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?