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The law of averages: Do all friendships last for the long haul?

November 8, 2012 | By | 20 Replies Continue Reading

My fellow friendship blogger and journalist, Rachel Bertsche, author of MWFSeekingBFF posted on her blog today about the longevity of friendships.

Her post was inspired by one of the factoids that captioned my appearance on Katie’s Take (with Katie Couric): An on-screen statistic accompanying the ABC/Yahoo video mentions that on average, most friendships—even very good ones—last only seven years. The statistic was cited in my book, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friend.

In her blog post, Rachel writes that this statistic doesn’t hold for her. Since the statistic is based on an average, she seems to be among the lucky ones. Now in her thirties, Rachel has kept all the besties she’s made in high school and college.

Why do some people defy the averages and others don’t? Here are some factors that come into play:

  • Some people are more invested in keeping old friends than others and work harder at nurturing relationships. They find ways to connect, both online and in-person, and make (sometimes heroic) efforts keep in touch with people from their past. For better or worse, other people may feel more comfortable letting go and making/allowing changes.
  • Some people have better communication skills than others. In any relationship—even between spouses—conflicts, disappointments and misunderstandings invariably arise. When people are more skilled at resolving friendship problems, they have a better chance of heading off breakups.
  • The circumstances of people’s lives change over time, which makes some friendships fray simply because people grow so far apart (psychologically). If the lives of you and your friend(s) have become very dissimilar or out of sync, the odds are more likely that the friendship will lose its relevancy.
  • Sadly, age is also be a factor in losing friends (even though it may be a time of life when we most need friends). Chronic illness and disability often makes it hard to reach out to others and some friends literally die off.

Another thought about this statistic comes to mind: Our friendship memories tend to be selective. Sometimes, after a breakup, the natural tendency is to relegate a once-close or good friend to something less. When that happens, we are less likely to include that person on our list of close friends who were lost over time. This may suggest that the average length of a close friendship is even shorter than the data suggests.

What is your sense of your own track record in keeping friends for the long haul? 


Also see on The Huffington Post: The Seven-Year Expiration Date on Friendships

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Comments (20)

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  1. E says:

    I find this so baffling. I would say I have known the majority of my friends for over 7 years. My problem is not having room for new friends. I think that most people who don’t have LNG relationships either don’t make the effort in or make the relationships all about them, or move all the time. I don’t know. It makes me sad for people. I a lucky to have lived in a great city and wanted to return to it. Irene I am guessing that this law of averages would vary greatly by personality type. I have a friend who is a doctor who likes to joke that I am not taking new patients (ie friends) since I tend to greatly overextend myself, but for me the people in my life are what matter most. I hold myself to high standard and my friends too, but most of them stick around for the long haul, so I think that’s what you have to do. And forgive people when they disappear for while, be happy for them when life is good, helpful and supportive when it’s hard and most importantly show up.

    Anyways that’s my two cents,

  2. Julie says:

    I’ve often wondered if those women who’ve had 30-50 year friendships are for real. Those long-time friendships are great story fodder for books, but I honestly can’t imagine being friends with anyone that long. My friendships apparently run in cycles. Friendships that last past a situation (ie, like Sorority friends) baffle me.

    Maybe long-term friendships like some other commenters talk about in their own lives in this thread means they’re especially gifted in social situations, know how to deal with personal awkwardness, or, to put it bluntly, have no fear with rejection or judgements. Or maybe instinctively know where they stand, and other stand, within the group.

    I’m me, and they’re them, but still, I feel like I’m missing some essential component to long lasting friendships.

  3. I think it’s possible to value friendship highly — but at the same time, value your own time and life enough to let friendships slip away when they’re over. Some friendships are forever, but others are more situational and limited.

  4. Vena says:

    It can depend on a lot of factors. During my childhood and adolescence, I had trouble making and maintaining friendships of any long duration because of shyness and lack of self esteem. By high school, I developed social anxiety and depression. All of those things abated by the time I was in my late 20’s. I’m in my early 40’s now, but those early relationship difficulties took their toll as I still lag behind other people socially to a small extent. There were certain things about relationships that I didn’t learn until my 30’s, while most other people had learned them in their teens or 20’s. At this point in my life, that statistic does hold true. Some people are only going to be around for a season. Others are only around for a reason. Once they’ve fulfilled their purpose or showed you something you needed to learn, the friendship fizzles out. The friendship that has lasted the longest for me is the one I have with my BFF and I’ve known her for 14 years. I have a few friends who have maintained friendships with people they knew in high school and college and I envy that. I feel like a loser because I didn’t have the social skills or the self esteem at that time to make or maintain friendships. Intellectually, I know that the past shouldn’t matter but emotionally, I blame myself for not being the person I am now when I was younger.

    • Irene says:

      Vena, I love the point you make about not being the same person you were when you were younger.

      Yes, it would be nice to go back and do things a different way but we can’t. So many people feel badly about the friendships they don’t have from the past rather than the ones they are lucky to have now.

      Best, Irene

  5. HeatherL says:

    Interesting concept – the seven-year friendship. I can’t say it applies to me, but not because my relationships last longer. It’s because they die or we lose contact.

