So the first lesson here is: You may have enough friends. Dunbar gave a wide definition of the word “friend” and it might encourage you to use it as a way to look at your circle. Here are the labels, in descending levels of mutuality and trust: support clique, sympathy group, friendship group, clan, and acquaintances. See them as concentric circles with the support clique in the center. They are all “friends” from “best” friends to just being friendly. The support clique (1-5) is usually comprised of mates and kin, but may also include “best friends.” The sympathy group subsumes the support clique (reaching 10-15 people) and includes good friends. The former categories are part of the following: sympathy group/clansmen reaching around 40-50 (this probably includes people in the church), and acquaintances 120-150 (which probably includes, church, neighbors and workmates).
You may not have developed as many intimates as you might like. But you may have quite a few friends if you want to see them that way. We often sift through people according to the intimacy we desire instead of enjoying them at the level they are. If you are a perfectionist about love, you are probably unhappy. And you certainly don’t see others like Jesus sees you.
Within these groups, given the proximity and opportunity for contact, some people will possibly “click” and friendship will develop. Like I said, we make rapid assessments of who is a possible friend when we meet people. If we follow our desire to connect, we decide to spend time with them. We’re usually connected within 3-9 weeks. After four months, other new friends are less likely to develop since that space is occupied in the limited time we have. So we could know people for years and not become friends then meet someone new and be connected in 6 weeks. I think God makes our hearts bigger. But our general equipment is likely similar to what Dunbar and others describe. If you have a few good friends and it seems like people on TV have more, don’t let them make you feel bad. You can make more, but chances are, you are doing OK.
Friendship takes time
If you feel lonely and want to make friends or want to make more, it will take time. And I suggest to take the less-than-ideal relationships you have as the blessings they are rather than hold out for “falling in love” with the friend you have always wanted.
I think it is time well spent to make as many acquaintances as possible and allow ourselves to let as many become friends as possible, even count all those acquaintances as friends and potential intimates. Jesus calls all of us friends, after all. But just saying everyone is your friend, doesn’t make them an intimate. It is possible to have a lot of acquaintances and no real friends, and we need them. We need to access the opportunity and spend the time for deep friendship to happen. All the other people in our network are fine where they are too, and we love them as they are in the context of our relationship as it is. But we also allow for deeper things to occur. That’s why we love our retreats. It is one of the few times we spend a lot of relatively unstructured time bent on relating. New friendships are built and old ones maintained.
The recipe is simple and we know it instinctively, but I am knee deep in a sociology article and they are proving what we know. 1) Being and making an intimate takes time. 2) The time must be voluntary. Intimates are less likely to be made during work or school hours, although attraction may begin there. You could become friends because you fight aliens together professionally like Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones. But you would be more likely to become my friend if you called me up and we fought aliens together in your backyard. Then, when we were hiding in the shed, waiting to blow them up with the bomb we made, I would have a chance to tell you about how my mother hated aliens and you could tell me about why you think you stutter, etc. After we saved the neighborhood, we’d probably have our arms around each other and we would joke with your husband about what happened when he got back from the store. By that time I’d be part of the 10-15 at least. It takes time. It takes talking. It takes common experience to make friends. My cell has spent a lot of time together by now. We’re obviously better friends for it.
I think these kind of stats are funny. “The chance of identifying someone as a casual friend rather than an acquaintance is greater than 50% when individuals spend about 43 hours together in the first 3 weeks after meeting. … Casual friends become friends somewhere between 57 hours and 164 hours over 3 months….The chance of transitioning from friends to good/best friends is greater than 50% after 119 hours over 3 weeks and 219 hours over 3 months. Good friendships begin to emerge after 140 hours. Best friendships do not emerge until after 300 hours of time spent.” I would not measure how fast my love is developing, however. Measuring intimacy usually just ends up with feeling you don’t have enough. Receiving the love you get and letting it be enough for today is more satisfying. Our desire will always push us and may create the opportunities to connect we need. But it can also make what we already have seem insipid if we are not moving along with Jesus
Unless we despair of belonging, we want to make belonging happen. This post may make you ache or it may point out how you shut off that intolerable ache. Your mom may ache when you don’t call. You may ache because mom is gone and will never call again. We all know that people have an inner circle and we may long to be in it with someone. We may or may not be welcome there, for whatever reason. But let’s not get mad at each other for wanting to be connected. We all want that. A lot of people probably love you. And they are, at least, understandably lonely for a friend, just like you are.