Dating, Moving In, And Losing Contact with Friends?

People who are married or in a romantic relationship name about 4 people (other than their partner) they can turn to in a severe crisis. Single people name about 6. Those were the results of a not-yet-published study (that I discussed here) that inspired headlines such as “Falling in love costs you friends.”

In that study, participants were separated into just two relationship status categories: in a romantic relationship, or single. A previously published study looked at different relationship and parental statuses across the lifespan:

  • single and not dating
  • dating
  • living together (whether married or not) without children
  • living together with young children
  • living together with older children
  • empty nesters
  • divorced
  • remarried

The research was based on a nationally representative sample of nearly 3000 people from The Netherlands, under age 65, interviewed in their homes. Partners who lived together were interviewed separately. They were asked to name up to five of their best friends, not counting their spouse/partner or any children.

This study shares an important limitation with the Robin Dunbar study that has been in the news: Both look at people at just one point in time. (In the jargon, they are “cross-sectional” studies rather than “longitudinal” ones.) So the researchers did not study the same people as they stayed single or started dating or cohabiting. Instead, they surveyed some people who were single and not dating, others who were dating, others who were cohabiting, and so forth. (That’s why the title of this post is in the form of a question; from cross-sectional methods, we can’t know for sure.)

The older people reported fewer close friends than the younger ones. But even after controlling for age (by statistically comparing people in the different categories who were similar in age), relationship status and parental status matter. Across the different categories (listed above), the number of friends tends to decrease. Single people, for example, report an average of 4 close friends. Empty nesters report just 3.

For each friend the participants named, they were also asked how often they saw or spoke to that friend during the past month. Men saw or spoke to one of their closest friends an average of 14 times a month when they were single, but only 5 times a month when they were empty nesters. For women, it was 13 times a month for singles, and 6 times a month for empty nesters.

For women, the difference between dating and not dating was the biggest one – number of friends and number of contacts with friends dropped significantly. For men, there was also a significant drop with moving in: Those who were cohabiting were even less likely to have contact with their friends than those who were just dating.

Among the coupled people, there were important differences between men and women in sharing friends compared to maintaining your own separate friendships. I hope to get to that some other time.

The two studies I’ve been discussing (along with some older ones) seem to establish that people who are in a romantic relationship, perhaps especially if they are living together (married or not), have fewer people they can approach in a crisis, and have less contact with their closest friends. The bigger questions, though, remain unanswered: Why does this happen? What does it mean? Does it have to happen?

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5 thoughts on “Dating, Moving In, And Losing Contact with Friends?

  1. I think some women abandon their friends for a romantic partner because for them, the friends are their plan B. Women with meaningful, real friendships maintain those relationships.

  2. I think its because coupling is seen as a status upgrade and a “moving ahead” of sorts. To the couple, other relationships seem to take more precedence – significant other, family, and SHARED friendships of the couple. The single friend is typically downgraded to a peripheral relationship. This has happened to me again and again and I no longer pursue female friendships. That sounds drastic, but after everything I invested in these relationships and the patterns that I have witnessed time and time again, I’m disinclined to put the energy towards it. Singles are undervalued in our society and I think coupled friends make a shift away from these friendships as if the people have a disease that might catch. If you only spend time with people who are in your same stage of life, then you are opting for easy relationships. A true relationship should weather friends’ changes in status.

  3. I’d propose the idea that part of the reason couples tend to let close friendships go, especially with singles, has to do a great deal with social pressure on the single person. It’s very difficult to see a close friend find new love and drift away, and the inevitable comparisons between the single’s happy life and the friend’s new-found love come. Was this the better choice? Am I single on purpose? There’s enough social pressure on singles to couple up that unless one is extremely sure about their single status, I imagine that transition period can be pretty rough. Add to that the new differences in how to spend time together (dinner parties replace clubbing, especially in the younger crowd), and the relationships become strained. It takes commitment and an open minds and hearts to discuss the changes and decide together, as friends, how to move forward.

  4. If I have ever compared single vs married status and questioned myself about being single when seeing a close friend find new love and drift away, it was buried deep within my sub-conscious. I have always felt happy for them and maintained my part in the relationship far longer than I should have. My attempts at open discussions of how I do not want their pity, or their invitations that they now consider favors, don’t even register since they are so sure their way of life gives them more intelligence and privilege.

    I think more along the lines with what Kelley wrote above – I no longer pursue personal relationships with anyone who is married – I have developed a stereotype of a married person that is negative. But it has been built from experience, not based on one that society built from fear.

  5. I recently started noticing that more and more of my single friends are drifting away and after giving it a lot of thought I don’t think there is really anyone to “blame” per se. Dating is one thing, but when my relationship reached a serious committed level something changed for me, as a person. As cliched as it sounds I ceased being a single individual and became part of the unit that consists of my partner and I. Once I started thinking in terms of “we” instead of “me, me, me” things in my life began to change. My partner is the most important person in my life, and yes I put him before my friends; which I don’t see anything wrong with. I feel like he should be the first priority in my life. I still make time for my friends, but the dynamics of my friendships have changed. I don’t have time to take weekend trips out of town at the drop of a hat anymore. I’m not available 24/7 for marathon phone calls. Life is about change and this is an example of that. I think people look at this issue and equate being in a relationship with devaluing the intrinsic value of friendships. That’s not what necessarily happens. I still value my friends, and I am there for them (within reason). If they cannot or are unwilling to accept that I’m part of a pair now then perhaps its the right time for us to part ways. If our friendships mean as much as I think they do we should both be able to accept my changed status and let the friendship grow in a new direction.

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