    • anonymous says:

      Hi Heather,I liked how the write up said friendships that maintain through high school and college can maintain for better AND for worse. Sometimes people have a hard time with change and stay with the comfortable and familiar. Sometimes, not always. When people develop and change sometimes friendships dont maintain. What i am trying to say is that you fit the average profile so dont fret! just as it can be great,to have long term frriendships that go back to childhood, it can also not be, and point to not changing much.

  6. Karen says:

    The 7 year statistic certainly does not hold true for me. My closest friends go back to freshman year of college, and that has been over 30 years! We speak every week. My best friend, who was present at the birth of my first child, I have known since middle school. We were friendly in high school, but our friendship developed in our early 20’s when we taught together. The shared history of childhood and adolescence cements our friendship. I have a handful of wonderful friends that I made in the early years of motherhood, so they’ve been in my life over 15 years. The biggest challenge to maintaining my friendships has been a long-term crisis in my life, when I isolated myself and pushed people away. My wonderful friends alternately gave me my space and pushed through the mess to reach out their hands and pull me out. They did not hold a grudge against me for disappearing but instead, loved me anyway. Those are friends. Seven years? Pshaw!

  7. Sheryl says:

    I like to think that best friends are truly forever, but it seems not to be in the majority of cases. I think we have friends at different points in our lives to fulfill certain needs, then needs and circumstances change and people grow apart. But I’ll also say that you really have to work hard at nurturing friendships if they are important tp you.

  8. Laura says:

    I would generally agree. I find the dissimilar thing fascinating though. My 2 closest friends actually have different political and social views than me, but we’re able to stay close I think bc the core person of who we are is the same as it was 14 years ago. And I can appreciate that fact, even if they belong to a different political party. :-) In fact, I think one of the things that drew us together in college was that we each had really strong senses of self and that core self hasn’t really changed. We have all gone through rough patches in our lives and I think our friendship has weathered those patches and made us stronger. For less close friends though, I would say you are generally correct. My closest non-BFF friends are the women who I find myself having the most in common with right now.

  9. Kerry Dexter says:

    an interesting idea, and one I had not really thought about. I’ve one really strong friendship that’s flourished despite us living in different parts of the world at times and being out of touch at times. still, it’s a real connection of the heart which so far las lasted a dozen years through many ups and downs.

    I’ve held back at times from staying in contact with friends. but reading your article and the comments remind me that there’s no harm, and maybe a lot of good, in reaching out now and then.

  10. My2Cents says:

    My longest lasting friendship with someone close or best just reached the 5 year mark. I don’t see it ending soon so perhaps we’ll be one of the lucky ones too. So far she’s the only friendship that hasn’t died from lack of communication or the diverging of life’s paths.
    However, I’ve also been reaching out and purposely trying to make friends with people that are in a similar place in life (married, kids etc) and I have great hope that these commonalities will remain and they’ll be friends for a long time.

    • Irene says:

      The years when women have kids, especially young ones, are an especially difficult time for sustaining long-time friendships. There’s often simply no time. Technology has made a big difference because it allows us to stay in touch, at least in a cursory way. It’s great that you are making active efforts to stay i touch
      Best, Irene

  11. Donna Farrer says:

    This is a great post, one that really coincides with abook I am currently reading called Women I Want to Grow Old With. Written by 2 women who really drive home the importance of having friendships that we know will be there when we will need them the most. womeniwanttogrowoldwith.com is the site if anyone wants to check out the book. I think sometimes we just need a slap in the face of how important friendships really are. Thanks for this post.

    • Irene says:

      Women are marrying later (when they marry) and the composition of the typical household has changed so more people are living as singles: If we don’t have women to grow old with, we will grow old alone!
      Thanks for the post and the book suggestion.
      Best, Irene

  12. Alisa Bowman says:

    Maybe they got lucky, too. My initial friendships were not true friendships. When I was young, I didn’t know how to screen friends, and didn’t even have the self confidence or self esteem to know that I didn’t have to put up with friends who treated me badly. This skill didn’t come to me until I was in my early 30s. Most of the people I’ve befriended since then I’m still close with. Sure we might not see each other often–especially those who still have small kids. But we’re in touch. I’m not so much in touch with college and HS buddies, with the exception of FB.

  13. Alexandra says:

    My situation is slightly different because I moved to France from age 21 to 47. I had to work to keep my friendships from college and high school. Then, when I moved back here, I had to work to stay in touch with French friends. Some friends did get lost in the shuffle. But, thanks for this reminder. I think it is important to contact friends who live in other parts of the country when weather events happen, so I need to go to the phone this very minute and call my former college roommate to see how she fared.

    • Irene says:

      That’s such a thoughtful gesture, Alexandra. I’m sure it will be very much appreciated. Little acts of kindness help cement friendships.
      Best, Irene

  14. Ladybug says:

    My longest friendships have waxed and waned in contact and intensity over decades, sometimes w/I contact for a year or more due to time and distance constraints. When I see them, it’s like no time has passed.
    I made a lot of friends when I had breast cancer, some lasted thru treatment, others with whom I had more in common than illness, have been important in life for the past decade. Some died, but I don’t count in terms of losing friends in an avoidable way.

    The friendships I’ve had that didn’t last we’re those forged out of convenience or loneliness, rather than mutual attraction and respect.

    I think the 7-year thing is more pop-psychology than anything.

    • Irene says:

      The “7-year-thing” was based on a study. Studies deal with averages so the findings don’t apply to everyone nor can I vouch for the rigor of the research. Thanks for chiming in!
      Irene

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