Juggling Friends

Friendships are good for our health, but is there a tipping point when nurturing relationships becomes a burden?

September 17, 2006|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Reporter

JESSICA BOWERS DOES NOT SUFFER FROM a shortage of friends.

"My predicament is that with the advent of MySpace, acquaintances can very quickly become friends," says Bowers, a media relations coordinator at Goucher College. "When you're working a 9 to 5 job, and then doing other, career-related stuff and [trying to find] personal time for yourself, it almost becomes too many obligations."

A recent Duke University study on the demise of friendship is an indication of "something that's not good for our society," one of its authors, Lynn Smith-Lovin, a professor of sociology, said this summer.

But for those who don't fit into the scenario presented by the study -- of a growing multitude of would-be friends cocooning instead in suburbia with their nuclear families -- it may be all too easy to make friends.

Within any given community of common interest, be it a kayaking club, an ultimate Frisbee league or a team of Habitat for Humanity volunteers, opportunities for friendship abound.

Alliances made in person are compounded by an ever expanding matrix of cyber friends uploading love on Friendster, MySpace, Facebook and zillions of other online gathering places. Other electronic communication, including instant messaging and texting, also demand a steady supply of 24 / 7 companions.

It can be a full-time job keeping up with all of those friends -- from childhood, from school, from work, from the neighborhood -- and, of course, there are all of those friends of friends.

Just how many Best Friends Forever can any one person sustain? Friendship may be linked to longevity and good health by researchers, but is there a tipping point when nurturing relationships becomes more of a burden than a joy?

"As you get older, you're juggling so many different things, such as family with work," says Michael Papa, a professor of communication at Central Michigan University. "If you're still adding social connections, it can start to create problems in other areas of your life. Unfortunately, you do have to prioritize: What are the relationships that are most important in terms of your own needs and the needs of the other person?"

The hours spent lounging on the Internet may contribute to a decrease in friends, the Duke study speculates. But as Bowers socializes at bars, concerts and clubs with MySpace contacts, her collection of real-life friends has overlapped and converged with a sprawling universe of virtual buddies. It has gotten to the point, she says, where "I don't have time to be collecting people I don't know."

Rather than feel obliged to attend dozens of art openings and concerts showcasing her innumerable buddies, Bowers, 26, finally took her mother's advice and learned to decline invitations.

"I've found that by sacrificing all the 'going, going and going' to all of these social events, I've found more time to write," says Bowers, who has a short story collection in the works and is teaching an English course at Goucher this semester.

Tracy Gosson has never felt the need for a wealth of friends. "I need like two really good confidants and that's it," says Gosson, executive director of the Live Baltimore Home Center, a nonprofit group that promotes city living. "It's too much work having 10 friends."

That Americans' inner circle of confidants has "shrunk dramatically," according to the Duke study, leaves Chicago author Joseph Epstein unmoved. "One of the great divisions of humankind is between those who get a great release from confession and those who don't," says Epstein, whose new book, Friendship: An Expose (Houghton Mifflin, $24), casts a gimlet eye on friendship's complexities. "I don't find myself very alarmed by the fact that people have only two confidants instead of three," he says.

The study's dire conclusions could only emerge in a culture enthralled with its own inner angst, Epstein suggests. "I have no confidants except my wife," he says. "I don't confide everything to her. Other things I cheerfully repress."

Bowers keeps her confidants to a minimum as well. "Honestly, for me my closest confidant is my mom, " she says. "And I have a friend from high school who I'm still very close to and my friends from college. They're my best friends."

There is a "very marked difference between people I want to hang out with because they're fun and people I'd want to spill my guts to," Bowers says. "It's very valuable and privileged information, really juicy stuff. There's just not really a point in everybody knowing all of that."

By the numbers

Through her work, Gosson has acquired "tons of acquaintances and friends in the business environment. It's a huge perk of the job." Apart from those connections, Gosson says, "I have two really, really good friends, that's it. I'm very kind of private that way. And I have my boyfriend."

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